Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Getting punchy


Directed by Michael B. Jordan
Written by Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, and Ryan Coogler

Spoilers: moderate

There were reasons to temper my expectations about Creed III, which was not, under any circumstance, likely to be a better movie than Creed II, a move that's not lost any of its luster for me and, were I to do it now, would probably show up on my Best of the 2010s list.  So you see where I'm coming from, I'm that one guy (though A.O. Scott liked it too!) who really dug Rocky IV redux.  But it was some Goddamn amazing Rocky IV redux: beautifully directed, startlingly empathetic, fantastically performed, and very smart, bound up in splendidly staged mythic action and all about punching Vladimir Putin in the face, so maybe it actually genuinely is better now, though I have been for that since at least 2016.  If "being the best political film of the Trump Era and possibly the only great one" is an exceedingly low bar, Creed II leapt over that bar, telling a story about demigods with human hearts fated to battle, while, almost incidentally, but never accidentally, was it even an allegory.  And sure, Creed, the original legacy sequel (what a gunky phrase), is also pretty great.  (I also remember liking Rocky IV, for what that's worth.)  Now we have Creed III, and for the third time the series welcomes a new director, with Steven Caple Jr. having elected to seek his fortune withohthe Transformers franchise, presently on its sixth sequel, so maybe I won't actually be following Caple's career.

Those duties were instead passed to, or were eagerly seized upon, I don't know the story, by Michael B. Jordan, our Adonis Creed, in his directorial debut; and there was no reason to be worried about that, only to be disappointed because Caple had done such a sterling job, as neither series originator (and still producer, and story writer) Ryan Coogler nor Caple themselves had much of a track record that said "we're AAA franchise filmmakers" when they did Creed and Creed II, respectivelyand while the Creeds are by any definition AAA franchise films, alone amongst our collapsing universe of e-ticket IPs you actually can reasonably call them "medium-sized" in terms of their physical production, so the learning curve is gentlerbut, for that matter, Sylvester Stallone didn't have that track record himself when he wrote Rocky.  Which brings that up, and as there's no profit in not mentioning immediately the one mistake this movie made before it even started, let's take on that elephant in the room right now: Creed III doesn't have Rocky Balboa in it, and whether you feel it's inherently bad that in this movie Donnie's mentor's mere existence is confined to a single reference that doesn't even acknowledge that particular relationship, let alone explain where he went or why Donnie would no longer seek his counsel or just his friendship, it's certainly bad in its application.  I don't know to what extent Stallone's screenplay credit mattered on Creed III guess now there's reason to think it mattered more than I imagined at the timebut he obviously doesn't get one here, and Creed II's presumptively at-least-as-important writer, Juel Taylor, didn't return, either,* nor did Creed II's story writers.

The story we get, then, is the kind of thing that feels slightly like a soft retcon, which we can take in stride in serial storytelling, as what it contrives to do is bring Donnie's past back to haunt him in the form of his old friend, from the bad days of his life before Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) brought her dead husband's bastard in from the cold.  This is Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), somehow both very overtly and weirdly obscurely presented as Donnie's "could have been," his "brother" (not in the co-ethnic sense but in the sense of being the most important figures in each other's lives, and prepare yourself for more "bros"-per-minute dialogue than Avatar 2) from the group home that Donnie started life in.  ("Why didn't you do this premise instead?" is the shittiest imaginable criticism, and I'm not stating that it would have been better, but the trailers did make it seemto me anyhowlike their brotherhood was much more literal, and Damian was the child of Apollo Creed that Mary Anne did not save.)

Damian and Donnie (Spence Moore II and Thaddeus J. Mixon as their junior versions) got themselves into trouble back then, but only Damian faced consequences; eighteen years later, Donnie is the retired heavyweight champion of the world, and Damian is just now getting out of prison.  Damian had dreamed of boxing stardom for himselfhe was as big an influence on Donnie's destiny as Apollo had been, it turns outbut these dreams were, to reapply a phrase, deferred, though he is not apt to accept that they've been dashed entirely.  He comes to Donnie to help him launch a career, and Donnie agrees, much to the bewilderment of trainer Little Duke (Wood Evers).  Yet it is only through an accident of circumstancedefinitely an accidentthat Damian gets the chance to do battle with the current heavyweight champ Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.), and, to the amazement of all, Damian rips that title off himroughly, too, for Damian is not above cheating more brazenly than a Drago.  And so it is up to Donnie to rise to the challenge, getting off his couch and back into fighting shape, to restore the honor of his sport.

I'll start with something very complimentary: this is the Creed with the best photographywhich is to say, the most saturated color reproductionand while extreme dimness set off by saturated colors in the ring was a cognizable visual scheme in Creed and especially Creed II (and so, by the same token Creed III has no access to it), the severe bimodality of those films is the one thing I've ever quibbled with because "boxing movies" or not, boxing is only, like, 20% of their runtimes at a maximum, so they could look a little too glum for too long.  Given that Creed III did bring Kramer Morgenthau back as DP, this wasn't some automatic decision by the cinematographer.  Jordan wanted his movie to be more colorful, maybe even to acknowledge a more content Donnie, and I appreciate that.

I don't have many more compliments, and I suppose even that one was slightly alloyed with a complaint, and they could only get more backhanded going forwardthis is the shortest Creed, and as a dedicated opponent of runtime creep, I appreciate that, too.  But we run into an immediate problem in that it sure doesn't feel like it is.  It feels like that plot summarized above doesn't actually start till practically an hour in (with only 56 minutes including credits left to go), and while that's not strictly true (Damian, even the adult, Majors version, is probably introduced by the half hour mark), it very much takes its time gearing up.  One danger with actors directing is that they will set themselves up for big reelworthy histrionics, yet to a shocking degree Michael B. Jordan seems to care less about directing his star than his predecessors did.  Jordan has proven two films in a row that he knows his character inside and out, but Donnie feels like he's being weirdly sidelined as a way to reflect the stasis of retirement, even though by any objective metric he's never sidelined from the narrative, being in virtually every single scene in the film.  That first hour is therefore very sleepy and aimless.

