Creed II ★★★★

That which bothers me most about "Creed II" - and which, to me, holds it back from achieving the immediate greatness of its predecessor - is something I can't divulge in full here without spoilers.

The scene involves a character new to the franchise and a character we know inside and out, and concerns something the latter says to the former. It is in no way, shape or form anything that the person we know would say, and especially not in a way that is, essentially, to the void. It is purely a concession to "hard" men in the audience who perceive sadness and uncertainty as weaknesses rather than part of a rejuvenative process of fragility and resiliency - which is, in essence, the entire point of the movie. It might seem like a throwaway line, but it threatens to undercut the character and, really, the standalone strengths of this sequel. It's akin to hearing Derek Zoolander call someone "a fucking idiot" in "Zoolander 2," to be honest.

However, that was a final shovel of shit atop a sadness pile. In "Creed II," the clanging line is just a minor misstep. Here's a movie that goes out into the desert, hangs a bunch of allegorical albatrosses about legacy, masculinity, vengeance and bloodlust around its neck and comes back bigger for it - just like Donnie to end the movie's second act. There are also about six different father-child narratives at play here, even for the Dragos who could've been cartoonish clods, and all of them crackle at least to some degree. (It saves the villainous role for Russell Hornsby, as persuasively evil here as he was empathetic in "The Hate U Give," and, quite honestly, for many of the HBO and ESPN commentators cameoing as themselves, feeding that gladiatorial carnage. Also, not pretending that Wood Harris's role here isn't also small, but at least there's some payoff to his casting continuity as Little Duke.)

Steven Caple Jr. is not the stylist Ryan Coogler is, but he excels at finding how familiar places take on new weights and sensations - sometimes freeing, sometimes frightening. There's a shot of Donnie and Bianca in a newly decorated, palatial home in which they both already feel like ghosts haunting the hallways. He also lets us see - beautifully and in ways for which neither "Rocky V" nor "Rocky Balboa" had much time - the continued ways in which the events of "Rocky IV" broke Balboa, too. Whatever he gained in sanity by learning to cope with Apollo's death, he walled off so much else. It's a tale of compromise and championship, and learning to rise and fall with both. One line I can share that moved me nearly to tears in the way the first one did: "He'll never expect it. Your old man did the same thing to me." It's both a tactical corner-man strategy, Rocky's usual galoot-sage wisdom coming through and a testament to how both "Creed II" and its predecessor have so impressively, and radically, recalibrated "Rocky IV" into a film of deep repercussions while letting us still enjoy that as kitsch.