I feel like I’m supposed to care about the Rocky franchise. Look up any list from a reputable source of the best American films, and Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Oscar-winning film will likely be in there somewhere. It belongs there. John G. Avildsen made a gritty drama featuring both an efficient screenplay and a naturalistic performance* from Stallone.
So why don’t the adventures of Rocky and pals make me want to stand up and cheer? Part of it is that I am a bad American and largely don’t care about sports.** Part of it is the vast disparity in the quality of the Rocky franchise. For every jewel like Rocky, there’s a cinematic concussion like Rocky IV.
Here’s the largest part, and this is the moment where you’ll want to prepare your fainting couches. Ready? On balance, I don’t really care that much about Rocky Balboa. I like boxing movies in particular and a few sports movies in general. I like quite a few movies with and by Sylvester Stallone. Do I want to hang out with Rocky? Do I feel a deep connection to him both as a person and as an American icon? I do not.
And yet, when Creed was released in 2015, I loved it. Maybe not so much that I joyously skipped out to the theater to see Creed II, but I loved it all the same. So much so that, in every way that matters, I think Creed is a better film than Rocky. That goodwill (and a convenient schedule) propelled me to see Creed III.
Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is on top of the world. His boxing career is going strong. A combination of prize money and endorsements allow him to live exceedingly comfortably. The gym his father Apollo founded has now encompassed Donnie’s legacy, and it trains the next generation of boxers.
Donnie’s home life is just as good. His adoptive mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) is getting older yet remains as fiery as ever. He’s still married to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a successful music producer who grapples with progressive hearing loss. While their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) was born with progressive hearing loss, she’s a spitfire who has her dad wrapped around her little finger.
On the way out of the gym, Donnie runs into an old friend. Dame (Jonathan Majors) hasn’t been around much. He’s just been released from an eighteen-year stretch in prison, and the first thing he wants to do is look up his old buddy, Donnie. The two men have a history going back to childhood. They catch up, reminisce, and Dame tells Donnie he wants to take a shot at boxing professionally.
What makes Dame think he can compete with the big boys? For starters, he spent his time in prison staying in shape.*** He’s also fuelled by anger, envy, and a very large chip on his shoulder. Donnie and Dame are on a collision course, one that can only end with a reckoning in the ring.
Before we go any further, I should mention that with the exception of a photo, Creed III is a Rocky-free film. Our favorite Philly palooka never gives Donnie words of wisdom regarding his bout with Dame. Presumably, he’s either reading the paper at Paulie’s grave or feeding his turtle.
Creed III is Michael B. Jordan’s feature debut as a director. He’s spent time in independent cinema, massive blockbusters, and all points in between, and it seems that Jordan has paid close attention. His direction is, first and foremost, disciplined. He’s kept the runtime a smidge under two hours and the pacing is fleet when necessary. Jordan pumps the brakes often enough to allow for strong character development, but not so much that the pace feels sluggish. There are a few flashy sequences, such as a late moment with two combatants in the ring where the audience fades away. All we see are two men in an empty stadium with no sounds except for combat. Jordan isn’t just yelling, “Hey, look at me!” He’s putting us in the headspace of his characters, showing us the world as they perceive it in that moment. Decisions like that tell me that Jordan has a bright future as a director if he wants it.
Remember about ten thousand words ago when I was badmouthing Rocky IV? One of my biggest issues is its two-dimensional characters. Rocky is a good dude with no flaws. Drago is an emotionless blank. I live for characters with a point of view and the screenplay for Creed III supplies that. Writers Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin do good work showing us how Donnie and Dame viewed each other in the past, how their viewpoints changed, and how they continue to change when they’re confronted with new information. The characters and their perspectives drive the story rather than the reverse, which is what good writing is all about.
While everyone in the cast is solid, two obvious performances stand out. The first is Michael B. Jordan as Donnie. He plays a man who’s reckoned with the long shadows cast by both his father and his mentor,**** but still has to reckon with choices made in the past. With Donnie, the past is like a load of bricks he carries, and over time he either sheds some of the weight or gains the strength to carry the load. Jonathan Majors’ Dame, on the other hand, uses the past as fuel. He’s not fully resentful of his old friend, but resentment constantly pricks at him. As a result, Majors isn’t playing a “bad guy,” he’s playing someone more complicated. It won’t be for this film, but mark my words, at some point both Majors and Jordan will win Oscars and deserve them.
To prepare for this film, my kid and I watched Rocky, Rocky IV, and Creed.***** The highs were high. The lows sucked. At this point, I don’t have too much interest in re-watching any of the Rocky films. Creed, and to a lesser extent Creed III, are the more exciting, interesting, and intelligent versions of those films. Michael B. Jordan and his cast and crew threaded the needle to create a crowd pleaser with both brains and heart.
*So natural that people to this day think the real Stallone is a marble-mouthed meathead.
**The exception to that are dog agility trials, which are awesome.
***Does it strain credulity that a guy in prison for nearly two decades has the physicality and skills to compete as a professional heavyweight boxer? Yes. Was my suspension of disbelief broken? Eh…no, I can roll with that nonsense.
****There’s talk of Creed IV and talk of Donnie doing battle with the son of Clubber Lang, the antagonist of Rocky III. I have to say, I kind of despise that idea. It’s nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, which is literally the last thing movies need right now.
*****Why didn’t I watch Creed II? Because I just couldn’t hang with that much of this flavor of boxing movie. Instead, I rewatched Sorry to Bother You and I stand by that decision.