The ‘Rocky’ Movies Have Only Ever Been As Good As Their Bad Guys

United Artists/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

With his rock-solid physique and thousand-yard stare, ex-con Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors)—a one-time Gold Gloves hopeful who let the young Adonis Creed carry his gloves to tournaments—cuts the most imposing figure in the Rocky-verse in decades. Dame’s chip is more like a crater: As another character observes, “He’s fighting the world, and he’s trying to hurt somebody.” After serving 20 years in jail on a gun charge, he’s returned to the outside world looking to cave in some heads. His real specialty, though, is mind games. The first time we see him, he’s leaning against his childhood pal’s SUV, as if to indicate that it—along with all the other spoils of Donnie’s championship boxing career—belongs to him.

To be fair, Donnie’s got a nice spread, and Creed III makes the good life look pretty darn good. In making his feature directorial debut, Michael B. Jordan errs on the side of glossiness and also indulges in a bit of self-mythmaking; a shot of Donnie ending an intense training session by dancing on a mountaintop above the Hollywood sign neatly allegorizes the star’s ascent to the top of the industry A list. But as much as Creed III has been designed to give Jordan his big moments—including several tearful monologues and lots of cutesy shtick with his character’s daughter—it’s also been torqued as a showcase for Majors, an actor whose time is very much now. He’s got genuinely malevolent energy, and for the first hour or so, the story works as an odd sports-movie variation on Cape Fear, with Majors persuasively splitting the difference between James “Clubber” Lang and Max Cady. Peering out from sinisterly hooded sweatshirts, he accesses layers of shame and self-effacement, defense mechanisms that Dame’s applied to disguise his rage.

The mid-film plot twist by which Dame goes from a grateful hanger-on in the Creed camp to a potentially dangerous rival seems melodramatic (and unlikely) until you remember that this is a franchise in which Carl Weathers was once beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren in the aftermath of a James Brown concert. The real miracle of the first Creed was establishing a sense of gravitas without breaking faith with the series’ essential cheesiness, and Jordan deserves credit for continuing the balancing act here. The problem is that, having created a monster with realistic depth and shading, Creed III doesn’t do nearly enough with him. We know that Donnie’s going to fight him, and we understand why, but along the way, Dame disappears from the movie’s consciousness, and the tension goes with him.

The common denominator between the Rocky movies, as with the Bond universe, is that they’re usually only as good as their bad guys. Underwhelming opponents have unfortunately been a through line in the Creed films. For all its excellence as a character study of a young fighter shadowboxing his father’s legacy, Ryan Coogler’s first installment suffered slightly from the wan presence of former WBC cruiserweight champ Tony Bellew as the laddish U.K. pugilist “Pretty” Ricky Conlan. On a structural level, Coogler’s inversion of the original Rocky was ingenious: Instead of an arrogant, media-savvy Muhammad Ali manqué handpicking an obscure Italian palooka as a self-serving publicity stunt, we got a white champion choosing his foil exclusively on the basis of name recognition. But because Creed is so beautifully written and acted between Jordan and Sylvester Stallone—who really did deserve an Oscar—and attentive to larger currents of social and cultural resonance, it never develops Conlan into anything more than a plot device. It’s telling that when Bellew made a cameo early in Creed III, I didn’t even recognize him.

Perhaps out of a sense of occasion, Bellew isn’t the only Creed alum who shows up in Part 3. There’s also a welcome—and surprisingly pivotal—appearance by Florian Munteanu’s Viktor Drago. If the problem with “Pretty” Ricky was the lack of truly compelling characterization, Munteanu’s minimalist performance was very much by design; the premise of Creed II was that Drago Jr. had been shaped into a ruthless robot by his father, who’d been waiting out glasnost looking for a way to take revenge on Rocky and his camp. The mountainous Munteanu isn’t a bad actor by any means, but he’s overshadowed in his own breakthrough by Dolph Lundgren, whose cameo is the film’s clear highlight. Showing up unannounced at Rocky’s restaurant and noting his absence in the ringside snapshots lining the walls, he’s melancholy and menacing in ways that surpass his performance in Rocky IV without disavowing it. Always an underrated actor, Lundgren bridges the gap between the franchise’s past and present as skillfully as Stallone.

The Rocky IV version of Drago—the silent Soviet golem promising to break Rocky (and with him, the capitalist system)—was cited by critics as the culmination of the Rocky films’ procession from New Hollywood tenacity to Reaganite tackiness; recall that the film’s climax, set in Moscow, featured Rocky literally wrapping himself in the American flag. Anybody who thought that Drago was too much, though, should think about how memorable his Russian Terminator act was compared to the antagonist of Rocky V, Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison), a lummox whose vendetta against his former mentor culminated in an unsanctioned (and unconvincing) street fight. Or Antonio Tarver’s Mason “The Line” Dixon in Rocky Balboa—surely the worst actual boxer of the bunch, as he fails to dispatch a 60-year-old tomato can, and not a particularly vivid bad guy either.

