REVIEW: Creed III (2023)

Jonathan Majors as ‘Diamond’ Damian Anderson in CREED III — PHOTO: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Warner Bros. Pictures / United Artists Releasing.

Directed by Michael B. Jordan — Screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin.

It would be fair to say that Michael B. Jordan is, to a certain extent, following in the footsteps of Sylvester Stallone. Not only has he taken over as the lead of the Rocky franchise, which is now spearheaded by Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis “Donnie” Creed, but his films have followed similar patterns as Stallone’s Rocky films. With Creed III, the extent to which Jordan is following in his footsteps has reached a new level with Jordan taking on directing duties just as Stallone eventually did for one of his most beloved franchises, which he appeared to exit at the end of Creed II (I thought it was a sweet ending to his story, though it sounds like he isn’t happy about the series moving on without him). Ryan Coogler’s Creed was a beautiful and moving knockout blow, Steven Caple, Jr.’s Creed II was solid but formulaic (and felt too much like a sequel to Rocky IV), and, now, Michael B. Jordan’s Creed III is similarly formulaic but it is also a strong and satisfying response to some of the reservations that I had about Creed II

Creed III takes place at a time when Adonis (played by Michael B. Jordan) has been retired for a couple of years. He ended his career at the very top of boxing, and he then decided to step out of the ring to become a family man. When we find Adonis in the present day, he’s passed out on the couch of his very modern mansion and being woken up by his daughter, Amara (played by Mila Davis-Kent), who you may remember inherited her mother’s hearing disorder. When he isn’t at home with Amara and Bianca (his wife played by Tessa Thompson), Adonis runs the Delphi Boxing Academy and is in the process of readying the current world champion for a fight against Viktor Drago (played by Florian Munteanu). That’s when an old acquaintance walks back into Adonis’ life. Enter “Diamond” Damian ‘Dame’ Anderson (played by Jonathan Majors). Dame, Adonis’ childhood best friend, was just released from prison and he strongly desires to get back into the ring, as he was a champion in his younger years, back when Adonis was basically carrying his gloves for him. To Dame, Adonis has the life he was always meant for, and Adonis feels guilt over the direction Dame’s life headed in when they were kids. So, naturally, Adonis welcomes Dame into the Delphi Boxing Academy, but Dame, who is older than Adonis, is so desperate to claim Adonis’ life that he goes about securing a fight the wrong way. Soon Adonis will have to put on the gloves once more to stop Dame’s mean streak and make him understand how he feels about their shared trauma. 

At the end of my review of Creed II, I wrote: “It’s time for Adonis to fight his own battles, not just those that the existence of the Rocky Balboa-franchise force upon him. This ought to be the final passing of the torch from Balboa to Creed. Go your own way, Adonis.” I didn’t write this because I didn’t want Rocky Balboa in his films (I really love Rocky and I also love the character in the two Creed films). I wrote that because it felt to me like Creed II was too indebted to Rocky IV. The truth is that almost all modern fistic films will be indebted to Stallone’s Rocky franchise (or Scorsese’s Raging Bull), but I wanted the stories about Adonis Creed to center on fights that define him and not just fights that follow up on what happened to his father. So, how does Creed III go about carving its own legacy? Well, it mostly does a good job here, but it should also be said that it doesn’t manage to escape the familiar formulaic structure of the Rocky films. The skeletal pattern here is something you’ve seen before. We’ve seen Rocky Balboa get out of retirement to have one final fight before. Adonis does that very thing here. To add to that, yes, there are still similar training montages and the like. Here Adonis doesn’t run up the steps in Philadelphia, instead, he runs to the very top of Mount Lee in Los Angeles, California, and they have this helicopter shot of him above the iconic Hollywood sign (which works well in a number of ways, including the fact that ‘Hollywood’ was once his character’s nickname).

And yet I do think that Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut manages to go ‘its own way’ in significant ways that are both tied to the story and the cinematic language. Michael B. Jordan has made it no secret that he is absolutely obsessed with anime, and his anime sensibilities have made their way to his cinematic language, at the very least when it comes to action. There is a gut punch at one point that might as well have featured in Dragon Ball Z, just as there are other fight and action references to anime. In the film’s final fight, there is even this moment when the entire audience surrounding the ring at Dodgers Stadium disappears, all of the noise disappears, and all we see are the two fighters against one another (there are even shots of them visualizing each other as teens — since that’s when they were the best of friends). It’s not exactly subtle, but there is even a moment when the boxing ring ropes turn into prison bars. It is a different look and expression than your average Rocky film, and I like that Jordan dared to insert his own signature interests into his directorial debut (there’s also a focus on showing how each blow is deliberately chosen by intelligent fighters). It’s not as safe as you might’ve feared when it comes to its cinematic language. To add to this, the use of sound effects also heightens the impact of the blows (the sharp and harsh sound when one character removes his mouthguard stood out to me).

It also helps that they have finally decided to give Michael B. Jordan a worthy foe. For both the first and second films, Jordan primarily fought against actual fighters (i.e. Jordan was pitted against fighters who were asked to act). For Creed III, they’ve hired Jonathan Majors, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the great actors of his generation. Majors has the body of a Greek god, is believable in the ring, and, on top of this, he delivers an electric and nuanced performance. His is a character you really understand, and who I’d love to see more of. Majors and Jordan are terrific in the film, and the power of their competing duo helps to immerse you completely in the film, even when the noticeably fake CGI-backgrounds threaten to distract you from what you are watching. Those backgrounds are not my only qualms about the film, though. There is a subplot involving Phylicia Rashad’s character that felt underdeveloped and/or unnecessary.

It is a film about a great many things such as repressed trauma and guilt, and about seeing someone else get to live your life (it’s not just Damian who has this experience). To add to that, it’s also a film about talking about your feelings and men’s insistence on not doing that. Damian and Adonis need to hash things out, but they take it to the extreme to avoid confronting their own vulnerabilities. Inside the ring — as is illustrated by the fight scene where the audience disappears — it is just the two of them exorcising their own demons. There is certainly also something to be said about communicating with your fists. This and the previous film go to great lengths to help normalize Bianca and Amara’s conditions, and this film sees Amara being interested in not just using her hands to communicate ASL but also to express her innermost frustrations with her fists, which makes her study her father. 

Ryan Coogler caught lightning in a bottle with the sublime first Creed film, which I don’t think either of its sequels has gotten close to being as effective as. But Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut does exactly what it had to do after Steven Caple, Jr.’s Rocky IV-focused sequel. Jordan’s Creed III does stick closely to the established formula that the Rocky franchise was built upon, but Creed III is at its best when it tries to be something distinctly Creed-centric. Michael B. Jordan’s promising directorial debut doesn’t reinvent the franchise, but it presents you with the trilogy’s pound-for-pound best and most interesting antagonist (who is brought to life excellently by a powerful Jonathan Majors), as well as with the anime-inspired final fight with which Jordan tries to dust the cobwebs off the well-worn franchise and instead insert his own signature style. 

7.9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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