Michael B Jordan and Jonathan Majors face off in this worthy addition to the boxing franchise, with Jordan also making his energetic and intense directorial debut.
March 02, 2023
Punching has never been what matters most in the Creed movies, no matter how fast and furiously fists frequently fly. One of the key things that's always set this boxing franchise apart — with its first instalment landing in 2015 and sequel Creed II hitting in 2018 — is its focus on character and emotion first and foremost, including favouring both above going round for round in the ring. Blows are traded, obviously. Bouts are fought, bruises inflicted, bones broken and titles won. But the Creed saga has kept swinging again and again, leading to latest instalment Creed III, because it's still about its namesake, who he is as a person, and his feelings, demons and conflicts. When you have Michael B Jordan (Just Mercy) leading a series — even when it's a part of the broader Rocky series, or perhaps especially when that's the case — you give him the room to dig deep. You also give him weighty material to bear, as well as the space to bare Adonis 'Donnie' Creed's soul.
Jordan gives himself that room, weight and space in Creed III, in the actor's first stint as a director. Notching up a ninth chapter for the overall saga that dates back to 1976's three-time Oscar-winner Rocky, this is also the first film to sport either that character or Creed's moniker but not feature Sylvester Stallone on-camera — or his involvement beyond a producer credit. Creed III is all the better for Rocky Balboa's absence, despite Stallone turning in his best performance yet in the initial Creed film. Understanding what it means to move on and openly unpacking what that truly entails is something else this franchise-within-a-franchise has long gotten right. So, Donnie has moved on from struggling with his father's legacy, and from his need to live in the past. He has another date with history, but Jordan and screenwriters Keenan Coogler (Space Jam: A New Legacy) and Zach Baylin (King Richard) — with a story also credited to the original Creed's director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) — aren't just mindlessly repeating the series' pattern.
Creed III begins by going back to where Donnie's story started on-screen — actually, by venturing even further back, meeting him as an idolising teen (Thaddeus J Mixson, The Wonder Years). It's 2002, he lives in a group home, and the slightly older Damian 'Dame' Anderson (Spence Moore II, AP Bio) is a best friend as close as a brother, his mentor, and also a boxing prodigy. But a night showered in glory turns traumatic and violent, ending with Dame being incarcerated for the best part of two decades. Jump to the film's present, where Donnie has thrown in the gloves but remains tied to his chosen sport thanks to his Los Angeles boxing gym, plus managing a stable of champions and hopefuls. Jump, too, to Dame (Jonathan Majors, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) resurfacing fresh out of prison, wanting not just to reconnect but a title shot.
The Rocky and Creed world sure does love an underdog. That's Dame, with only adolescent boxing achievements on his resume, but a certainty that he should challenge Donnie-managed reigning victor Felix Chavez (IRL pro boxer Jose Benavidez) for the belt. Even with plenty of its attention floating like a butterfly to the past, and stinging like a bee in what it sees, the movie wouldn't progress from there, of course, if its titular figure could himself resist the little guy — in the sport's hierarchy, not in stature. A hallmark of all things Rocky and Creed has always been giving the up-and-comer a go, as happened with Balboa and as he provided Donnie. So, true to the template but never only making itself about that tried-and-tested template, Creed III follows suit.
This threequel-slash-ninequel isn't handing over the spotlight to its latest contender, though, no matter how magnetic and compelling Majors reliably proves (see also: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Da 5 Bloods, Lovecraft Country and The Harder They Fall). He's Hollywood's current go-to for new villains in third efforts, and impressively so — particularly against the fellow heavyweight acting talent Jordan — but it's a touch unfortunate that Creed III drops in such short succession after the third Ant-Man rather than giving his efforts in both time to breathe. Inevitably, getting Jordan and Majors facing off in the ring, and getting Donnie back in the ring to do so, is a matter of when not if. The script obliges after Dame plays nice with Donnie's musician spouse Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Thor: Love and Thunder) and daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent, The Resident), who is deaf, but turns on his childhood pal on dime when he gets a taste of success and years of festering resentment bleeds out.
Jordan directs with tension, intensity, energy, heft and a welcome willingness to get trippy with fight scenes, as aided by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (The Many Saints of Newark) — and with pace to the requisite training and match montages, with help from editors Tyler Nelson (The Batman) and Jessica Baclesse (Breakwater). Creed III is visually and viscerally immersive and engaging; in the process, Jordan also crafts a movie that plots a showdown between hard work and entitlement. In one corner sits someone committed to the toil, and to earning his rewards. In the other lurks a force driven by believing he's owed, that his wins must be someone else's losses, that his enemies must suffer for him to be happy, and by spite and revenge. The Cooglers and Baylin layer in genuine and complicated reasons for Dame's bitterness towards Donnie, but never justify his unhealthy way of handling his emotions — something that the Creed films have spent two prior instalments working through with his target.
If a long-held grudge linked to childhood events sounds familiar, especially with Jordan involved, that's unsurprising. So should a suddenly arriving antagonist desperate to settle a score with someone enjoying power and prominence, plus duels over a throne of sorts. Jordan sparred through them all in Black Panther, which Ryan Coogler helmed after the first Creed (the pair's third collaboration, after 2013's exceptional Fruitvale Station before both). That leaves Creed III moving on from the Italian Stallion by following in footsteps other than its own franchise's — but still following in footsteps. It asks similar questions about masculinity, strength and heroism as Black Panther. It thrives on the dynamic between its two warring men, and on the performances the actors behind them give, too. It nods towards a different future for the saga as Wakanda Forever does as well. Also, it doesn't pack as hard a punch lingering beneath that shadow; Creed III is no knockout it's still a worthy bout.
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