From the rugged, grainy image of the 1970s to the polished image of the present day, the third instalment of the Rocky films’ (1976-2006) spin-off, Creed III (Michael B. Jordan, 2023), is aesthetically far removed from its origins. It’s more noticeable with the absence of Sylvester Stallone, who reprised his role of Rocky Balboa in Ryan Coogler‘s Creed (2015) and Steven Caple Jr.’s Creed II (2018).
After Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) vanquished the challenge of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) and the ghosts of the past in Creed II, what could be next for these boxing dramas? There are definite shades of the unforgiving brash Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in Stallone’s 1982 film Rocky III, seen in Creed III‘s Damian “Dame” Anderson, played by the excellent Jonathan Majors. Like Rocky seeing a new and possibly insurmountable challenger emerge, Donnie, now retired, is drawn into conflict with Dame, the long-lost friend from his youth, who is just out of jail. From his cell, Dame has watched Donnie live out his dream – the friend who was supposed to carry his bags became a celebrated world heavyweight champion. The forthcoming clash between the two is manifest destiny.
As with Mr. T’s Lang, we can feel the anger in Damian Anderson’s Dame, a more intriguing character in hindsight. The impulse is to compare Dame to Rocky’s former nemesis, but he also has shades of Viktor, who grew up without a mother and has lived with his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren), outside of Russia since his loss to Rocky. The anger and envy have a different context, especially when the story is borne out of Cold War politics. Unlike Dame, however, Ivan and Viktor are not only victims of their own choices, whereas Dame’s downfall was his brazen recklessness.
Lang and Dame are individualistic beasts, lacking respect for the integrity of the sport. They are the exceptional foes of the nine films, but Lang lacks Dame’s character depth. The moral black and white of Stallone’s Rocky III is juxtaposed by Creed III casting its beast in the moral grey area, where friends or brothers become foes.
Jordan’s directorial debut has heart, but its rhythm and pace are loose, and it lacks the narrative punch of its predecessors. Creed III is soundly plotted but lacks those extra scenes that thread the essential moments together, turning the plot into a narrative. Underwritten by screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, the emotionally sensitive conversations between Donnie, Dame, and Bianca that expose their vulnerability and humanise their characters are present, yet, Creed III still feels incomplete.
The fight sequences in these boxing ring films, in particular, the climactic final fights, have consistently captivated audiences since the first Rocky film. We could describe the ring fight as the “old faithful” of such films, but surprisingly in Creed III, the reliable scene abandons Jordan and his editors, Jessica Baclesse and Tyler Nelson. Lacking is the ability to splice through time with an edit or condense time through montage. Instead of seamlessly constructing a lean set piece with the illusion of it being long and gruelling, the climactic fight between Donnie and Dame is anti-climactic. That’s problematic when it’s likely no shorter than the other final bouts.
An effective touch, however, is playing on Stallone’s inventiveness with a new aesthetic to the fights in Rocky Balboa (2006). Developed by Coogler and Caple Jr, it’s now taken to the extreme by Jordan. He not only utilises slow motion and other filming techniques to immerse the audience deeper into the brutality but takes Donnie’s point-of-view and morphs it with imagination and dreams.
Creed III isn’t a weak film. In the short term, it completes a solid trilogy (a fourth film is expected). In 2015, the prospect of another installment would have met with scepticism even if it intrigued fans of the Rocky saga. However, these three Creed films have challenged potential cynicism, showing fans of the Rocky and Creed films that there’s artistic merit to expanding on existing properties – if there’s a story worth telling.
In Coogler’s Creed, in the locker room before his fight with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), Donnie receives a gift from Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who is also Donnie’s stepmother. In the box are shorts adorned with stars and stripes. They are the shorts Apollo wore. The gift card reads, “Build your own legacy.” The Creed series so far has been about Donnie coming to terms with not knowing who his father was and the weight of expectation when the boxing fans learn that he’s a Creed. The Creed series is about a son confronting his father’s death in the most personal ways – the blood, violence, and sweat shed in the boxing ring.
A unifying theme of the Rocky films is perseverance. In Rocky Balboa, Rocky tells his son, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are; it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.”
This is where Coogler, his Creed co-writer Aaron Covington, and the successive writers, including Stallone, who co-wrote Creed II with Juel Taylor, have honoured the Rocky films’ heritage. The Creed films strongly emphasize Donnie confronting and discovering himself, which was not necessarily present in the Rocky films. Whereas Stallone’s approach was psychologically lighter, the filmmakers behind the Creed series have entrenched themselves deep within Donnie’s paternity and demons.
The adversity in the three Creed films is not only faced by Donnie. The progressive hearing loss of Donnie’s wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and their deaf daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), allow Bianca to represent women taking the hits and still moving forward. Forced to compromise on her musical career, she has not given up. She finds a different way to satisfy her ambitions.
Before Coogler and Covington’s contribution to the Rocky saga, the wives and mothers of Rocky and Apollo were supporting characters. Coogler and Covington wanted to give the lead female character an identity beyond this restrictive archetype. Amara, who is yet to come into her own, might be essential to future legacy building. The filmmakers gently plant the seed that the future of the Creed legacy in the ring might venture into women’s boxing.
Creed III is the first opportunity for Donnie and the series to build this legacy, and while it doesn’t make a strong impression that John G. Avildsen’s 1976 Rocky and Jordan’s original Creed did, it’s off to a solid start.