Creed III: ‘Rocky’ movies are only as good as their villains

With his rock-solid physique and mile-long gaze, ex-con Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors) – a former Golden Gloves prospect who let young Adonis Creed wear his gloves to tournaments – cuts the figure the most imposing of Rocky-to decades. Dame’s chip is more like a crater: as another character observes, “He’s fighting the world and he’s trying to hurt someone.” After serving 20 years in prison for a firearms charge, he returned to the outside world seeking to yield some heads. His real specialty, however, is mind games. The first time we see him, he’s leaning against his childhood buddy’s SUV, as if to indicate he belongs with him, along with all the other loot from Donnie’s boxing career.

To be fair, Donnie has a good split, and Creed III makes the good life damn beautiful. In making his directorial debut, Michael B. Jordan errs on the side of brilliance and also indulges in a bit of self-mythologizing; a photo of Donnie finishing off an intense workout by dancing atop a mountain above the Hollywood sign perfectly allegorizes the star’s rise to the top of the industry’s A-list. But as much as Creed III was designed to give Jordan his big moments – including several tearful monologues and lots of cute shticks with his character’s daughter – it was also used as a showcase for Majors, an actor whose time is good now. It has a genuinely malevolent energy to it, and for the first hour or so the story works like some weird sports movie variation on Cape fear, with Majors convincingly sharing the difference between James “Clubber” Lang and Max Cady. Peering through sinister hoodies, he accesses layers of shame and self-effacement, defense mechanisms Dame applied to disguise her rage.

The mid-film plot twist in which Dame goes from a grateful hanger in Camp Creed to a potentially dangerous rival seems melodramatic (and unlikely) until you remember it’s about a franchise in which Carl Weathers was once beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren following a James Brown concert. The real miracle of the first Creed established a sense of gravity without breaking faith with the show’s essential cheese, and Jordan deserves credit for continuing the balancing act here. The problem is, after creating a monster with realistic depth and shading, Creed III not doing enough with him. We know Donnie is going to fight him and we understand why, but along the way Dame disappears from the movie’s consciousness and the tension goes with it.

The common denominator between Rocky movies, like in the Bond universe, is that they’re usually only as good as their villains. Disappointing opponents have unfortunately been a line of passage in the Creed movies. For all its excellence as a character study of a young shadowboxing fighter from his father’s legacy, Ryan Coogler’s first installment suffered slightly from the weak presence of former WBC heavyweight champion Tony Bellew in the role of British pugilist “Pretty” Ricky Conlan. Structurally, Coogler’s inversion of the original Rocky was ingenious: instead of an arrogant, media-savvy failed Muhammad Ali selecting an obscure Italian palooka as a self-serving publicity stunt, we had a white champion choosing his foil exclusively on the basis of name recognition. But because Creed is so beautifully written and acted between Jordan and Sylvester Stallone – who truly deserved an Oscar – and attentive to broader currents of social and cultural resonance, it never develops Conlan into anything more than a plot. It’s telling that when Bellew made an appearance at the start of Creed IIII didn’t even recognize him.

Perhaps out of a sense of occasion, Bellew isn’t the only one Creed alum who appears in Part 3. There’s also a welcome – and surprisingly pivotal – appearance from Florian Munteanu’s Viktor Drago. If the problem with “Pretty” Ricky was the lack of truly compelling characterization, Munteanu’s understated performance was largely by design; the premise of Creed II was that Drago Jr. had been turned into a ruthless robot by his father, who had waited for glasnost looking for a way to get revenge on Rocky and his camp. The mountain man Munteanu is by no means a bad actor, but he is overshadowed by his own breakthrough by Dolph Lundgren, whose cameo is the highlight of the film. Showing up unannounced at Rocky’s restaurant and noting his absence in the ringside snapshots that line the walls, he’s wistful and menacing in a way that surpasses his performance in Rocky IV without denying it. Always an underrated actor, Lundgren bridges the gap between the franchise’s past and present as deftly as Stallone.

THE Rocky IV version of Drago – the silent Soviet golem promising to break Rocky (and with him, the capitalist system) – has been cited by critics as the culmination of the Rocky the procession of films from the tenacity of New Hollywood to the stickiness of Reagan; remember that the film’s climax, set in Moscow, featured Rocky literally wrapping himself in the American flag. Anyone who thought Draco was too much, though, should think about how memorable his Russian Terminator act was compared to the antagonist of Rocky V, Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a lummox whose vendetta against his former mentor culminated in an unauthorized (and unconvincing) street fight. Or Mason “The Line” Dixon by Antonio Tarver in Rocky Balboa– surely the worst actual boxer in the bunch, as he fails to dispatch a 60-year-old box of tomatoes, and not a particularly snappy villain either.

