Creed III (2023)

The Rocky series remains one of the arguably most interesting film franchises in Hollywood history. From its New Hollywood beginnings and earning acclaim for Sylvester Stallone on the back of his well-deserved Oscar for writing to evolving into pastiche in the 80s, descending into obscurity, experiencing a brief revival and eventually coming back under the refurbished guise of the Creed legacy subseries, it is a veritable goldmine for popculture historians and aficionados of earnest drama. Yet, as diverse thematically and tonally as it has been, the series had always been underpinned by one constant factor – the involvement of one Sylvester Stallone who wrote, directed and/or starred in most of them. And even – as was the case with Creed – in cases where Ryan Coogler did the writing and directing and the narrative focus was shifted away from Rocky, Stallone’s character was still instrumental to the development of the story and remained inseparable from the film’s overall success.  

Until now.  

Creed III breaks with this longstanding tradition, parts ways with the iconic character of Rocky Balboa for the first time in history and if we are to believe its star-director debutante-extraordinaire Michael B. Jordan as well as the chief executive producer Irwin Winkler, who bankrolled all Rocky movies, it might not be the last time either. Nevertheless, Creed III reconnects the viewer with Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), now a retired undisputed boxing champion preparing the next generation of bloodthirsty successors to take their place at the top and continue Creed’s legacy of excellence. However, a day comes when Adonis crosses paths with a character from his past, Damian (Jonathan Majors), whose emergence causes some old demons to resurface in Adonis’ life. As it turns out, the two share a traumatic memory from their youth, the aftermath of which sent Damian to prison and allowed Adonis to escape scot-free (but not guilt-free) and build a life of success we have seen in previous films. Now, Damian is back to settle the score and Adonis Creed may very well have to don his boxing gloves once more, this time to skirmish with his own long-hidden traumas and regrets.  

Arguably, Michael B. Jordan, for whom this is a directorial debut, treats this narrative departure from the sentimentalist tradition of the series with requisite aptitude and seriousness. Therefore, when examined in isolation, Creed III looks like a competent drama playing out an archetypal story about an old friend-turned-foe turning the life of the hero upside down and forcing him out of retirement to restore the peace in his world. In so doing, the film also taps into the well-traversed landscape of trilogy evolution, which – despite the fact the producers will likely continue the series – attempts to give the movie a tone of finality. Damian’s re-emergence from the shadows coupled with sudden revelations about Adonis’ past fit perfectly within the familiar mould of trilogy completion. And in fact, these tonal threads have been explored in the Rocky series before, albeit with far less grace in the infamous Rocky V.  

Therefore, this third Creed movie seems to have gathered all the necessary ingredients to execute on the legacy of the series while standing firmly on its own two feet. And indeed, for the most part, the film is watchable and compelling enough to occupy your gaze with competently directed boxing sequences and an intriguing progression mapped onto the character of Adonis Creed, even if fleshed out in a predictable and, dare I say, schmaltzy manner. Though having said that, schmaltziness is a requisite seasoning employed generously all throughout the series, so it would be at the very least unfair to knock the movie on the back of its straightforward corniness.  

However, something’s off about this movie. Even though it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ain’t a real duck. Something’s… hollow about it because it just doesn’t have the same oomph as most other entries in the series. It is almost as though its heartbeat was missing, which is an arguably ineffable accusation to make. However, it is one of those things that, once you realize it, you are no longer able to unsee it. In one fell swoop, somewhere in the mid-section of the film, you blink and suddenly, the drama looks performative, the character work seems just a tiny bit phony and even the final boxing bout lacks that spark which would have me desire to watch the entire finale of the film standing up in suspense and anticipation of the protagonist winning the fight, proving something to himself, or both. But when the signature melody of “The Final Bell” filtered through the modern aesthetic of the score makes an appearance to mark the dramatic climax of the story, it rings hollow.  

