Review – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

FILM REVIEWSPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. With the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman. Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language. 117 minutes.

spiderman_into_the_spiderverseSince 2002 we’ve seen three different live-action Spider-Men in eight big-screen adventures, but honestly it feels like even more. There’s been an exhausting game of franchise musical chairs going on for the past decade or so, and to put things into perspective we’re already on our third Peter Parker since the year Pierce Brosnan stopped being James Bond. Part of the sneaky, snarky brilliance of the rollicking new animated extravaganza SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is how it weaves our collective Spider-fatigue into the fabric of its story. If you think you’ve had it up to here with webslingers, here’s a movie crawling with them! The multiplicity of Spideys is part of the joke.

This may take a moment to explain. We begin with Miles Morales, a new Spider-Man created for the comics in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli as part of the “Ultimate” universe existing outside of Marvel’s regular continuity. (Comic book fans initially reacted to Miles with the warm exhibitions of inclusivity and racial sensitivity for which the subculture is renowned [sic] but even they must admit he looks a heck of a lot more like a 21st century kid from an outer-borough neighborhood than Peter Parker does these days.) 

In the movie Miles is a science prodigy who likes to skip out on his scholarship at a fancy Manhattan boarding school and would rather paint graffiti art in abandoned subway tunnels with his ne’er-do-well Uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali). It’s during one of these underground escapades that he’s bit by a radioactive spider. Conveniently nearby, oversized crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is firing up an atom collider that will rip open the quantum realm so he can try to find alternate universe replicas of his dead wife and child. This doesn’t work out so well.

What he accidentally brings back are Spideys, a whole bunch of them from other dimensions who can hopefully help shut down the collider before the Kingpin blows up Brooklyn. This is how Miles winds up being mentored by a divorced, depressed, pot-bellied Peter Parker in sweatpants (the hilarious Jake Johnson). Pitching in to assist are Hailee Steinfeld’s svelte Spider-Woman, a Japanese anime Peni Parker complete with robot sidekick, Nicolas Cage as a black-and-white, 1930’s Nazi-punching Spider-Man and yes, even Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham.

“Into The Spider-Verse” smashes together all these wildly divergent tones and cinematic styles into a madcap, laugh-a-minute sprint that calls out just how unimaginative contemporary studio animation has become. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rodney Rothman cheerfully toss aside the semi-photorealistic Pixar house style to which most CGI features are beholden, indulging instead in wild, expressionistic flights of fancy complete with flying thought balloons, sound-effects text bubbles and narration blocks. I adored their design of the Kingpin, with a body the size of an SUV and a comparatively microscopic head. The movie is loosey-goosey looking enough for anime characters to share the screen with Cage’s pencil-sketch Will Eisner homage, all the clashing aesthetics somehow working wonderfully in concert.

This sense of looney-tune liberation extends to the screenplay (penned by co-director Rodney Rothman and “LEGO Movie” co-writer Phil Lord) and its manic pile-up of sight-gags, in-jokes, and good old-fashioned heart. This is a disarmingly sweet picture, miraculously making time for us to care about these characters between spectacular set-pieces. There’s also a playful feeling of limitless possibility in this world, one that’s very much the opposite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s deliberately drab attempts to ground their fantastical adventures in something approximating “realism.”

Perhaps most importantly, baked into the text here is a powerful rebuke to comic fans’ initial rejection of Miles Morales. So much of geek culture is fixated on gatekeeping and exclusivity, the loudest and ugliest contingent being middle-aged guys in ill-fitting Dark Knight T-shirts still furious that someone allowed women to bust ghosts. “Into The Spider-Verse” is built for a new kind of fandom, offering a world in which anyone can be Spider-Man — including young men of color, teenage girls, anime robots, talking pigs and even Nicolas Cage. All are welcome here.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.