If there is one Rocky movie that offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to villains, it’s Rocky III, which has three: two of them embody the excessive showmanship of the brand, and a third gives it a soul. The opening set pitting Rocky against gigantic professional wrestler Thunderlips is a wonderfully crafted satire, implicitly poking fun at the franchise’s slide from realism to spectacle while capturing Terry Bollea – aka Hulk Hogan – at the peak of his physical prowess and charisma. Looking impossibly young and blond, Hogan leans into his sleazy side in Rocky III, styling Thunderlips – who goes by the “Ultimate Male” – in the direction of his hero Gorgeous George while towering over Stallone like an Easter Island statue. Sure, Rocky overcomes the giant, but the sneaky joke is that Thunderlips doesn’t mind being beaten: he’s just trying to put on a show for the crowd. Somehow, the Vince McMahon who would continue to blur the lines between “wrestling” and “sports entertainment” was smiling – a year later he would poach Hogan from AWA to join WWE en route to transforming the latter company into an international juggernaut.

At the end of Rocky and Thunderlips’ match, the camera captures a face in the crowd, the face of a disgusted purist. What Makes Laurence “Mr. T” Tureaud’s Performance As Clubber Lang So Indelible The Character Is All About boxing: This is a student of the game who correctly guessed that Rocky mellowed after chatting with talk show hosts and Muppets. It helps that his dialogue is great: Ghostface Killah’s 2004 single “The Champ” interpolates some of Clubber’s rants, and they hold up (“Don’t give this sucka a statue / Give him death!”). It’s important that Clubber shows up without much backstory beyond a montage of him exposing lesser fighters all in a row: he looks more like a manifestation of Rocky’s impostor syndrome, summoned to end to his (and our) fantasies with a punch.

No one could pretend with a straight face that Rocky III is a particularly subtle or sophisticated film, but Stallone’s instincts as a playwright run strong. Burgess Meredith’s revelation that Mickey protected his protege by feeding him weak adversaries is played wonderfully by both sides: Meredith’s angst and Stallone’s embarrassment are palpable. Mickey knows Clubber is young, hungry and indestructible and he’ll bring down Rocky tomorrow, which he does in a scene that still satisfies a deep, schadenfreude urge to see our superstars humiliated.

Clubber’s obsessive drive for dominance – hammered home by photos of him training in a squalid concrete apartment – gives Rocky III an advantage despite its general awkwardness, and Jordan borrows some of these visual ideas in Creed III, including the fact that Dame similarly uses a door frame as an exercise machine. But Mr. T is only the second greatest thing about Rocky III—the top spot goes to Carl Weathers, who modulates the character of Apollo Creed so slowly and carefully that it’s one of the biggest twists in American film. Rocky worked like a boxing movie because it was clear in the writing, directing, and choreography that its namesake was really only slightly as skilled as his opponent, and that Apollo took him too lightly. This dynamic hovers over Apollo’s actions in Rocky III. Above all, Weathers does not soften him or turn him into a good Samaritan: when he shows up halfway to train the beaten Italian stallion, it is less out of the goodness of his heart than out of an indirect and barely sheathed sense of outrage. He doesn’t think Rocky is a better boxer than him, but Apollo couldn’t beat him, even when he was in his prime. According to this score, Clubber must also be better than Apollo – and he won’t have it. Watch the movie for the new yorker, Pauline Kael noted that Weathers showed Stallone in the latter’s own vanity project; When Apollo tells Rocky he needs to get “tiger’s eye,” he’s really speaking to himself. It follows that Rocky III The real moment of stand-up and cheering isn’t Rocky pushing Clubber into submission, but the coda, when our heroes decide to go one-on-one one last time, in an empty gym. , with no one watching and nothing but bragging rights at stake.

In one of the most beautifully interpreted exchanges of Creed, Rocky tells Donnie the result of this fight and that his father won. There is just enough ambiguity in the reading of Stallone’s line to preserve the integrity of Rocky IIIclosing freeze frame. (The less said about Sly’s original plans for the Rocky-Apollo rematch, the better.) Jordan pays tribute to Rocky III shooting parts of the Donnie-Dame clash in an empty gymnasium, even though in reality we know they’re in a sold-out arena, a boldly expressionistic choice that should push the film into another emotional stratosphere. That it doesn’t – not quite – speaks to some indecision about whether to use Majors as a co-protagonist or just one more dragon for the hero to slay. Ultimately, opting for the latter is a missed opportunity. The post-fight coda leaves the door open for Dame to return and perhaps even become a character with her own long and dignified arc towards redemption. Let’s hope so, because anything less would be a waste.

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