There’s a lot that’s enjoyably familiar in “Creed III,” but one thing is missing — the theme from “Rocky.”
“Creed” launched in 2015 as a reboot of Sylvester Stallone’s venerable “Rocky” franchise, with Stallone’s boxer Rocky Balboa now retired and mentoring a young fighter named Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky’s old friend Apollo Creed. The film largely belonged to Jordan’s Creed, but when the trumpets on composer Bill Conti’s iconic “Gonna Fly Now” from the original “Rocky” surged on the soundtrack, it brought a surge of emotion and nostalgia.
In “Creed II,” which was co-written by Stallone, that song was even more present. The film was co-written by Stallone, and it seemed like he was trying to grasp more control of the franchise, giving Rocky a central role and making overt references to the original “Rocky” films.
Rocky and his theme are gone from “Creed III.” Starring (and now directed by) Jordan, this is a stirring, conventionally entertaining boxing film that stands on its own two feet. “Creed III” opens Friday in Madison theaters at Marcus Point, Marcus Palace, AMC Fitchburg 18 and Flix Brewhouse Madison.
The film opens three years after Creed retired as the undefeated champion of the world, and is now living the good life with his music producer wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) in a mansion stuffed with Creed’s trophies and awards. Creed now spends his time running the old gym his father started and managing fighters, such as the current world champion Felix Chavez (welterweight boxer José Benavidez).
A shadow passes across this happy existence with the appearance of an old friend, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors). In a flashback, we see the two as teenagers, when Dame was the hot amateur boxer in town and Creed eagerly tagged along in his wake, until their fortunes turned one tragic night.
Now, Dame is a grizzled ex-con just out of prison, having missed his chance at a boxing career. Out of concern and guilt, Creed invites him to the gym to train. Propelled by fury and envy (he’s bathed in the green light of jealousy when he enters the stadium before a match), Dame is a wrecking ball in the ring.
He soon begins using his ability to sense an opponent’s weak spots to undermine and manipulate Creed into giving him a shot at the championship title, a chance he blames Creed for missing. It all ends, as we knew it would, in a climactic boxing match, the camera bobbing and weaving around the two combatants.
“Creed III” makes the drama out of the ring just as compelling as the action inside the ring, thanks to two powerful and layered performances by its leads. Having an established and respected actor like Majors (“Devotion,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco“) as Creed’s main antagonist is a major step up for “Creed III” over its predecessors, where the actors playing Creed’s opponents seemed to be hired mainly for their boxing ability. As a director, Jordan clearly knows how to work with actors. Jordan and Majors have an edgy chemistry together, with strong supporting performances by Thompson and Wood Harris as a gruff trainer.
The obvious move would be to make Dame clearly a bad actor out to destroy Creed’s life. Majors’ performance is much more subtle and canny, and we see affection between the two old friends even as we sense the warning signs that Dame is planning to undermine Creed. Even when Dame is doing his worst to Creed, there’s a sadness in Majors’ eyes that complicates their rivalry.
Jordan makes interesting visual choices, including recurring shots that mirror Dame and Creed, suggesting that their paths could have been reversed if not for a twist of fate. Jordan also makes a pretty daring stylistic choice during the final bout that will likely polarize audiences, but I thought it worked in a small dose.
Otherwise, “Creed III” is better than “Creed II,” if not quite as good as the first “Creed.” It's a film that shows the franchise isn’t ready to hang up its prize belt just yet.