Review – Mortal Engines

FILM REVIEWMORTAL ENGINESWith Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Stephen Lang. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson. Directed by Christian Rivers. Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action. 128 minutes.

mte-char1sheet-hester-rgb-5sm-5bb29e8090d68-1It’s obvious why the ads for MORTAL ENGINES prominently mention “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” Peter Jackson, who helmed those series, was one of the writers and producers on this. However, there the connection ends, because unlike the Tolkien adaptations, this is no twee fantasy. It is squarely in the science fiction sub-genre of “steampunk,” positing a post-apocalyptic world utilizing a lot of retro- tech. Based on the YA novel by Philip Reeve, this is a dystopian and visually inventive movie that – with no big names in the cast – may have a hard time finding its audience.

The setting is many centuries in the future after a destructive war that has laid waste to much of the world. Several cities have become mobile, gobbling up smaller enclaves and their resources. Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), is an important official in the mobile London, surviving an assassination attempt by Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) at the start of the story. Hester escapes and is forced to team with Tom (Robert Sheehan), a historian of artifacts who has been betrayed by Thaddeus.

The story gets complicated (although not difficult to follow) as Hester and Thaddeus head for a final showdown. Added to the mix is Shrike (Stephen Lang), a horrific creature pursuing Hester who proves to be one of the most complex characters in the story, and Anna Fang (Jihae), who will prove crucial in the fight against Thaddeus. Although the book was followed by several others, the movie gets us to a definitive ending, leaving the door open for sequels but not requiring them.

What makes it fascinating even for those unfamiliar with the source material (like this reviewer) is its stunning visual design. From a vast city rolling across desolate wastelands, to the “technology,” which is based more on trying to recapture what was lost from the past rather than inventing something new, what we’re shown is never less than fascinating. Not since “Black Panther” have we seen a movie so determined to take us into a world we’ve never seen on screen prior to this.

As the smooth villain of the piece, Weaving walks the line between his character’s public image and his actual motives to make clear why people might be fooled into believing him. As the film’s protagonist, Hilmar may be the first Icelandic actress to become an international star. She’s feisty as Hester, able to show her vulnerabilities while remaining a strong and tenacious heroine. This may turn out to be the break for her that “Hunger Games” was for Jennifer Lawrence.

It’s odd that a movie without stars and based on a novel most viewers won’t have read would get released at this time of year, where it will have a limited time to prove itself. Yet “Mortal Engines” has enough going for it that, should it succeed, could not only help its star, but launch a franchise where so many other efforts have tried and failed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Searching For Ingmar Bergman

FILM REVIEWSEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN. With Margarethe Von Trotta, Liv Ullmann, Daniel Bergman, Ruben Östlund, Mia Hansen-Løve. Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta. Unrated. 99 minutes.

ingmar2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, so throughout the year we’ve seen retrospectives at repertory theatres, a sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival and a massive Criterion Collection box set all attempting to put into perspective the towering legacy of this cinema giant. But with 45 feature films over seven decades leaving a seismic impact on movie history, it’s probably impossible to provide a definitive take on the Swedish master, certainly not in under two hours. 

Which is why director Maragrethe Von Trotta was wise to go the anecdotal route with SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN, a loose collection of friendly conversations with fellow artists and former collaborators about the legendary filmmaker’s life and influence. It’s by no means comprehensive, nor is it really trying to be. This beguilingly personal project is made up mostly of informal chats – a counterintuitively shaggy portrait of an artist renowned for his rigid austerity.

We first see Von Trotta standing on the beach where Bergman shot the opening sequence of “The Seventh Seal” some sixty-odd years ago. She astutely analyzes the scene’s components while quite movingly explaining the effect this scene had upon her as a young artist, and the the doors that were blown open in so many hungry young minds by the sight of Max Von Sydow challenging Death to a game of chess.

Bergman became a fan of Von Trotta’s as well; in 1994 he listed her “Marianne & Juliane” as one of his eleven all-time favorite films, alongside works by Chaplin, Kurosawa and Fellini. “Searching For Ingmar Bergman” sometimes feels a bit like a director trying to return the compliment, but there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching a bunch of brilliant artists talk about their favorite Bergman pictures.

