Officially, "Creed III" is the ninth film in the Rocky saga, except for one glaring fact: It's the very first installment that underdog champ Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) does not appear in.
True, since 2015's "Creed," the story has slowly been shifted over to that of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), estranged son of the late, great Heavyweight boxing champ who also happened to be Rocky's best friend, Apollo Creed (portrayed in the early films by Carl Weathers). His story has thus far taken place in the shadows of Balboa's, their paths and their fates crossing as one career twilights, and another is just getting going.
But what's evident most in "Creed III," is that Adonis needs Rocky, and without him, the story lacks emotional...punch.
A behind-the-scenes conflict between Stallone and producer Irwin Winkler is said to be at the heart of why Rocky was all but left out of the ring, the stadium, and even the city, in which "Creed III" takes place. Stallone you may remember not only starred in but wrote each and every one of the Rocky films except for the first "Creed"...he even co-wrote "Creed II." So to say that these films and these characters are intertwined with Stallone is an understatement. And yet, no Rocky, no Stallone, on any level, for "Creed III."
Michael B. Jordan himself picks up the directorial duties for "Creed III," his directorial debut. The newest script is by the brother or Ryan Coogler, Keenan Coogler. Ryan co-wrote and directed the first "Creed" and has established himself with not only "Creed" but films like "Fruitvale Station," "Black Panther" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." Keenan on the other hand, has one former screenplay to his name, "Space Jam: A New Legacy." You can see where I'm going with this.
It's a vain - and some would say foolhardy - effort to think that you can successfully carry on the legacy of what Stallone has accomplished with his Rocky/Creed franchise, without the man himself. "Creed III" feels a bit empty, despite Jordan's best efforts to push the characters and franchise forward.
This time around, Adonis Creed is at the end of his career...wait, what? At just age 36 in real life, Jordan plays Creed like he's approaching 60, but never mind. Anyways, he's taken on retirement so that he can spend more time with his gold-record-producing wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their deaf daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent, a scene-stealer). His aging mother (the legendary Phylicia Rashad) is still very close but recently suffered a stroke. Life is good.
A flashback sequence shows us that in Creed's younger years, he looked up to an up-and-coming Golden Glove amateur boxing champ, by the name of "Diamond" Damian Anderson. "Dame" for short, their paths went in different directions, with Creed going on to become Heavyweight champ and a life of luxury, and Anderson spending 18+ years in prison.
Now out, Dame (Jonathan Majors) tracks down his old pal, and out of guilt, Creed agrees to bring Dame in to his gym, to get some training from "Little Duke" (Wood Harris), the son of Apollo's old trainer, Duke (portrayed in the original films by the late Tony Burton). Little Duke begrudgingly agrees to take him on, despite Dame's dirty style and over-aggression in the sparring sessions he has with current champ, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez).
Through some awfully coincidental and manipulative events, Creed eventually finds himself in the same place that his father did all those years ago...an upcoming bout loses one of its fighters and Creed ends up deciding to stick an unproven, underdog into the title match.
Of course, that plot point isn't the only thing we've seen before. Much of "Creed III" is borrowed from other, better chapters in the series, with Dame's storyline somewhat paralleling that of Tommy Gunn's (Tommy Morrison) from "Rocky V." There are some glorified cameos from the first few "Creed" movies, like Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) and Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), but everyone is pushed to the side in lieu of the dynamic between Creed and Anderson.
That dynamic does sparkle at times. Jonathan Majors - fresh off playing another villain in the recent "Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania" - is a shooting star in Hollywood and destined for greatness. While he does a great job antagonizing Creed, his character is a bit two-dimensional. Also great in their own right, Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad are tremendous talents, but they aren't given much to do beyond what you might expect.
The problem with "Creed II" and now with "Creed III" is the main character himself. Unlike Rocky, who we rooted for not only because he was an underdog but because of his simplistic, positive outlook on life itself - Adonis Creed has been stripped of everything that made him a great character when he was introduced in "Creed." He now seems to be a vessel for other characters to play off of, and his transformation from an outsider with a chip-on-his-shoulder to a straight-laced businessman atop a boxing empire, feels rushed, at best. Implausible, at worst.
Jordan the director is able to create some interesting in-ring action sequences...let's face it, it's hard to portray a boxing match in a way that hasn't been done before. He very much wants this to be a story about Creed battling his past, dealing with his guilt and overcoming his own personal demons just as much as he works to overcome the adversary standing in front of him...and this is evident more than ever in a late scene that shows the audience disappearing, as Creed shows-down in front of an empty arena. It's just Creed and what's in front of him, literally.
On one level, the stylistic cinematography trick works...but cutting out the audience for a title bout - not letting us hear the boos and the cheers, and not seeing the reaction shots of faces in the crowd - is like cutting off the life-blood of this franchise. Psychologically it may work for the character, but as entertainment, it robs us of that energy that permeated through the screen in the other chapters.
There's also an artificial feeling as to what's going on throughout the movie. The current champ, Chavez, seems way to skinny to ever be considered a heavyweight. Jordan is way too young to be portraying Creed as way too old. An attempted training montage - homage? - late in the film, feels like it was scored by an AI bot, who typed in "play a Bill Conti-style song" into a royalty-free music database engine. And the story of Dame - while he is a worthy opponent - is rushed in a way that never allows his story to feel organic. Leaving Philly for L.A. just adds to the movie's inauthenticity.
That circles us back to Rocky. Mentioned in passing, at least he's never announced as having died off-screen. It's hard to imagine that the events of this film wouldn't have brought Rocky back into the spotlight, or just outside of it. This franchise owes EVERYTHING to Rocky, to Stallone. In some ways I want to say: What the heck are you thinking writing him out of the movie?
Maybe it's best that Balboa sat this one out. "Creed III," like many Heavyweight fights, is all hype and build-up, with little payoff. The stakes are also seemingly low...even in the previous "Creed" films, the body damage (and the swollen-shut eyes) was much more severe. Here, everyone comes out mostly unscathed, quite literally. It's on to the next inconsequential chapter.
Out of the shadow of the Rocky franchise, the flaws of the Creed franchise are illuminated. Imagine what Rocky Balboa would have amounted to without having taken the great advice from his trainers and coaches? "Creed III" seems to want to throw out what worked before, and go it alone. That's about the worst strategy a boxer can have.
Genre: Drama, Sport.
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris.
Directed by Michael B. Jordan (feature-film directorial debut).
"Creed III" is in theaters everywhere on Friday, March 3rd, 2023.
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