Somehow, in the ninth installment of the Rocky series, we get a brutal slugfest between Killmonger and Kang the Conqueror. And not that anyone needed a Marvel pop culture reference (given the recent mediocre outing with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) but had that kinetic energy propelled in that universe, folks wouldn’t have minded in the slightest.
The sweet, prominent science of a sports movie is simplicity. It doesn’t require some festinate direction or necessarily a contrived cerebral approach to its proverbial big-fight feel. The formula is in the premise, what fans come for. Toss in all the underdogs, impossible stakes, adversities, setbacks, and more; the details drop sweat on the rest of the narrative. It turns out that this franchise can evolve beyond Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, who does not appear in the third installment of Creed. Latching oneself onto a series for so long means you’re “only remembered” by that legacy and not spreading thy wings out (ask Arnold Schwarzenegger a la Terminator and Michael Bay a la Transformers).
Thus, both sides of the camera this time belong to Michael B. Jordan, the ferocious actor who returns at the helm as the son of Apollo Creed while cruising along in the director’s chair (in his debut-making feature). He takes some swift notes from the 1976 classic and tries a spin that evokes Cape Fear and The Gift. Adonis is living well with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), and he’s now finally retired and mentoring the next wave of future heavyweight boxing champions. But, it turns out your past can’t escape you for so long, as a former friend from the past, Damien Anderson (Jonathan Majors), returns to meet Adonis and wants his stab at becoming the champion immediately. From flashbacks, Adonis and Damien were best buds in starting their journey in the boxing realm. But, an awry situation at a local liquor store left Damien taking the fall for eighteen years behind bars while Adonis escaped.
Much like in Ant-Man 3, Majors relishes playing the dastardly manipulator and subtly amps up his prickliness before his actions in the ring showcase his character. This ain’t the childhood dream anymore; this is a man that wants to convince you he was genuinely wronged for nearly two decades behind steel bars. Jordan maintains his rage and fury, and once both men start swinging, it’s as if bulls found the red in their direct eye line. The dynamism easily outpaced the formulaic sequel in 2018 but can’t match the soulful bravura of the first one in 2015.
Probably because outside of the two main attractions here, everyone else feels like an afterthought, including Thompson and Wood Harris’s Tony Evers. The storytelling lacks that heft of original bare-knuckle magic when some moments beat too eerily of others in this series. Nine films have come and gone, so one’s complaints may have already seen the light. Does the film need Sylvester Stallone? No. But should it have gotten a clip of him reminding Adonis to stand up to his familiar demons? Debatable. Creed 4 will have to keep the bar soaring higher for us to forget this once was the backbone of Stallone’s catalog and now belongs to the next guard in Jordan.
The chiseled physique of Jordan and Majors brings valiance and rage to the screen, and it serves frenetically as it does to entertain. Jordan got a taste of success for the first time behind the camera; maybe he should strike the punching bag more often.