Can you have a Rocky film without Rocky?

Creed III ★★★
(M) 117 minutes

Officially, Creed III is the ninth chapter in the long-running Rocky saga. But the original hero, unlikely heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa, is out of sight and barely referenced, reportedly due to a falling-out between Irwin Winkler, the producer of the series, and Sylvester Stallone, its creator and star.

Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, left) faces off with childhood friend and rival Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors), in Creed III.

As compensation, this leaves room to appreciate Creed III as a pretty good standalone boxing melodrama, at least for the first two thirds.

Set a few years on from the events of Creed II, the story again focuses on Rocky’s sometime protégé Adonis “Donnie” Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan, who does a capable job taking over as director for this instalment).

Now a boxing legend in his own right, Donnie also happens to be the son of Rocky’s original rival, the late Apollo Creed, previously played by Carl Weathers. But familiarity with any of this lore is not required: the main points are spelled out for us, verbally and visually.

Donnie, like Rocky, has had to fight his way up from the streets (in his case, those of Los Angeles rather than Philly). But where Rocky was never able to stay on top for long, Donnie has ceased to be recognisable as any kind of outsider.

Having retired at the top of his game, he remains wealthy, famous and seemingly at ease in every situation, whether he’s sweet-talking his music producer wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), having tea parties with his young daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), or mentoring new fighters alongside his business partner Little Duke (Wood Harris).

But he’s caught off-guard by the re-emergence of his childhood friend “Diamond” Dame Anderson, (Jonathan Majors), a once-promising fighter who’s spent most of the last two decades in prison. Despite his advanced age, Dame still dreams of making it to the big time, and knows how to guilt-trip Donnie into helping him out.

Mulling it over, Donnie has to admit the long odds against Dame might be good for business: after all, everyone loves an underdog story. Dame, however, soon starts looking like the wrong kind of underdog, the kind found in thrillers from the 1990s, where a picture-perfect family is gatecrashed by a dangerous outsider.

This is proving to be a big year for Majors, also on screens as the deceptively soft-spoken Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Dame is a complex figure, more so in a way than the film requires. His anger and pain are too vivid for credible redemption, but nor can he be reduced to a simple bad guy to be defeated.

Nonetheless, the conventions of the series dictate there has to be a climactic fight, even if it seems unlikely to lead to any form of resolution, let alone healing. A Rocky film without Rocky was always going to be a challenge, so it’s not too surprising the ending doesn’t work, either as a revisionist take on the material or as a desperate bid to maintain the status quo.

Creed III is in cinemas from March 2.

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