‘Creed III’ does credit to the best of the Rocky saga as it breaks away

Round Three: Michael B Jordan stars in and directs ‘Creed III’.

CREED III *** (116 minutes) M
We all know by now that when we see two people in a ring smacking each other about for the amusement of a crowd it’s not a sport we’re watching, but a battle of wills where a host of bedrock values about self-respect, dignity, individuality and identity are at stake.

And it’s not just about winning the fight, as Rocky taught us so powerfully way back in 1976 when Sylvester Stallone redefined the nobility of the underdog when his iconic character was wrenched from his nobody status to slug it out with champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

The third go-round in the Creed sub-franchise of the six-film Rocky series is a solid, well-directed affair that does what all the best sequels have done thus far, which is to retell a variation on the basic Rocky story, with all the attendant themes about self worth, fighting back, defying the odds, facing down your adversaries and so forth.

Here we find Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan; also director) – son of Apollo Creed – challenged to get back into the ring by childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors from Quantumania), who has just finished an 18-year stretch in stir.

Dame seems quite tame until we inevitably learn that he has an aircraft carrier-sized chip on his shoulder. The dude has a lot of unfinished business he’s been dying to get to, most of which has to do with his deeply-set belief that Adonis abandoned him.

So there’s a strong streak of score-settling running through another strong Creed movie, along with a terrific B-story about Adonis being at odds with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) about how best to raise their lovely daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent),who is deaf and quite a fan of her daddy’s career.

In one of the film’s best moments, Amara deals with a school bully by deploying a technique learned from her father. It’s a crowd-pleasing scene that neatly sets up the thorny issue about whether kids should be taught to defend themselves physically in an unsafe world.

As well as putting in a typically fine, textured lead performance, Jordan registers a directorial debut that is solid and assured, eliciting strong performances across the board in a well-paced, punchy story that wears its predictability well.

It also feels like the film is eager to move the Creed story into its own cinematic space. Distracting Rocky references are kept to a minimum: Stallone (cited as a producer) appeared in the previous two films but is wisely absent here; there are but two fleeting, very well-judged narrative nods to the Rocky oeuvre, framing the legacy of Rocky & Apollo as a significant yet distant part of Adonis Creed’s pre-history.

They’re terrific touches, all the more effective for their brevity. Creed clearly wants to stand alone.

That said, you still can’t have a Creed movie without the mandatory inclusion of the Rocky theme, which rises above the crowd cheers in the film’s prolonged final bout. It’s truly amazing how that score still brings the chills. Such is the enduring power of tradition.

All up, Creed III is enjoyable and satisfying enough to make you look forward to Creed IV, which hopefully will pay homage to the magnificent Rocky IV by featuring a reference to Apollo’s final moments and a cameo from Rocky’s pet robot.