Of course his old muse Liv Ullmann is on board, elegant and eloquent as always in discussing their intense collaboration over so many remarkable films. There’s some typically erudite commentary from director Olivier Assayas, who started out as a film critic and boasts one of the sharpest analytical minds in the movie business. 

Contemporary up-and-comers Mia Hansen-Løve and Ruben Östlund offer their own angles, with the latter illuminating an academic schism over Bergman’s legacy in Sweden’s film culture unheard of on these shores. International cinema warhorses Carlos Saura and Jean-Claude Carriére join the chorus of approbation, but the conversations stay on the brainy side without ever tipping over into gushing.

(A perhaps unsurprising omission is that of Woody Allen. I know he doesn’t usually do this kind of thing but Allen’s constant references to and re-makes of Bergman pictures provided my introduction to the artist as a pre-teen cinephile. I feel like he provided an entry point for a lot of us who saw “Interiors” and “Another Woman” before we sought out the Swedish movies Woody was ripping off all the time. Also in that spirit, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” was a pretty good primer for “The Seventh Seal.”)

Things get a bit stickier when it’s time for Von Trotta to talk to family members, with Daniel Bergman in particular offering an affectingly dry-eyed summation of his father’s shortcomings as a parent. It’s always fascinated me how certain artists can be so perceptive and insightful about relationships in their work while making such a mess of things in their personal lives.

But far the most amazing memory recounted in “Searching For Ingmar Bergman” is his grandson’s recollection of watching Michael Bay’s craptastic “Pearl Harbor” in Bergman’s private screening room, the legendary filmmaker impatiently instructing his projectionist to fast-forward over the dialogue scenes. That’s a mental image to rival anything in “The Seventh Seal.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – What They Had

FILM REVIEWWHAT THEY HAD. With Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga. Written ańd directed by Elizabeth Chomko. Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference. 101 minutes.

what_they_hadYou don’t see a lot of actorly fussing about from Robert Forster. Plainspoken and direct in a pre-Method, old Hollywood fashion, Forster is one of those rock-solid guys from another era who plants his feet and tells the truth on camera. His turn as lovesick bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” is one of the great performances of the 1990s, and if Hollywood had any sense he’d have been working nonstop ever since. Indeed, the best thing about Elizabeth Chomko’s moving, occasionally awkward Alzheimer’s drama WHAT THEY HAD is that it gives Forster his meatiest role in ages.

Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, a fitness-crazed California poultry chef called home to Chicago on Christmas Eve after her dementia-addled mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) sneaks out and wanders the neighborhood in her nightie during a snowstorm. Dutiful dad Burt (a heartbreaking Forster) has been taking care of his beloved for so long he’s willfully blind to how far her disease has advanced, constantly insisting in a familiar chorus of Catholic repression that everything is fine. “Fine” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in this movie, and usually signifies that things are anything but.

Big brother Nick (Michael Shannon) runs a hipster bar downtown and currently crashes in the back room. He’s constantly quarreling with the old man, and even pulled some strings to secure a room for Ruth at the city’s nicest MemoryCare facility, but Burt won’t budge. No way is he gonna let a bunch of strangers tend to his girl, and there’s a palpable flush of fear in Forster’s eyes when we see him trying to contemplate what the hell he’d do all day without her. It was a stroke of genius casting the rough-edged Shannon as Forster’s son, as the two are seemingly incapable of false moments onscreen and they’ve got similarly hardened hides. This family really knows how to bust each other’s chops.

Considerably less compelling is Bridget’s frayed relationship with her college dropout daughter (Tessia Farmiga) and the well-meaning husband with whom she’s fallen out of love (Josh Lucas). Chomko has claimed that the film is semi-autobiographical, and I fear she’s overestimated our interest in the personal growth aspects of the story when we’d much rather be watching the frayed family dynamics play out.