This is not to say it's devoid of anything agreeableany beloved film series, and I love the Creeds, can stand to amble around with its beloved characters being happy for a whileand I suppose I don't have any hard objection to the most memorable scene of the first hour of a boxing movie being Jordan dressing up like a dragon plushie to take tea with his daughter (Mila Davis-Kent), though I've pretty much already described what's actually memorable about it.  It's just all this interstitial stuff, marking time till Damian can kick off the second act (it does replicate the two-act structure of Creed II), and if it thinks it's found a dynamic with which to replace its missing Jordan/Stallone rapport with Tessa Thompson's wife and mom Bianca, it's wrong (and even more than that implies, because Thompson is on autopilot without even the meaningful side-stuff of the last film, yet with more screentime to fill with what she does have), and it's definitely not replacing it with Florian Munteanu, because sometime between then and now Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago became pals, which, if you're doing that (and it is in fact cool), should be a much bigger part of this movie.  The brightest spot is Evers, who for once actually has a conflict to play with Little Duke, though he's underutilized.  Jordan, though, feels strangely isolated, some of which has a resonance ("going through the motions of life because life is lived in the ring"), but it's not something Jordan stresses as a director or actor, or even that the screenplay mentions more than offhand.

The engine, you'd assume, would be Majors, and this is where Creed III really just can't find its keys: Damian is inflicted upon the movie at right angles to everything, which is a strategyhe is, after all, the antagonistbut in the absence of Donnie having any drama besides kind of wondering why he never bothered seeing his bro in prison (an explanation being eventually profferred that isn't especially satisfying, or flattering to his character, which I'm not sure anyone realized), you'd think the script would rest itself on Majors as a source of energy, and it just doesn't, barely giving him scenes where he is not directly attached to Jordan.  (So maybe there is some director/star synergy going on here, just not the useful kind.)  What Damian is like outside of Donnie is a mystery, which is deflating after Creed II considering it managed to elevate the Dragos to damn near deuteragonists with their own fully-worked-out, sympathetic emotions, personalities, and lives.  Majors is at least good when he's actually here, doing some curiously precise work, especially early on, as he stiffly reconnects with his old life with a sort of brusque politeness that you can see is costing him enormous amounts of self-controlhe's perhaps less interesting later once he dispenses with it as unnecessary, and evolves into a braggadocious jerkbut for Majors it's a restrained performance, and one where you feel the restraint as a major factor in it.  (But then, on the Donnie front, there's a really annoying strain in this script that trots out "Donnie and Damian were beaten in group home" as a reveal, explaining Donnie's motivation for starting a fight that Damian finished, and paid for, and I would bet an Internet dollar some draft of this script went for "sexual abuse" but they blinked, but nobody reconstituted the script to just get this exposition outpretty obvious stuff already, that doesn't even really need to be expositedwithout dribbling it out over the film, set against a backdrop of Donnie's shame, so unaccountably extreme that Damian balks at telling Bianca, and Donnie has to make a quasi-therapeutic breakthrough to tell her.)

The good news is that it eventually finds a damn track to be on, and working from time-tested template, a template perhaps perfected by Jordan's predecessors, nobody's fucking up anything to do with the Creed franchise's customarily awesome training montages and boxing matches, though by no means does this mean they're on the same level.  Jordan knows his character, but maybe not his movies, and I wonder how much of a reflection it is of the technical skills of an actor upon the storytelling here, particularly an actor who had to learn much nuts-and-bolts boxing to act in these movies, but in any case, while Creed II was about punching water and punching fire and sprinting into infinity, Creed III is about "control," something always dutifully noted in these movies but always allowed to drift away against the downright spiritual spectacle of Donnie Creed's sheer will, even his very psychological contradictions, proving the truer sources of his strength.  Hence, this is a movie where he wins the heavyweight title from his old rival "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) in another basically-interstitial scene (in fairness, it exists to provide some early action) with bullet time tricks lifted from Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, of all things.  I do not, however, despise the more analytical, tactical approach this film takes to its sport, though I may wish that this had been Damian's specific gimmickhe's all about identifying the sources of his opponents' power and chipping away at them over time, not without meaning for a character for whom time stood still for so long, and the damage he does adds upin addition to his blatant cheating, used as much as a tool of psychological domination.

So it absolutely has moments where it sings, above all a striking and surprisingly long stretch in the finale that might be the most outright expressionistic gesture in a major American movie in memoryit literalizes the intimacy of Donnie and Damian's combat, removing in a couple of jarring edits all the spectators and noise, leaving only these erstwhile brothers stranded in what feels like a world made solely to contain their battleand in this climactic bout, Jordan and Majors are wonderfully intense, no notes.  But even then I can't be nice all the way: for it gets, like, full-on specifically symbolic, in a way that I wouldn't call an overreach if it didn't come off like Jordan had just the one blunt metaphoric prop to bring out in an admirably bold gesture, and then ran out of ideas because they haven't really established that much of a character for Damian, or even that much of a relationship between the two besides the cosmic unfairness one of them represents.  It does work, and works increasingly well as it goes along, ending strong, which is the correct sequence if a large part of it is not going to work.  But even with tempered expectations, I'm not sure it quite met those.

Score: really stuck between the hardest 6/10 possible and a 7/10

*Though in his case, I can look forward to his next film, They Cloned Tyone, also a directorial debut.

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