Could it be because Sylvester Stallone’s touch was missing? I understand that at some point a decision must be made and the series kept alive for over four decades by the involvement of a single pivotal character would have to either come to a definitive conclusion or continue without Stallone because human life expectancy is finite and at some point – a dreadful prospect indeed – he will pass on. Now, I don’t necessarily want to comment on the ins and outs of how Stallone ended up side-lined on this project, or how it may have involved other people telling him he had been relieved of duty because the juggernaut he had steered for decades was now ready to go in a direction he wasn’t happy with.  

Nevertheless, I don’t think Jordan, Coogler and Winkler fully appreciated the importance of what Stallone’s presence throughout the series afforded these movies. While he wasn’t necessarily grounding them in gritty realism, which is intentionally supplanted in Creed III with a heightened aesthetic using boxing to offer an introspective look into Adonis’ tormented conscience, he gave these movies a base flavour which amplified whatever these stories attempted to accomplish. Stallone was the broth in what essentially is a perpetual stew.  

This whole franchise is in my view a stew that’s been simmering for many decades, with each new film adding a few ingredients and removing several portions to feed the gathered guests. While each time the flavour profile would change in response to new aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices and protein added to the cauldron, the stew would never run dry. And now, having watched this process for a while and having contributed to it too, someone concluded that they could just as well recreate this stew themselves. So, they kept the recipe, made notes of necessary ingredients, understood the mechanics of flavour layering and… threw away this perpetual stew.  

Unfortunately, they did not realize that you can’t just recreate overnight a broth whose own basal umami profile required a lot of time, dedication and committed discipline. You might come close to it with a few hacks and cheats, but your tastebuds will be able to tell the difference. So, as far as stews go, Creed III would be OK if it was the first time I tasted a stew of this sort. But I have been a loyal customer of the Rocky Ramen Restaurant and the new chefs don’t have the desire, the inclination, or even the acuity to make their dish live up to its legacy. Instead, they want to start anew and use the branding to their advantage. And I am not a fan of such chicanery.  

Ironically, the consequence of this radical decision to let the series “go its own way” and abandon its familiar sentimental tone is that it lost its edge. Keeping with the culinary analogy, the new-and-improved perpetual stew in its fresh iteration shows a lack of grounding in earnestness that separated its more powerful predecessors. It’s cooked with a scientifically derived recipe, not with the heart of a cook who instinctively knows how much a pinch of salt is without ever slowing down to check. So, the movie makes the right moves in the right direction but – now dragging my unhinged metaphor-smithery into the world of martial arts – it doesn’t have the follow-through. To an untrained eye, this movie looks like it’s boxing, but I know (and I hope you do, too) that these moves do not generate explosive power. The hips don’t move. The shoulders aren’t in sync. The feet don’t generate a spring action to deliver a blow. It’s as though Creed III was afraid of abandoning its defensive stance to deliver a blow because it would put it in a position vulnerable to attack. Just like Rocky Balboa before he got his title shot, this movie is afraid of getting its nose busted. And you can’t win if you are not prepared to get yourself knocked out.  

This translates into simple, yet imperative narrative decisions. Just to be different, Adonis is no longer an underdog. He’s never in peril. In fact, nobody is. The whole story plays itself out as safe as humanly possible, which is something Sylvester Stallone would never allow to happen. That’s because he knew – perhaps even instinctively – that what made Rocky movies great was the earnestness of its central characters, Rocky’s own corny appeal and the fact these stories would always strive to deliver strong messages without ever stopping to wonder if anyone would think they’re trite. These movies were hearty. Like that perpetual stew. Their savouriness came not from narrative sophistication but from a fundamental emotional connection between what’s on the screen and what’s in your own heart. That’s why Rocky and Creed put the viewer through a cathartic experience. Because I cared. And I cared because I knew someone cared about making sure I cared.  

And now it’s clear this someone was Stallone – the now-fired chef whose decades of experience have been dispensed with because young whippersnappers thought they could recreate his magic on their own. Little did they know, Creed III shows they have a lot to learn because underneath the snazzy elevated fusion of cool new ingredients meant to refresh the recipe for a Rocky movie, there’s nothing but fundamental blandness the filmmakers simply did not realize they required to ensure the film could stand toe-to-toe with its predecessors. Hence, I am sad to report that Creed III is a sign the series has lost its unique umami. Perhaps forever.  


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