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Creed III's Decision Victory



CREED III. With his directorial debut, Michael B. Jordan has made the subtly momentous decision to render this (presumably last) chapter in the Rocky saga as a statement: This is decidedly not a Rocky movie. Sure, Balboa's shadow flits at the edges of things, he being the somewhat unwitting progenitor of the whole works. And, if we've been following along, it would be hard to argue that Stallone's performance in Creed (2015) doesn't stand among his best (a low bar to some, admittedly). But, as Sly has been quick and public to point out, Jordan, Ryan Coogler and their producing partners had and have a different vision of this franchise than he, the socio-political implications of which we'll delve into another time.

Contextually, though, Rocky v. Apollo has always been a bit of a joke, requiring Renaissance-style forced perspective to render Stallone — even at his most vascular and augmented — anything like a suitable opponent for Carl Weathers' lithe, towering Creed. Especially with the hindsight provided by the three-movie coda that is the Creed franchise, Apollo becomes the more tragic, complex figure of the two, by far. It is even delineated aloud in Creed III that Rocky essentially would not exist if not for the charity of the champ. This becomes, effectively if not surprisingly, our entry point to the themes of this installment.

Adonis (Jordan), having retired as heavyweight champion of the world and settled permanently in Los Angeles, has refocused his efforts as a gym owner and promoter. With Duke (Wood Harris, a title contender for subtlest oddball in American movies), he's cultivated the talents of at least one champion, meanwhile supporting wife Bianca's (Tessa Thompson) flourishing music career and the raising of their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent, ferocious and adorable). They've got an unassailable family, as well as a mansion, a Rolls-Royce truck and walls full of gold records and championship belts — the dream made transcendent and real.

And then from the suppressed memories of youth emerges Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), Donnie's surrogate brother and, before a two-decade fall precipitated by shared trauma, a Golden Gloves amateur with a plan for world domination. At first unassuming and deferential, Dame is nonetheless insistent that he's kept himself in fighting shape, that he's ready for a shot. Adonis, subject to some nebulous guilt and fraternal obligation, is inclined to give it to him, despite Duke's protestations. And so, in a distorted echo of Apollo's anointing of Rocky, old friends become combatants.

If I have one complaint about Creed III — and really, that's about all — it's that Jordan's direction, while undeniably assured and proficient, doesn't fully service the sensitivity and nuance of the screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (Ryan Coogler gets a story credit). Because woven intricately into the fabric of the story are threads of family as made by genes versus common experience, the effects of trauma, notions of sacrifice, missed opportunity and unsquare-able debt. And while the movie as we have it delivers on many of those themes, it misses greatness by this much.

Among the many attributes on the plus side of the balance sheet stands Majors, unbelievably fit and alternately playing possum and fighting like a wolverine. As soon as he steps into frame, presumably by design but maybe in spite of it, he threatens to devour Jordan. He channels the guile and brutality of a violent child's dream deferred, transmuted into a forging fire of malice and resentment. It becomes entirely plausible that he loves and hates his boyhood best friend in equal measure, and has used 20 years of confinement to refine those feelings and render them a nearly undefeatable battle plan.

While Jordan may not possess the directorial gifts of his collaborator and presumptive mentor Coogler, he has clearly been paying attention to the behind-the-camera workings of the many productions in which he has participated, and his study pays off in solid, decidedly above-average execution of the material. Which is no small feat in itself, much less compounded by the demands of starring in the thing and getting otherworldly jacked in the process.

It is as much the fault of the trajectory of the franchise as anything that Creed III isn't allowed to be more surprising. The job of this picture is to deliver first and second act challenges which, by the calculus of tradition and our expectations, must be resolved to universal satisfaction by movie's end. The vagaries of conventional entertainment — read: return on investment — demand a certain conventionality and that's OK. But there are performances and thematic material here that begin to transcend imposed expectation, and those suggestions of greatness leave me wanting more, even as happy as I am with what we have. PG13. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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