Creed III isn’t simply the first film in the Rocky franchise without Sylvester Stallone, it’s the first entry without the word “Rocky” in it. To be clear, this is Michael B. Jordan turning the page, not just for the franchise, but for his career, as this franchise installment doubles as his directorial debut. Jordan seems to be saying here that Rocky Balboa is firmly in the past, and that’s where he’ll stay. While Jordan’s creative instincts may prove correct— Creed III certainly doesn’t need the Rocky character—Stallone’s absence is felt, as there’s a missing element here without Rocky in Adonis’ corner.
But I digress.
Creed III finds Jordan’s Adonis enjoying retirement with his family—Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is married to him, is pivoting from singing into producing music as her daughter (Mila Davis-Kent), who is deaf, has been checking out her father’s boxing matches on YouTube when no one is looking and getting into fights of her own. [Potential spinoff alert!] Together, the Creed family overlooks the city from their mansion atop the Hollywood Hills as Adonis’s mother (Phylicia Rashad) recovers from a stroke at her longtime home, which she refuses to leave.
Adonis has traded his boxing trunks in for a suit and a post-boxing career as a successful businessman with his very own Ralph Lauren campaign. He’s also mentoring a new heavyweight champion named Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez) when an old friend reappears out of the blue, hungry for a title shot of his own. His name is Damian Anderson, and he has spent the past 18 years in prison for helping Adonis out of a jam when they were teenagers (he’s played by Spence Moore II and Thaddeus James Mixson Jr., respectively). Adonis never visited Dame in prison or wrote him a letter, and he hasn’t forgotten that slight in the slightest.
A top-rated amateur boxer when he was arrested, Dame has emerged from prison with a chip on his shoulder, as if the whole world owes him a debt. Adonis quickly offers him some money to help get him on his feet, but that’s not what Dame wants. He wants that title shot, and though he’s older than most contenders, he has a hunger they don’t. Of course, Adonis can’t just snap his fingers and give him an immediate title fight—those things take time. But time is the one thing that Damian can’t afford to lose. He’s lost enough time behind bars.
So when an opportunity presents itself, both men jump on the idea, though Adonis hasn’t really thought it through, and before long, things fall apart. And once Dame gets his hands on that championship belt, he knows he won’t need Adonis anymore, and that there’s nothing that can be done to stop it… Unless, of course, he laces up the gloves for one more fight.
At this point, I must bring up the actor who plays Damian—Jonathan Majors, who is absolutely riveting in the role. The man is positively electric, and he delivers the franchise’s best villain since Dolph Lundgren brought Ivan Drago to the big screen. I mean, can you even remember who Adonis fought in Creed? Exactly. Here, Majors crafts a villain who is allowed to be more than an obstacle, he gets to be an actual character.
It’s clear that Majors is a true movie star. Between this film, the Sundance movie Magazine Dreams (acquired by Searchlight), and to a lesser extent, his villainous turn as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumaniait’s, it’s clear he’s one to be reckoned with. There’s an incredible intensity behind his eyes, and yet a vulnerability in his voice and great sensitivity within his physically intimidating performance.
Producer Ryan Coogler, who directed the first film, came up with the story for Creed III before entrusting the script to his brother, Keenan Coogler, and Oscar winner Zach Baylin (King Richard). That team imbues Adonis and Dame’s relationship with a Shakespearean quality. There’s even an interesting twist halfway through this movie that reveals who Dame really is and how he planned to exploit Adonis’ guilt and take advantage of his generosity.
And yet, oddly enough, the epic showdown that Creed III builds to was a bit anti-climactic for my taste. Sure, the outcomes of these final fights have been predictable since before I was born, and I suppose that’s part of the franchise’s charm, but I think Jordan might have made a better movie had he taken a cue from Stallone’s original Best Picture winner. Though I wouldn’t call this one formulaic, it still adheres to a certain sports drama formula, though there are elements of a Cape Fear-esque thriller here as well. The crisp editing enhances that element and keeps the running time relatively tight (under two hours) while making each blow felt with the help of the film’s dynamic sound design.
Naturally, neither Adonis nor Dame is willing to back down from a fight, but only one of them can finish it, and unfortunately, the victor is never in doubt. Which is part of my problem with the movie. With the exception of Rocky’s absence, it just feels a little too safe to be truly daring, so while Creed III is ultimately satisfying, and certainly more so than Creed II, it’s never quite rousing, nor does it live up to the first film in the series.
Still, this debut shows promise from Jordan as a director. I just think that his role as a movie star got in the way here a little bit. For his next outing, he may want to stay behind the camera, as Ben Affleck did on Gone Baby Gone.
Like Tom Brady, Adonis Creed may slip back into retirement after this fight, but I have no doubt that Jordan will figure out a way to expand this universe, even if he’s not in the center of it going forward. After all, true fighters never stop punching.
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