What is it about the Rocky series that has allowed it to not only endure, but to thrive over its storied fifty-year legacy? Certainly the appeal of underdog narratives and the thrill of onscreen sparring plays a role, but its appeal likely goes deeper than that. Rocky, and its modern extension in Creed, has reflected the world it inhabits, and mirrors it back to a willing audience: the scrappy survival needed in a post-Watergate world; the ramping up of the Cold War in Rocky IV; and now Creed’s dissection of race and class in the 21st century.
Creed III, the latest film in the series and Michael B. Jordan’s first outing as a director, continues the series’ blend of commentary and commercial appeal. And thanks to Jordan’s competent direction and one of the series’ greatest characters to date, the film more than delivers on both fronts.
After almost a decade at the top of the boxing world, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has finally retired on top. He now lives in Los Angeles with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), where he coaches and manages a gym dedicated to training future heavyweight champions. However, Donnie’s life is turned upside down by the appearance of Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), Donnie’s friend and mentor from the group home before he was taken in by his stepmother (Phylicia Rashad).
Years ago, Damian was the hotshot rising star of the boxing world, before the two got into a traumatic incident that left Damian behind bars. Wanting the life he feels was stolen from him, Damian is willing to do anything – no matter how horrific – to earn the championship belt. And as is the case when emotions and egos run high, this puts the former friends on a collision course only the ring can solve.
The Creed series has managed to elevate this franchise back to its heyday thanks to its ability to tap into the most primal and emotional stories humanity knows. This is a story about friendships, class differences, the hubris of success, all tackled through a Biblical lens of tragically feuding brothers. Perhaps the greatest trick writers Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin accomplish is inverting the notion of who we’re rooting for and why.
In many ways, Damian is more of a Rocky Balboa-esque underdog than Adonis has ever been. Despite a rough childhood, Adonis spent many years living with his millionaire father’s widow, received a college education, and used his family name and clout to not only escape his own past failures and flaws, but to make his dreams come true. He’s a lovable, likable hero, to be sure. But Damian was born in poverty, served prison time, and saw his dreams continuously torn asunder as he watched from afar. Like Rocky, he’s a societal outcast trying to just survive on civilization’s fringes. And by challenging us to question who we root for and to see the inherent tragedy in their battle, Creed III tells one of the saga’s most compelling stories to date.
Of course, the film also hinges on the abilities of Jordan as a first-time director. Thankfully, his accomplishments far outweigh his shortcomings. Jordan truly understands that the emotional core of these movies aren’t the fights, but the lived-in, true-to-life characters that inhabit it. This ranges from Donnie and Bianca’s palpable chemistry, to moments where Donnie teaches his deaf daughter how to box – staged in stunning, emotionally rich silence – to the juxtaposition of Donnie and Damian as two sides of the same coin. Jordan consistently uses the camera and editing to mirror the former friends’ plight and journeys, and to show both how similar and different they are at the same time. It is expert staging, impressive from a first-time filmmaker.
In fact, the film’s few missteps that keep it from reaching the heights of, say, the series’ most iconic outings, can easily be attributed to the actor-turned-filmmaker’s greenness. For example, there’s a prologue that goes on for too long – especially considering it is mostly repeated in flashbacks later in the film. The screenplay feels rushed, as if scenes or moments were left on the cutting room floor. It’s bad enough in a nostalgia sense for a Rocky/Creed movie to cut its training sequences (the staple of the franchise), yet it makes even less sense here, as Donnie hasn’t boxed for at least three years at this point in the movie.
And speaking of the boxing in this boxing movie, I have very mixed feelings about Jordan’s staging of these moments. On the one hand, the choreography and cinematography surrounding the matches are excellent – not to mention as emotionally rich as you could hope for. And yet, they also possess telltale signs of over-direction. An early fight seems copped straight from the boxing scene from Guy Ritchie’s stylized Sherlock Holmes, complete with unnecessary slow-mo.
Meanwhile, to represent the emotions of the final match, we get a series of fantastical avant-garde breaks from reality. Some of which, like the slowed-down effect of sweat propelled from a punched person’s body, are magical. Others, like a literal prison cell surrounding a seemingly-empty arena, defeat the purpose of the moment. These are signs of a deft, creative hand, to be sure. But a great filmmaker must know when to pull back on the eccentricities, and it seems Jordan is still learning this lesson.
Still, it’s hard to beat this film up too much (har har), especially given the performances by the cast. Jordan and Thompson have always been solid anchors for this franchise, and it continues to show here. They are just so lived-in in these roles feeling real and honest the way Rocky and Adrian once did. It’s hard to say anything other than “they’re great.” Ditto Phylicia Rashad, who always brings her A-game, and Creed is no exception. Wood Harris is solid as mentor/coach Little Duke, while Davis-Kent makes for a cute-enough precocious kid.
Obviously, I have been holding back on discussing Jonathan Majors, and for good reason. All you can do whenever he shows up in a film, whether he’s playing a naïve conscience, a swaggering cowboy, or a multidimensional despot, is watch him fly and quietly mutter “holy f*ck” to yourself. Majors is invested in this role, filled with hurt pride, palpable desperation, and a broken soul. He’s just enough of a macho assh*le to continue to root for Adonis, but compelling enough you may consider changing allegiances. He’s arguably the best antagonist in any Rocky movie ever (assuming Apollo doesn’t count), and it’s yet another stepping stone on Majors’ rise to superstardom.
Ultimately, Creed III is a serviceable, entertaining, emotional entry in a series we all know and love. Nine entries in, it’s hard to find any new praise to provide the film. And yet, there are equally as few detractions as well. Quite frankly, if your largest complaint with a film is “I could have lived in this world with these characters a bit longer,” that’s a pretty decent problem to have. Creed III certainly isn’t the best film in either the Rocky or Creed franchises. But it scratches an itch and tells a compelling, emotional story in an exciting, eventful way. What more could you want in a sports movie?
Creed III is now playing in theaters