The Third Time’s The Charm. Again.

In 1976, Sylvester Stallone vaulted from obscurity as a struggling New York actor into international prominence with his portrayal of Rocky Balboa, a journeyman Philadelphia boxer who earns a shot at the heavyweight championship.  The stirring Bill Conti soundtrack, the raw emotion that paralleled Stallone’s own personal journey through that of the earnest, family-loyal Balboa, and, naturally, the fact that he didn’t win the title made ROCKY a critical hit and rejuvenated the boxing movie genre that had been a staple of Hollywood going back to its earliest days (film buffs, if you haven’t yet seen the original 1931 version of THE CHAMP, you should).

ROCKY II was almost a necessary, but predictable, sequel, where Balboa indeed does beat his rival, Apollo Creed, in a rematch.  But it wasn’t until the third installment, with Stallone now an established talent in his mid-30s, where his true depth of talents were fully tapped into.  Acting as producer and director as well as star, the franchise takes a turn where Balboa, now successful and selective, has found an ever more imposing foe than was Creed, the menacing Clubber Lang.  Stallone’s ability to tap into the full range of Balboa’s conflict and determination, and highlight the sheer terror that Lang, as portrayed by Lawrence Tero, aka Mr. T., evoked in him took the character through a new set of challenges.  He turns to Creed as his mentor and trainer in the wake of the death of his original man in his corner, Mickey Goldmlll.  The Creed character evolved from villain to ally, ROCKY III was even more successful than its predesecessors, and assured it would be a franchise, one that has not only endured to this day, but now one that is now ready to finally break free even of ROCKY.

CREED III, being released in theatres today, is the first of the nine films in the Rocky-verse that will not feature Stallone’s Balboa (though he does retain a producing credit).  When the first CREED movie was released eight years ago, Stallone was very much present, now in the twilight of his life and a widower to his beloved Adrian, he mentors Adonis Creed,  the son that his late father never knew, and molds him into a champion boxer.  And in Michael B. Jordan, who had already caught many more eyes and plaudits with his roles on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and THE WIRE as a younger actor than Stallone did in his younger years, he had a true star on the verge of breaking out into superstardom.  Much as the first two ROCKYs established the arc and ultimately revolved around the actual fights, the first two CREEDs were similarly focused.  And while Jordan firmly established his hold on this new generation of films, the presence and legacy of Rocky was still very much in evidence.

Not this time.  This time, much as the case was with the third installment of ROCKY, the third installment of CREED finds the titular character successful and evolved.  And much as the case was when Stallone found an even more imposing villain on the cusp of becoming a cultural icon (Mr. T. followed up his breakout role with a hugely popular role on one of NBC’s few hit shows of the early 80s, THE A-TEAM, and became a pop culture phenomenon), Jordan has tapped Jonathan Majors at the right time to play a complex and compelling new character.  As Peter Travers of ABC’s GOOD MORNING AMERICA explained, Jordan and Creed have once again found cinematic gold at the right time:

Damian “Dame” Anderson, a childhood buddy who’s been in prison for nearly two decades for a robbery. Donnie skated away free while Dame—a former Golden Gloves contender— took the rap. This means a favor is owed and Dame is determined to collect.

Jordan needed a live wire to play Dame and he found him in sizzling newcomer Jonathan Majors, an Emmy nominee for “Lovecraft Country” who is currently killing it as the evil Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

Dame keeps his anger on a low flame. But Majors lets you feel him simmering inside as he re-enters the life of Donnie like a stalker, showing up at his gym, sparring with the new champ, and demanding his own shot at the title, first with Chavez and then Creed himself.

Jordan builds suspense that tightens until the tension is unbearable. And that’s even before the big fight, which Jordan stages with a close-up ferocity that will leave you ducking uppercuts in your seat.

If that sounds a lot like a ROCKY film, well, these two stills from each of the respective franchises’ third installments should reinforce that the comparisons are valid.

But make no mistake: this is Jordan’s film and the establishment of Creed’s arc.  A fan of anime, the climactic fight scenes have infused anime into the stylistic mix, highly appealing to the younger, urban audience that has embraced and evolved this franchise.

And Jordan has created an even more emotionally charged family man in the adult Creed than Rocky ever became, with the storyline of his struggle to connect with his deaf daughter tear-jerking and showing his range.  With this much at stake, it’s easy to understand the pressure that Dame has placed upon Creed, and how, much as Rocky needed to vanquish his father in order to move on, it becomes essential for Adonis to vanquish the demon Dame that now threatens his own world.

These are class struggles that resonate with a multicultural audience far more than any iteration of ROCKY ever did.  Such appeal is necessary for films to succeed theatrically these days in the U.S.   It’s poignantly apropos for a character named Creed to tap into issues that connect race, color and age as well as creed.  Particularly in these politically challenged times, a movie that is in theatres that appeals so broadly, and is so well-executed and filled with positive representation, is not only welcomed, it is absolutely needed.

Stallone has moved on, somewhat embittered personally, but clearly not forgotten.  As he emerges with his own relative success with TULSA KING, there’s sincere hope he will find a place in his heart to at least publicly acknowledge that Jordan has now followed his lead as a producer and creator, not to mention a timely identifier of a pop culture icon to be his co-star.  All indications from the MCU is that the KANG film that will star Majors, due for release in 2025, will be the shot in the arm that franchise needs, and will propel Majors to a level of fame Mr. T. never saw.  And, of course, some further potential for his character in this franchise as well.

Jordan’s already proven he’s more than worthy of shedding the trappings of his given name (he is no relation to, nor were his parents inspired to name him after, the basketball legend) and the shadow of Stallone.  He’s already been named People’s Sexiest Man Alive.  He also has MCU ties, with his recurring role in the BLACK PANTHER franchise at the ready.  And he’s absolutely outstanding in this go-around, both in front of and behind the camera.

A mentor of mine cemented in me the crucial nature of the third time anything is tried.  If something succeeds once it could be a phenomenon.  If it succeeds twice it could be a coincidence.   If it succeds three or more times it’s a hit.

Consider CREED a knockout.  And consider Michael B. Jordan closer to becoming his own version of GOAT.

Until next time…

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