The playwright-turned-filmmaker betrays her theater background by writing long sequences in which members of the ensemble enter and exit, but there’s an attention to detail here that feels lived-in and true, even when the scene structures beg credulity. Forster has a way of reading his newspaper at the dinner table that illustrates a lifetime, and Shannon’s wide, child-like grin whenever he’s able to get one over on his prodigal sister tastes like decades of resentment coming home to roost.

Danner probably has the trickiest part here, playing the majority of her scenes in a distracted fog and trying not to be a bother. There are moments when we can bask in the warm glow of Ruth’s five decades with Burt and in others we see the terrifying confusion and loneliness wrought by a horrific disease.

“What They Had” goes on for a bit longer than it probably should, piling on too many tidy resolutions when the movie’s strongest scenes are its messiest. But Chomko clearly loves these characters so much it’s hard to fault her for trying to give them all the kind of closure I imagine didn’t come so easily for their real life counterparts.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Divide And Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes

FILM REVIEWDIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILESWith Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Richard Nixon. Directed by Alexis Bloom. Unrated, but contains profanity. 107 minutes.

divide_and_conquer_the_story_of_roger_ailesHe might not be a household name, but Roger Ailes has conceivably done more damage to the fabric of American life in the 21st century than any foreign despot could ever dream of causing. The disgraced former Fox News chairman was an unparalleled genius at media manipulation, a kingmaker of scoundrels, and an unrepentant lech.

Alexis Bloom’s blood-boiling documentary DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES methodically traces the diabolically brilliant tactics via which this porcine pervert transformed modern conservatism into a billion-dollar grievance industry. It’s a depressingly necessary viewing experience, basically the opposite of the Mister Rogers movie in that you spend two hours with one of the worst human beings to walk the planet during our lifetimes but in the end feel a little bit better because at least he’s dead.

Bloom’s film traces the arc of this unlikely arch-villain from his humble beginnings in Cleveland as a producer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” where Ailes pitched guest and then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon on being his “media consultant” and somehow miraculously managed to make the sweaty, glowering mountain of mendacity come off okay on television. From there Ailes became the man behind the curtain for a murderer’s row of malignant pricks, from Rudy Giuliani to Mitch McConnell. His masterpiece, of course, was the notorious “Willie Horton ad” that rocketed a floundering George H.W. Bush to the Presidency by brazenly stoking white folks’ fear of big, scary black dudes, a staple of Ailes’ repertoire.

But like most people who spend all day grousing about celebrities and “Hollywood elites,” Ailes desperately wanted to be part of the club that wouldn’t have him as a member. In the early 1990s he oversaw the short-lived NBC cable channel America’s Talking and presided over a collection of banal daytime chat shows aimed at bored housewives. Indeed, the most revealing clip in Bloom’s documentary finds Ailes hosting a program of his own, sycophantically sucking up to Cyndi Lauper before busting out some cringe-inducing dance moves.

“Divide and Conquer” posits that the mogul might have remained perfectly happy to rub elbows with C-listers forever, had the Peacock not scuttled his programming and sold the channel to Bill Gates, thus creating MSNBC. A cheesy reenactment of the office furniture destruction that ensued culminates with a revenge-obsessed Ailes sliding up to Australian tabloid billionaire Rupert Murdoch to start their own “fair and balanced” 24-hour news network. And the rest, alas, is history.

An ex-producer from “The O’Reilly Factor” admits that around the office they called it “riling up the crazies” — conceiving of programming to make their target audience feel constantly under attack by frightening, nefarious forces beyond their control. Bloom cuts together damning montages to demonstrate the dopamine hits of fear and resentment provided around the clock to a mostly older, white audience increasingly obsessed with their own victimization. The nuttier the on-air crackpots the better, exemplified by a now contrite, formerly froth-mouthed Fox superstar Glenn Beck, who shows up here to wonder how things ever got so out of hand.

