Mamma said knock you out
The Rocky series may be meat and potatoes filmmaking, but it’s a hearty meal. The kind that makes you pat your stomach and fall asleep, the senses duly satisfied. Sylvester Stallone, who like his titular character, went from unknown to celebrity with the 1976 Oscar winning original, isn’t alone when he voices shock that this pugilist saga is still going nearly 50 years later. However, that doesn’t get him a supporting role. He has no rights to the franchise, he tells us – they’ve been stolen, much like Rocky’s money was lifted by his crooked accountant in Rocky V, and consequently there’s no Balboa at ringside this time. In fact, so aggrieved is Stallone, he’s told the trades he won’t ever watch Creed III (or Rocky IX in old money).
All of which is ironic as the latest instalment of the sequel series (coincidentally?) centres on the idea of a stolen legacy. Jonathan Majors bulks up to play Damien (friends named after Satan are always trouble), a promising boxer, who grew up with Adonis Creed in care, and took the beatings alongside him from sadistic social worker, Leon.
In their teens, the boys happen upon Leon and an ugly incident ensues. Our man escapes, “Dame” (no, there’s nothing like a dame – nothing in the world) pulls a gun and goes to jail. This being the hereditary Rocky series, we understand, with great economy, that the character’s reappearance as a seemingly meek but testosterone fuelled ex-con, can only spell trouble for Rocky’s one-time protégé. When he asks for a title shot, the former champion feels obliged to grease the wheels despite warnings from gym coach Duke, that Dame is punching for all the wrong reasons. If you can’t predict where all this is going, you’ve never seen a Rocky movie. Part 9 would be an odd place to start.
This series is fundamentally about a boxer with heart, facing off against less scrupulous and often damaged competition, and Creed III is no exception. But the same can be solid, as it is here, if the relationship between hero and antagonist is handled with care and a degree of psychological realism. Majors is convincing as the muscle-bound mountain of resentment who looks at Creed and sees a stolen life. Michael B. Jordan, directing with a tight grip on the relationship between the former friends, is a warm and family-orientated presence, as he’s been in the last two movies – uneasy with celebrity, keen to do right by his friends. The film’s manipulations are crude but slick, then; Stallone’s magic formula still works.
However, in keeping with Creed’s I and II, the difference between this series and the one it occasionally alludes to (though tonally they sometimes feel like they exist in different universes) is the charisma of the lead, and therefore the heart of the enterprise.
Jordan’s good as Creed, and his family – nice music producing wife and deaf daughter, provide the story’s emotional ballast. But we don’t know these characters or care about them the way we did for Rocky, Adrien, Pauly and Mick. Stallone’s world had less grit, but Rocky – the lovable lunk, had star quality – an innocence that endeared him to the entire world.
The Creed series reminds us this is lightening in a bottle. You can replicate the character dynamics of the original series and its story beats – you can chuck in an exhilarating montage, and direct the climatic showdown with style and zeal, as Jordan does here. But without the heart that powered the original movies, it’s a mechanical pastiche.
Stallone hopes to do a deal with the current rights holder and maybe reappear in a potential Creed IV. Let’s hope he does, as Rocky is the special seasoning that makes the meal. Without him, it’s dry meat and unseasoned potatoes.