Saturday 18 March 2023

Still fighting it: "Creed III"

If 2015's Creed passed the smelling salts under the nose of a wobbling franchise, then 2018's Creed II was very much Rocky business as usual (dads-and-lads, East versus West). Creed III arrives bearing a certain novelty: for the first time, this franchise has passed into something like Black ownership - or at least into as much Black ownership as a Chartoff-Winkler production for Warner Bros. will allow. For starters, Sylvester Stallone - enduring (and not unendearing) relic of this franchise as it once was - has withdrawn his labour, caught up as he is in an ongoing rights dispute with the producers. (He fell into a prominent role on streaming TV, so he'll be fine; the great Wood Harris picks up any onscreen slack as the franchise's preferred cornerperson.) Star Michael B. Jordan, meanwhile, has ascended to the director's chair, formalising the strong claim for authorship he lodged as the poster boy of parts one and two. The story this time round hinges on a matter of Black identity, a development signposted as early as the prologue, a flashback to the late 90s, playing out on the streets Jordan's Donnie Creed emerged from. Our guest fighter for the occasion - and that's really what the antagonists in this series have been, much as William Shatner and Robert Vaughn were guest murderers in old Columbo episodes - is not some hulking Caucasian, but Jonathan Majors as an old friend of Donnie's, Damian "Diamond Dame" Anderson, plotting a comeback after serving prison time for his part in an incident the reckless young Donnie initiated. Donnie offers Damian a spot on his undercard, and gradually comes to regret it, making Creed III this franchise's Mean Streets, its Boyz N The Hood and its Frankenstein. In brief, we rejoin both Donnie Creed and Michael B. Jordan wrestling with success, and what success elevates you some way above.

What does that mean for we bums in the cheap seats? For the first hour, a slightly furrowed brow. On some level, Creed III is an extension of a process initiated by Creed II, where Donnie moved into a spacious L.A. property that everybody reading this review still wouldn't be able to rent even if we pooled our resources. The character is now further away from the streets than he's ever been, hidden away from rough-and-tough reality in an even roomier residence in the Hollywood Hills, with its own swimming pool, recording studio and see-through flooring. (The better to look down on where he's come from, one presumes.) Indeed, the very character of Donnie Creed looks to have undergone a makeover in the years between Creed II and Creed III. Less up-and-coming fighter than established sports-management suit, this Donnie is basically a ripped Jerry Maguire, who now wears designer beige jackets over his hoodies and has the power to bring a pariah like Diamond Dame back in from the cold. This speaks to a slight problem with the new movie. In its very set-up, Creed III is geared more towards dealmaking than duking it out; there's far more talk than there is training. And having emerged not just intact from but ennobled by the soul-searching of Creed II, Donnie is clearly now being positioned as a teachable example, if not an entirely saintly figure. Even when he briefs his adorable Deaf daughter (Mila Davis-Kent) on the fight game that made the family fortune, he can be heard lapsing into inspirational seminar speak: "Most people think it's about violence, but it's actually about timing, focus..." "And control?," the girl interrupts. They're talking with their hands (in ASL), but it's talk all the same, and newly pious with it.

The good news is the Creed franchise is still young enough to be learning from itself; it's not set in its ways just yet. These movies have never been as susceptible to the flagwaving the Rockys were prone to, in part because of an understandable ambivalence on the issue of what is to be Black in America. That ambivalence has been properly dramatised here: Majors' Diamond Dame makes flesh-and-blood - altogether swole flesh-and-blood - the largely internal struggles of Creed II, being a proponent of the heedless violence the upstanding Donnie looks to have left behind and, indeed, now preaches against. Busting out below-the-belt street fighter moves in the ring, crude in his pre-fight hustling and post-fight spending, Diamond Dame is as the leisure-suited Morlocks in Jordan Peele's Us: an avatar of everything the protagonist (and the filmmaker?) considers themselves to have evolved beyond. The last of the regular Rockys - 1990's Rocky V - took place just a year or so before the L.A. riots, and there's a sense in which the Creed movies have taken up the rhetoric that circulated around that rupture in American society. At critical junctures, Donnie, too, has to decide whether to continue quietly raising his family or instead take up arms against a murderously indifferent if not openly hostile world. (Or, as mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) suggests on her deathbed, "find another way": i.e. assert oneself on that world without recourse to brutalisation.) This is the fascinating and deeply personal core of an otherwise by-the-numbers production: for viewers of a certain vintage, there's something thrilling in seeing the themes of the New Black Cinema of the 1990s - the films Jordan may well have grown up watching - being smuggled into a major studio release playing in multiplexes across the globe.

As a first-time director, Jordan acquits himself fine; he's done just enough to sustain the franchise. Few of his shots would look out of place in the first two Creeds, with the exception of the computer-enabled mid-fight pauses that slow the action and punch up (or pin down) the damage the fighters are doing to their bodies. The mindset is largely integrationist: the movie knows full well the advantages of fitting in. These films still aren't terribly interested in Tessa Thompson as Donnie's other half Bianca, a symbol of domestication whose musical career seems to have come and gone with a fraction of the attention paid even to the guys' warm-up fights. (In the multiverse, the character would merit a series of sequels all her own, possibly fashioned after the image of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights.) But Jordan comes up with a doozy of a montage as Donnie plots his Foreman-like comeback, and he brings visual invention to the climactic smackdown with Diamond Dame (pointedly billed as "the Battle for L.A."), paring back the action to what's essential: two men representing different impulses and lifestyles going toe-to-toe for the soul of Black America, much as Stallone and Dolph Lundgren once traded blows for control of the free world. He can't quite throw off this plot's nagging air of conservatism: Donnie is called out of retirement to pull up the ladder, making sure a barbarian like Diamond Dame never reaches the gated communities and clifftop mansions. Yet as a genial, graceful performer, he can lighten the tone of individual scenes, and he makes the responsibility we see Donnie taking on (wife, child, hard work, office hours) appear legitimately aspirational. We leave Donnie Creed clowning round the ring with his young family at his side, and we are led to consider whether, more so than the bejewelled belts and seven-figure paydays, that's the real prize in this economy, and with the world as it is: a happy life. The Creed movies are moving in their own direction while working through their own issues, and they can stir you without a second of Survivor on the soundtrack.

Creed III is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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