If there’s one Rocky movie that offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to villains, it’s Rocky III, which has three: Two of them embody the brand’s outsized showmanship, and a third gives it some soul. The early set piece pitting Rocky against the gigantic professional wrestler Thunderlips is a wonderfully conceived piece of satire, implicitly mocking the franchise’s slippage from realism into spectacle while capturing Terry Bollea—a.k.a. Hulk Hogan—near the apex of his physical prowess and charisma. Looking impossibly youthful and blond, Hogan leans into his sleazy side in Rocky III, styling Thunderlips—who goes by “the Ultimate Male”—along the lines of his hero Gorgeous George while towering over Stallone like an Easter Island statue. Of course, Rocky overcomes the giant, but the sly joke is that Thunderlips doesn’t mind being beaten: He’s just trying to put on a show for the crowd. Somewhere, the Vince McMahon who would go on to blur the lines between “wrestling” and “sports entertainment” was smiling—a year later, he’d poach Hogan from AWA to join WWE en route to turning the latter company into an international juggernaut.

At the end of Rocky and Thunderlips’s match, the camera catches a face in the crowd—the face of a disgusted purist. What makes Laurence “Mr. T” Tureaud’s performance as Clubber Lang so indelible is that the character is all about boxing: He’s a student of the game who correctly intuits that Rocky has gone soft from palling around with talk-show hosts and Muppets. It helps that his dialogue is awesome: Ghostface Killah’s knockout 2004 single “The Champ” interpolates some of Clubber’s rants, and they hold up (“Don’t give this sucka a statue / Give him death!”). It’s important that Clubber shows up without much of a backstory beyond a montage of him laying out lesser fighters all in a row: He’s more like a manifestation of Rocky’s impostor syndrome, summoned to end his (and our) fantasies with one punch.

Nobody could claim with a straight face that Rocky III is a particularly subtle or sophisticated movie, but Stallone’s instincts as a dramatist are sound. The revelation that Burgess Meredith’s Mickey has been protecting his protégé by feeding him weak opponents is wonderfully acted by both parties: Meredith’s anguish and Stallone’s embarrassment are palpable. Mickey knows that Clubber is young, hungry, and indestructible and that he’ll knock Rocky into tomorrow—which he does in a scene that still satisfies some deep, schadenfreude-ish urge to see our superstars humbled.

Clubber’s obsessive will to dominance—hammered home by shots of him training in a squalid concrete apartment—gives Rocky III an edge in spite of its overall goofiness, and Jordan borrows some of those visual ideas in Creed III, including having Dame similarly use a doorframe as an exercise machine. But Mr. T is only the second-greatest thing about Rocky III—the top slot goes to Carl Weathers, who modulates the character of Apollo Creed so slowly and carefully that it’s one of American film’s greatest face turns. Rocky worked as a boxing movie because it was clear in the writing, the direction, and the choreography that its namesake was really only fractionally as skilled as his opponent, and that Apollo took him too lightly. That dynamic hovers over Apollo’s actions in Rocky III. Crucially, Weathers doesn’t soften him or turn him into a Good Samaritan: When he shows up at the halfway point to train the battered Italian Stallion, it’s less out of the goodness of his heart than out of some indirect and barely sheathed sense of indignance. He doesn’t think that Rocky’s a better boxer than him, but Apollo couldn’t beat him, even when he was in his prime. By that score, Clubber must be better than Apollo, too—and he won’t have that. Reviewing the film for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael noted that Weathers showed up Stallone in the latter’s own vanity project; when Apollo tells Rocky he needs to get “the eye of the tiger,” he’s really talking to himself. It follows that Rocky III’s true stand-up-and-cheer moment isn’t Rocky walloping Clubber into submission, but the coda, when our heroes decide to go one-on-one a final time, in an empty gym, with nobody watching and nothing at stake but bragging rights.

In one of the most beautifully acted exchanges in Creed, Rocky tells Donnie about the outcome of that fight, and that his father won. There’s just enough ambiguity in Stallone’s line reading to preserve the integrity of Rocky III’s closing freeze-frame. (The less said about Sly’s original plans for the Rocky-Apollo rematch, the better.) Jordan pays homage to Rocky III by shooting parts of the Donnie-Dame clash in an empty gym, even though in reality we know they’re in a sold-out arena, a boldly expressionistic choice that should push the movie to another emotional stratosphere. That it doesn’t—not quite—speaks to a certain indecision about whether to use Majors as a co-protagonist or just one more dragon for the hero to slay. Ultimately opting for the latter is a missed opportunity. The post-fight coda does leave the door open for Dame to return and maybe even develop into a character with his own long, worthy arc toward redemption. Let’s hope so, because anything less would be a waste.

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