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As unnecessary as it is, Creed III still lands a few good punches.

Take You Back

Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan)
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan)

This latest installment (ninth in the overall boxing saga) is essentially a collection of the greatest hits from the first four Rocky movies. One major missing ingredient from the series’ formula is Rocky Balboa himself.

While Rocky gracefully stepped aside at the end of Creed II, the fact Creed III exists without him was enough for Sylvester Stallone to launch into a tirade about his being completely locked out from the production. Perhaps as an olive branch, he’s been given a producer credit. But it’s an unfortunate turn of events for Stallone, who wrote or co-wrote all the preceding episodes except for Creed; he also starred or co-starred in all of them.

Regardless, the absence of Rocky’s influential presence is palpable. He provided soulful guidance and potent pep talks as he transitioned from fighter to trainer. Instead, in Creed III, lines like “Sometimes the solution is a punch in the face” (related to Adonis Creed’s deaf daughter and her fighting instincts) and “Be ferocious! Be Adonis Creed!” will have to do.

Rocky’s missed in the dramatic moments begging for a spark of sage wisdom, particularly when mention is made of how Adonis’ father, Apollo, gave the upstart Italian Stallion a chance to step into the ring. If Rocky were on the scene, it could’ve been a much more powerful moment when the conversation is had this time around surrounding this chapter’s new opponent, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania).

What should be a dramatic confrontation between partners (Rocky and Adrian or Rocky and Mick) this time is merely a mild chat between Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Thor: Ragnarok). No ringing of the bell. No Bill Conti musical heartbeat. Just a formality to move the characters from one step to the next.

Rocky’s missed. And no effort is made to explain away his absence.

Dame the Conqueror

So now it’s about Adonis and Damian. It’s right there in the new opponent’s name. Damian. He’s out to conquer. In relation to The Omen and pop culture, he’s also the devil. And he’s Adonis’ former childhood friend while growing up in Hollywood.

Jonathan Majors has rapidly turned into a theatrical revelation. It was only a week ago when he faced off with Ant-Man as the new lead villain, Kang the Conqueror, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now he shows up in Creed III and reveals a remarkable physique. He’s cut. He’s tough.

The toughness is beautifully enhanced with Majors’ approach to Dame Anderson. With the flash of a smile, he can either be warm and welcoming or cold and menacing. In so many respects, his performance as Dame is even more impressive than his turn as Kang and that’s no small feat.

Nonetheless, it’s a shaky relationship, both between Adonis and Dame and the narrative and the character arcs. It’s a stretch to have everything fall into place, with Dame getting released after 18 years in the pen and seeking out Adonis for help to jumpstart his stilted boxing career. Never mind the awkward drama that is thrown in about young Adonis fleeing the scene of a crime. Never mind Adonis totally avoiding any contact with Dame for nearly two decades.

It’s an unlikely setup for this new underdog story, as Dame is quickly thrust into the spotlight through perfectly timed serendipity and the need for Adonis’ protégé and rising champ to bow out of a title fight. A mock Showtime segment still manages to sell it as a must-see fight. But, as with Rocky, there’s some drama missing.

Build Your Own Legacy

Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors)
Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors)

There are plenty of shortcomings in Creed III, but there are also some pleasant surprises to be had here. For one, Jordan steps behind the camera to mark his directorial debut and he shows a lot of sharp, smart cinematic sensibilities. And kudos to Jordan for working in the IMAX format to capture the brutal details of Dame’s wild fighting style.

Notably, there’s the artfulness of the final fight on the field of Dodger Stadium. The crowd is literally taken out of the picture as a crafty war of stamina is presented, focusing on the two men in the ring and everything else being inconsequential. It’s an excellent visual display, but it also (pardon the pun) lacks punch. Adonis and Damian duke it out for 12 vicious rounds; based on the excited reactions of the event’s commentators, it’d be reasonable to expect both men to need to be carried out of the ring in stretchers.

Somehow, the showdown winds up feeling too clean and tidy. But, at the same time, Adonis gets the opportunity to redeem himself from his self-placed burdens of the past and rise to the occasion as the better man. Better, but maybe not bigger. Dame’s a big dude.

And with that picture of a good man seeking his own redemption, Creed III also paints a picture of broken dreams. Not just Dame’s, but also those of Creed’s wife. Compared to Rocky’s life and the lives of so many others in this series, Adonis Creed’s life has been lived largely on easy street thanks to all the right breaks at the right time which in turn led to a life well-lived instead of a life worn-down.

Through it all, Creed’s heart is still in the gym, even though he retired as World Champion a few years ago, and in that sense, it’s no surpise that some of the movie’s best moments are spent in the gym, training a student who has some potential and shows a knack for the sport. But those moments aren’t when Creed is training his protégé while getting ready for the big fight or while helping his ex-con get back on his feet. It’s when Adonis spends time training his deaf pre-teen daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent in her theatrical debut). In those moments of sweetness — like father, like daughter — Creed III finds its own movie magic.