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Creed III (2023)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Are the Creed films every bit as formulaic as the Rocky sequels that spawned them?  You betcha.  By now, these stories might as well be paint-by-numbers for the audience, with only the James Bond franchise surpassing them for sheer predictability.  Weird thing is, they still work really well.  The performances are always top-notch, the fight scenes are thrillingly staged, that training montage still gets the blood pumping, and there we are at the end: Fully invested in the sweaty, bloody brawl we could see coming a mile away.  It’s a testament to director-star Michael B. Jordan and producer Ryan Coogler that even a telegraphed punch can hit so hard.

The story finds Adonis Creed (Jordan) settled into the same mid-franchise groove as Sly’s Balboa, circa Rocky III.  He’s won the belts, the fortune, and the respect, so it’s not surprising when Creed lays down one last whoopin’ and retires.  Now an ex-champ, Creed aims to be a mogul, training the next stud, Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.), to walk the same path.  As a bonus, this quiet life means Creed can be more present for his wife (Tessa Thompson), and their five-year-old daughter (Mila Davis-Kent).  Everything about this domestic tranquility seems perfect, which is usually the perfect time for things to implode.

That demolition arrives the form of “Diamond” Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors).  He and Creed go way back–all the way to the boy’s home, the abusive foster dads, and life on the streets.  The boys were once like brothers, until Dame spent nearly two decades in prison.  After only a few days on the outside, Dame tracks down his buddy Donnie.  He says he wants reconnect, but it’s quickly obvious he also wants a whole lot more.

These early scenes with Dame and Creed bristle with tension.  Sure, Dame is friendly.  Even jovial.  But a simmering resentment boils behind his smile. Dame sees the luxury cars, the mansions, the title belts–they were all supposed to be his.  He was the Golden Glove winner, until he got sent away.  When Dame rolls in for dinner, you can practically feel the heat emanating from him.  He asks Creed to set up him as a fighter, but that’s only the beginning:  Dame wants a shot at the title–at Felix–without working his way up the ranks.  Dame wants it all, and he wants it now.  What’s more, he’s not really concerned when his presence rekindles some ugly memories from their traumatic childhood.

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Oh my God, do y’all think these guys are gonna have a massive falling out and end up fighting at the end of the movie?  I mean, say it ain’t so!  If you haven’t sussed out where Creed III is going by now, I’m temporarily suspending your Rocky privileges.  Go back and rewatch from the beginning.  You can skip the one with Tommy Gunn, and maybe the other one with Milo What’s-His-Name.  Then, and only then, will we see about possible reinstatement.

In all seriousness, when somebody’s baking from such an exact recipe, you can only really judge them on execution.  This one just manages to be an above average cake.  First off, Jordan isn’t just an actor. He’s a star, and the Creed spinoffs have always fallen into his orbit.  His performance gives emotional gravity these films, even as each one gets just a little more cartoonish.  Nimble players like Thompson and Phylicia Rashad (returning as Mama Creed) follow Jordan’s lead, infusing genuine humanity into their characters.  Rashad, in particular, has a poignant arc.

Do we miss Sly?  Yeah, a little bit.  Going in, I’d have told you that any Rocky flick without Stallone was akin to staging Hamlet without Hamlet.  Truth is, Coogler and his collaborators tied up Rock’s story in the previous films.  If they’d trotted him out this time, all he could do is mumble some encouraging gibberish between fights.  The rest of the time, the Italian Stallion would feel sadly superfluous.  By the end of Creed III, this is fully Jordan’s franchise, and he commands it with assuredness.

Will there be a Creed IV?  You can bet your baked bean casserole on it.  Should there be?  That’s tough.  The original Rocky franchise didn’t founder because it became predictable.  They surrendered that ground by the second movie.  No, the real doom was when they stopped being fun.  (I told you to skip Rocky V for a reason.  It’s like taking a line drive to your naughty downstairs area.)  The Creed films are slowly losing that new car smell, and I hope they resolve this story with dignity it–and he–deserves.  That would be a refreshing surprise.

116 min.  R.  On demand and in theaters.

Read my review of Creed II!


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