Creed III review: Michael B Jordan’s directorial debut proves the Rocky movies can survive without Stallone

Creed III review: Michael B Jordan’s directorial debut proves the Rocky movies can survive without Stallone

Can the Rocky franchise exist without Rocky? Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018), both critical and commercial successes, were inescapably tethered to nostalgia. Sure, they may have wrestled with the question of whether Michael B Jordan’s Adonis “Donnie” Creed could make a name for himself beyond the reputation of his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers), and his mentor, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). But Stallone was still there, holding his audience’s hands through this new venture.

Creed III, finally, has actually answered the question at hand. And it’s done so with a firm and enthusiastic “yes”. Stallone, though he’s stayed on as a producer under his Balboa Productions banner, has fully stepped aside. There is no Rocky here. Characters don’t spend the entire film asking where he’s gone, either. The sequel sees Jordan stepping up and taking full ownership of his character. It’s also the actor’s directorial debut. Witnessing all of this is like watching someone rise to the throne.

Stallone has said that his split from the series was largely amicable but that he had reservations about Creed III’s tone, saying it sent the franchise into a “dark space”. Though I loathe to disagree with Mr Italian Stallion himself, it’s Creed III’s rejection of moral simplicity that’s given the franchise its most interesting adversary: Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a ghost risen up from Donnie’s foster care past. For a story that’s always positioned its protagonists as underdogs, here’s an underdog whose rightful resentment against the world has turned into a corruptive force.

Donnie, by this point, is comfortable enough in his success to retire outright from boxing and commit himself as a husband to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and a father to Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). Then Dame enters the picture, fresh out of prison. He was once the one with all the promise and the future. But an incident in the pair’s youth, revealed through flashback, split their paths.

Majors, already man of the hour thanks to his recent, formidable entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe, is even more impressive here. He’s taken a molotov cocktail of a character, all arrogance and sorrow and rage, and rooted him in pensiveness. There are moments – and I know this is quite the statement – when he manages to out-charisma both Jordan and Thompson. It’s quite the feat. When Donnie scoffs at the idea that Dame, who hasn’t boxed in years, could become a contender overnight, the latter confidently retorts: “Isn’t that what happened to you?” Touche, Dame. Touche.

There’s an inevitable limit to how much Creed III can shake up the Rocky formula. We know the film will end in a high-stakes match between two men. And we know there will be a fair few training montages to fill the void in between. Thompson’s Bianca has always held her own, and though her career concerns are somewhat sidelined here, Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin’s script finds subtle ways to tie her character back into the film’s main themes of regret and compromise.

Jordan’s directorial eye, for the most part, seems carefully trained on maintaining a sense of continuity with his predecessors, Ryan Coogler and Steven Caple Jr. That said, it’s fun to see him let loose in the boxing ring. Tossing aside any impulse for realism, the director – a noted fan of Japanese anime – goes for full-blown, visceral symbolism. Flesh ripples in slow-motion after a well-placed punch. Dame and Donnie are dressed in black and white like the good and bad cowboys of westerns past. At one point, the crowds fade away, only to be replaced with the haunting divide of prison bars. Creed III, you could argue, is yet another story about Donnie facing up to his past. Yes, that’s technically correct, but what’s truly exciting is to see a franchise so boldly dream of its own future.

Dir: Michael B Jordan. Starring: Michael B Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad. 12A, 116 minutes.

‘Creed III’ is in cinemas from 3 March