There is Nothing Like a Dame
Sometimes it rather feels that one of the main consequences of the pandemic, in cultural terms, has been to knock the film release schedule back a few years, so we're currently encountering a slew of sequels that it feels have perhaps missed their natural moment – there's another John Wick just out, for instance, a Mission Impossible is imminent, and a further episode of Transformers also on the way. And currently there's Creed III, directed by and starring Michael B Jordan. Anyone watching Creed II back at the end of 2018 would probably have felt there was a good chance of another sequel – if there's one thing you can be sure of about a film in the Rocky franchise, it's that a sequel is probably going to happen – but if you'd told them it would take nearly five years to arrive, this would have been more of a surprise.
The present-day section of the film opens with second-generation boxing legend Adonis Creed (Jordan) flattening an old enemy from the original film before retiring with dignity and many of his brain cells still intact. Having gracefully transitioned into the fight promotion game and spending more time with his family, he is therefore a little surprised to find himself approached one day by a figure from his past – Dame Anderson (middle name Judith, I fervently hope), who many years earlier was his room-mate when they were in care together, and was a talented boxer who was one of Creed's early trainers (they make a big fuss about Dame being older than Creed, but Jonathan Majors, who plays him, is three years younger than Jordan).
Flashbacks gradually reveal that the youthful Creed got into a fight with a man who abused him, and the escalation of this – I'm being a bit vague to avoid accusations of spoilers – resulted in Dame going to prison for nearly two decades while Adonis got off scot free. Now Creed has immense prestige and material success, while Dame has nothing but a ferocious ambition to prove himself a great fighter. In short, Dame resents Creed for supposedly stealing his life, and will do anything to get what he believes he deserves. This being a Rocky film, it can end only one way – but while Dame certainly has the eye of the tiger, has Creed sold all his passion for glory?
Well, I say it's a Rocky film, but Sylvester Stallone is notably absent from the screen (he's still credited as a producer and for originating the series' characters). Could it be that Rocky has actually died between movies? There's nothing to indicate an answer one way or another, beyond the simple and surprising fact of his absence throughout. I suppose the film works well enough without him, but if Creed III doesn't feel quite as resonant as the previous episodes it's probably because it's less connected to the original run of films. This doesn't mean it's a radical departure, inasmuch as the plot eventually resolves in the time-honoured fashion of someone knocking someone else out in the twelfth round of the climactic boxing match.
Is this is flaw or a genre convention? It's a valid question, I think – most genre films are predictable, after all, but almost every Rocky and Creed film resolves in exactly the same way – two guys in a boxing ring pummelling away at each other. You don't just know who's going to win, you also have a very good idea of exactly how they're going to do it. (NB Yes, I know that Rocky doesn't technically win in Rocky or Rocky VI, but the point still stands if you swap in 'does unexpectedly well'.) As ever, it's about how they manage it, and director Jordan comes up with an interestingly arty method of dodging the usual mid-bout montage sequence – he's helped by the fact that the story and performances are sufficiently engaging to involve you in what's going on regardless of whether or not it's a bit predictable.
The deeper issue with these films is that, whatever their moral premise and the character development of their protagonist, they are obliged to resolve via the protagonist beating someone repeatedly about the head and body. For example, to begin with Rocky IV looks it will be about having enough wisdom and self-knowledge to walk away from a pointless fight, before actually turning out to be about a sort of man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do reflexive machismo, concluding with a pointless fight (or what would be a pointless fight if it didn't mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Maybe).
With Creed III the underpinnings of the plot are murkier : the initiator for the story is Creed's sense of obligation towards Anderson, a need to make things right. And this seems like the right thing to do – it absolutely looks like Creed does owe him some kind of restitution. So all the trouble that ensues basically comes from the hero trying to do the right thing. Is the lesson he's supposed to learn in the course of the film that doing the right thing is a mistake? It's a tricky problem which the film attempts to get around by making Dame a compelling, complex antagonist and someone who is clearly not fully appreciative of the help he's offered – which works, but only up to a point.
The film's ace card is Jonathan Majors, anyway, who comes strikingly close to bulldozing Michael B Jordan off the screen. From the moment he comes on, you're never in doubt that this is guy who is just not right somehow – he's broken somewhere inside, and while there may occasionally be a smile on his face he is dead behind the eyes. There's something of Mike Tyson in Majors' portrayal, but the actor finds a way of turning him into a real person rather than just a cartoon villain. He's certainly the most memorable franchise villain since Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps the best-performed of them all.
The rest of the film is competent and polished enough, if perhaps a bit too programmatic in places (all of Creed's problems and heartbreaks come to a head around the two-thirds point with almost metronomic precision). The supporting performances are fine, with a few old faces from previous entries showing up (one notes that Florian Munteanu has dropped his 'Big Nasty' nickname – pity). There is perhaps one crucial bit of exposition which rattles past a bit too swiftly (the audience is required to recognise a photo of a character whom we've only seen fleetingly in one prior scene), but by this point the general arc of the storyline is not in any real doubt either way. It's a solid and enjoyable film, even if it doesn't have quite the same punch as the previous one. There may be a few more movies yet to come in this series.