Then there are the women. One of my favorite Artie Lange bits on the old “Howard Stern Show” found the comedian confessing that he couldn’t watch Hurricane Katrina coverage on Fox News because the anchors kept giving him an erection and that felt inappropriate during something so sad. The documentary points out how Ailes outfitted his staff of blonde bombshells with see-through desks and carefully lit their legs underneath. In such an environment it’s no surprise abuse was rampant, particularly given the presence of serial harasser and loofah-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly as the public face of the network.

For a lot of viewers it won’t come as a surprise to learn that America’s most trusted news channel was a haven for disgusting old men hopped up on erectile dysfunction medication chasing women younger than their daughters around desks with trousers at their ankles, all the while peddling racist conspiracy theories confirming the worst prejudices of your out-of-work, alcoholic relatives nobody wants to sit near at Thanksgiving. But Bloom’s documentary does do a fine job of dispassionately laying out the whole sordid saga from end-to-end, complete with the contributions of two crisis management experts who actually quit working for Ailes and refused to take his money because the man was so revolting.

The sad twist ending to this all is that before finally kicking the bucket Ailes stuck us with a President embodying the most toxic tenets of his life’s work, a virulent misogynist wallowing in hysterical self-pity while bleating out paranoid, uninformed assertions with ugly racist undertones. A talking head in “Divide and Conquer” astutely points out, “If Donald Trump didn’t exist Roger Ailes would have had to invent him.” One might even argue that he did.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Tea With The Dames

FILM REVIEWTEA WITH THE DAMESWith Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith. Directed by Roger Michell. Not rated. 83 minutes.

MV5BZjI5ZGNmNzItZmM0OC00NDdhLTliMDQtMWI0ZWI3YTE1ZjJlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODY3Nzc0OTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Let’s get this out of the way at the start – nobody drinks any tea in TEA WITH THE DAMES.

Instead, what we get is conversation and reminiscences from four legendary British actresses who are lifelong friends and colleagues. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are probably the best known, having won Oscars and appeared in popular franchises – Dench in the later James Bond movies and Smith in the “Harry Potter” films – but, like Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins, they all have long careers on stage, as well as in film and television.

Their discussions of their theater work focuses on the parts of their careers that may be unknown to most American viewers, having taken place mostly in England. However, their stories include anecdotes about nervousness before going on stage, reacting to critics, and some of the stars that they worked with over the years, such as Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier (whom Plowright married).

Their discussion of how younger actors claim to perform “naturally” brings some lively reactions, with Plowright skeptical of inserting “ers” and “ums” into Shakespeare’s dialogue.

All four women have received honors and are “Dames,” hence the title of the film. We see each of them receiving their honor from Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. One might assume that this would be a highlight of their careers, but one points out that she was glad her father was alive to see it, with the consensus opinion that it was less about personal satisfaction than how proud their families were at their receiving such recognition.

The affection and respect that the four women have for each other is obvious, but there’s also the recognition that even though all have enjoyed success, it’s not all the same. We hear from one that her American agent tries to get her parts that Dench hasn’t already taken, suggesting that the Oscar winner for “Shakespeare In Love” is a Hollywood favorite.

What’s particularly interesting is while they love telling stories about the various roles and productions they’ve been involved with, they’re not obsessed with their own work. Smith confesses she’s never watched all of “Downton Abbey” (as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham), even though she’s been provided with a boxed DVD set of the series.

