Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The “Rocky” franchise’s seventh film and first spinoff, “Creed” (2015), introduced Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of former heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who was Rocky’s rival turned friend. Donnie gave up a lucrative white-collar job to pursue his dream of boxing with Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) as his coach, and Donnie’s early boxing career mimicked “Rocky” (1976), with the losing underdog winning the crowd’s adulation. In “Creed II” (2018), despite having achieved success, Donnie returns to Rocky to train for a fight with Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Apollo in the ring.

The third and best chapter so far focuses on Donnie wanting to retire a champ and blend his business and boxing talents to create Adonis Creed Athletics. Donnie’s grown, and is now a doting father to his daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), supportive husband to his wife, former singer turned music producer, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and a caretaker to his adoptive mother, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad). The bump in the happy plan comes when “Diamond” Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a childhood friend just out from an 18-year prison sentence, persuades Donnie for old times sake to jump-start his boxing career, keeping mum about his past.

Jordan’s directorial debut plays on the stark contrast between Donnie and Damian’s stations in life. Donnie lives in a sleek Los Angeles home ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. In the city below, Damian works out in a cramped space bathed in an envious yellow-green light and bides his time on crowded city buses plotting and brooding.
Donnie’s relationships with Damian and Amara become at risk when he tackles his biggest challenge outside the ring: confronting his deeply suppressed past – triggered by the reemergence of Damian in his life. Former survivors of childhood abuse often don’t fully recognize their trauma until they have a child who is the same age they were when the abuse started, which deepens the poignancy of the daughter-daddy time we see. Amara admires and emulates her dad, while he wants to live up to that ideal and protect and provide for her. Jordan paints a picture of the American dream achieved, then shows how each notch of success can crumble if the past is not faced.

Jordan clearly learned a lot from collaborations with Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther” and “Fruitvale Station”), and presents an image of Donnie’s kingdom – gym, business empire and home – as an inclusive, multicultural world where women and elders are valued advisers and former rivals are transformed into trusted, collegial partners.

Sports-movie formulas must be obeyed, though, and Donnie and Damian must beat the crap out of each other before healing their inner children. Los Angeles gets framed with the same cultural reverence as Philadelphia did in the early “Rocky” films – the Hollywood hills displace the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps and becomes an homage to filmmaking and fighting. Jordan shoots the boxing and training sequences in riveting, varied ways, emulating the personality of the fighters, though there’s a few forgivable rookie directing indulgences during the final fight scene: Before you can say heavy-handed symbolism, the ring’s ropes get transformed into oversized prison bars.
While fans may miss Sly, the man who started it all, the new spin has a fresh, family-focused direction.