Creed III | Boxing Threequel Punches Above Its Weight

When all is said and done and the last punch is thrown, one wonders if the monomyn Creed will have the same level of cultural caché as the ‘Rocky’ name. What would it take for the child to outshine its parent? Don’t get me wrong, 2015’s Creed was a genuinely accomplished sports film but its mediocre first sequel was far too beholden to a montage-to-match formula which had felt tired even by the late 1980s. If nothing else, Michael B. Jordan’s admirable if predictable Creed III certainly sets its stall out from the off as a distinct, Adonis-centric entry in the overall series. 

This sense of a new direction is achieved both by design but also partially due to circumstance. Most going in will be aware that Sylvester Stallone has not reprised his role as Rocky Balboa, his initial creation which launched 1000 sequels. Stallone cited creative differences and an ongoing feud with producer Irwin Winkler over ownership of the character as the cause of his departure.  It’s a sad reason for the acting veteran to bow out, but in truth it ended up as a blessing in disguise for Jordan’s directorial debut. If Rocky the coach showed up here again, it’s hard to see him appearing as anything more than a glorified bit player (Which might also explain his conspicuous absence).

The narrative is much more rooted in the protagonist’s personal history than in previous outings, and doesn’t leave much space for anybody but the two leads. This time out, a washed up boxing talent from Adonis’ past reappears after a lengthy stint in prison derailed any chance of  going pro. Damian “Dame” Anderson (Johnathan Majors), idolized by a young Adonis for his skill and the protection he offered the group home they shared, feels he’s owed a shot at the title after spending so many years on the sidelines. A mistake from a pre-teen Adonis, fueled by rage at the sight of a physically abusive man, is what gets Dame inadvertently locked up.

Again it’s worth pointing out a story which has far less connection to the established lore of the series than we are used to. There is a telling moment early on in this regard. After a successful  bout, Dame receives a gift from a teenage Adonis in the form of a glass-encased ticket to The Rumble in the Jungle. Rather than an iconic, in-universe battle between Creed and Rocky Balboa, it’s arguably the most famous boxing match in real, human history that acts as an inspiration for our two characters. Even Viktor Drago is unceremoniously dumped halfway through this sequel without so much as being allowed one welt in the ring.

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This is mostly a good thing. Whenever Creed III is most resolutely committed to forging its own path through a tempestuous, central dynamic that always feels inches from boiling over, the film is at its strongest. Jordan the director really does understand, and successfully represents, the emotional reality of Adonis’ understandable but arguably misplaced guilt. There is not much to fault in terms of performances either. 

Majors especially is incendiary as the hulking behemoth with a one-tonne chip on his shoulder. It’s as if he’s combining two of DeNiro’s most memorable performances for Scorsese. There’s the looming, unpredictable physicality of Jake LeMotta combined with the menacing lust for revenge of Cape Fear’s Max Cady. This fiery combination is maybe most apparent in the film’s best boxing scene, when Dame ruthlessly dispatches one of Adonis’ brightest proteges while skirting the rules of sport. Majors has always been a more interesting character actor than a leading man and it’s reassuring to see the Ant-Man 3 star hasn’t been completely chewed up by the juggernaut that is the MCU.  

For all its welcome deviation however, Creed III can’t escape the inevitable spectre of predictability that haunts it more gradually as it goes on. The trappings of the series eventually rear their head of course. Once the late second act training sequences begin, we are in autopilot mode. Is it also somewhat hypocritical for a film which had argued for 90 minutes that violence is not the way men should confront trauma and settle disputes, when the climax goes and just does that? Yes it is patently ridiculous to suggest this shouldn’t end in a brutalising bust-up but pointing that out doesn’t get around the mixed messaging.

That very lengthy final bout, where the stakes feel muddled and the outcome predetermined, is unfortunately the weakest portion. This is something of a problem in a film centered around boxing. The more interesting scene comes right after, in an all-too-brief exchange of dialogue between Dame and Adonis where all that’s been left unsaid bubbles to the surface. The two knock it out the park and it’s the real one-on-one the film has been setting up for nearly two hours. We just wish the filmmakers realised that. 

Creed III ended up as a stronger work than it had any right to be. Michael B. Jordan’s bona fides as a director are certainly given a boost by the fact he’s made something superior to the last effort. Will Creed one day be a more famous name than Rocky? That remains to be seen but I wouldn’t put it past Jordan making a fourth outing in two years time.

Creed III is in cinemas now

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