“Tea with the Dames” is the sort of film that will be embraced by viewers with a particular interest in one or more of the actresses, in theater or film, or simply in older women reflecting on their lives and experiences. It’s not going to be a blockbuster and won’t engage the majority of moviegoers, but for those it does, it’s priceless.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Creed II

FILM REVIEWCREED II. With Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren. Written by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Stephen Caple Jr. Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality. 130 minutes.

creed_ii_ver31979’s “Rocky II” doesn’t get mentioned much when people are talking about their favorite films in Sylvester Stallone’s apparently deathless franchise. It’s an odd picture, that first sequel, tilting back and forth between the gritty, broken-hearted uplift of director John G. Avildsen’s 1976 original and the glossy, steroidal triumphalism of Stallone’s subsequent entries, which quickly degenerated into comic-book gladiator montages. “Rocky II” is kind of an awkward segue between seventies and eighties movies, and now almost four decades later, CREED II finds itself straddling a similar fence, following up a thoughtful, much-loved surprise hit with some fine character beats before drifting into stale, over-familiar formulas and fawning fan service.

Stallone was uncharacteristically gracious enough to step aside and hand Ryan Coogler the car keys for 2015’s “Creed,” in which this dynamo writer-director appropriated the “Rocky” saga for his ongoing exploration of young black men reckoning with absent fathers. This theme has been the cornerstone of former social-worker Coogler’s collaborations with the ferociously charismatic young superstar-in-waiting Michael B. Jordan. From 2013’s Sundance sensation “Fruitvale Station” to this past February’s Marvel mega-hit “Black Panther,” these two keep grafting a sneaky, sociopolitical agenda onto increasingly massive, crowd-pleasing canvases with blockbuster returns.

So I guess only someone with the ego of Sly Stallone could look at a movie as textured and thoughtful as “Creed” and think: “What everybody really wants now is more dumb Drago shit.” Coogler was so careful in how deftly he side-stepped the patent absurdity of “Rocky IV,” only mentioning in passing that Apollo died in the ring, while never getting into the whole Russian propaganda angle or Rocky ending the Cold War by carrying tree-trunks on his shoulders across mountains in Siberia to a tacky Vince DiCola synth score because everyone involved was too cheap to pay Bill Conti.

Alas, Coogler’s gone off to Wakanda and Stallone is back in the writers’ room. So we say goodbye to those vividly realized streets of Philadelphia and get ready for some Russian intrigue with the disgraced Dolph Lundgren bringing his brick shithouse kid Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) to America so he can find redemption for his family by clobbering Apollo Creed’s kid. “My son will break your boy,” Lundgren tells Sly, in a well-played scene that probably should’ve stung a little more considering Drago and Balboa’s shared history.

This silly backstory is a huge drag on “Creed II,” which strikes me as the biggest blown opportunity for a sequel since J.J. Abrams spent an entire movie setting up a brand new “Star Trek” universe just so he could remake “Wrath of Khan” four years later. The movie has some admittedly terrific moments between Jordan and Tessa Thompson as his trash-talking, dreadlocked better half, conspicuously mirroring the goofball marriage proposal and difficult childbirth sequences from “Rocky II.” (She even spends a fight wearing one of Talia Shire’s old, unflattering coat-and-hat combos.) But it’s all so purposefully secondhand, deliberately designed to remind you of he previous films you loved without going anywhere exciting or new.

“Creed II” is pretty much the movie everyone was worried the first “Creed” was gonna be, but it’s well-acted enough that I couldn’t hate it. Jordan and Thompson are as appealing as screen presences get these days, and though missing the pathos of the last installment Stallone still brings a reliable dim-bulb charm to his punchy palooka. Phylicia Rashad steals enough scenes for you to wish she was given more of them and I found myself fascinated by Lundgren’s sad-eyed scowl, though I could have done without him repeating umpteen variations on “I must break you.”

It was slyly (sorry) subversive of Stallone back in 1985 to put Carl Weathers’ swaggering, showboating Apollo Creed in an Uncle Sam outfit and place him alongside James Brown, both “Living In America” as two black and proud icons sayin’ it loud against the Soviet menace. I wish Stallone still had that kind of nerve, and I really wish he’d confronted head-on just how much of his target audience right now would probably root for the Russians over a black millionaire heir from California. That’s the kind of movie that might break you.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.