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Creed III: The New Heavyweight Champion Of The Rocky Franchise

This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Today: Creed III.

Creed III: The New Heavyweight Champion Of The Rocky Franchise
Still from Creed III
  • Rahul Desai

Last Updated: 08.32 AM, Mar 04, 2023

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CREED III opens in 2002, with a Black teenager driving through a balmy Los Angeles evening. He stops at a curb and quietly waits. A kid pretending to be asleep, sneaks out of his bedroom and joins the teenager. The two look like they’re up to no good. They stop at a downtown club — we expect the shady business to begin. But it’s actually a regional boxing arena, and the cocky teenager is the next big thing in the sport. He knocks out his latest opponent in no time. The kid vows to ‘coach’ him all the way to the Olympics and heavyweight championship. They’re inseparable, like brothers. But their celebration is short-lived; a brawl gets the teenager arrested for no real fault of his. Eighteen years later, this teenager — who is now a broke ex-convict — leaves prison. Half his life is gone. But he returns to the ring under the guidance of that kid — now a retired champion and promoter himself — and gets a title shot against all odds.

His comeback, though, raises some questions: Is boxing his undying dream or is it an instrument to get back at his former ‘brother’? Is it burning ambition or cold revenge? Is he an underdog or a lone wolf? This character is the reason Creed III breaks new ground in a five-decade-old film franchise. His name is Damian “Dame” Anderson, and he is supposed to be the antagonist of the ninth installment of the Rocky franchise. But actor Jonathan Majors — whose phenomenal performance brings to mind the feral wounds of Tom Hardy in Warrior — plays Dame like a protagonist. His eyes are sinister and soft at once. His body looks like a coiled-up block of stone that’s waited two decades to explode. His walk resembles that of a beast disguised as a baller. He knows that Dame’s is a story that was taken away. This is Dame’s darkness, and Adonis Creed — the kid who ran away that night — just lives in it.

In the two Creed movies so far, we saw a champion’s rise; Creed III, though, reveals his reckoning. Michael B Jordan, the actor behind Adonis who turns director with this film, steers the narrative into uncharted territory. He seems to understand that the presence of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa not only defined the series for years, it also took up the space of a complex and human rival. Most of them were caricatures so that Rocky could steal the show. Creed II was average at best, but it came the closest to empathising with the Russian opponents (Ivan Drago and his son) through a sociocultural lens; Balboa’s fading role, though, ate into their track. It’s therefore no coincidence that Creed III is the first film without Stallone. It may look like a risk, but it visibly frees the franchise from the burden of familiarity and expectations — a cinematic equivalent of Manchester United’s resurgence after the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo. This breathing space affords the film the chance to craft its own identity while maneuvering through the pitfalls of legacy.

The clincher is that not once does Dame feel like the villain. And not once does Adonis feel like the hero. The script — co-written by Ryan Coogler — uses the crowd-pleasing Rocky formula as a front to tell a wider tale. It’s almost like the story precedes the thematic language of the franchise, not vice versa. It’s what Coogler did with Black Panther, too, where the Marvel superhero template was only the mic that amplified the music of Black ambition and rage. Creed III flaunts the age-old tropes as well: the training montage, a tragedy, a young family, a shaky showdown with a parent, an insular boxing world in which there’s always a damning lack of contenders. As a boxing film alone, it’s nothing great; if anything, it’s in a Shakespearean hurry to tick all the boxes and reach the climax.

But Creed III is not just a boxing film. In fact, one might say it’s not a boxing film at all. Deep inside, it’s about one Black man lashing out at another for the brutalities of a racist law enforcement system; it’s about two adult kids haunted by the ease with which their futures can be stolen. The bottom line is that the cops put Dame away for nearly two decades for waving a loaded gun. The two pugilists turn on each other because the world doesn’t allow them to blame anyone else; the infighting is a metaphor that transcends those ropes. Naturally, there’s never going to be a winner, even if one of them comes away with the title. Look at the film from Dame’s perspective, and Adonis is the villain for not replying to his letters or defending his childhood friend. Look at it from Adonis’ perspective, and Dame is only human for wanting to vent his bitterness on a world that’s built to root against him.

As a result, for once, the insularity and brawl-esque tone of boxing in these films bolsters the narrative. The implausibility of the action is not a hindrance. The non-technical and stylised moves suit the context. The personal history between the two Black men in a white country turns the sport into a medium of physical expression — where the men use boxing as an excuse to legally harm one another. They’re inflicting the pain of succeeding and failing as an ethnic minority on each other. The irony is never lost on us that if they did this same thing at a gas station, they would be put away for another 18 years; in the ring, however, they’re hailed as brave and skillful warriors.

The final bout channels this ‘smallness’ in the way it’s filmed, transporting the two into a mindspace of empty arenas and phantom jail cells. It’s the sort of creative decision that swings for the fences. While it appears to be excessive and corny in the moment, the symbolism takes over. Here are two characters who’ve earned the right to turn their rocky history into a spectacle. Nobody else exists for them when they’re fighting, because they didn’t exist for anyone when they were fighting in 2002. They’ve earned the right to be wrong — and angry, and bloody, and most of all, weary ghosts of the kids who were hoodwinked by a balmy Los Angeles evening.