Creed III – Review

Back in 2015, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the release of the film Creed.  The film was a revival and continuation of the famed series of Rocky movies starring Sylvester Stallone.  It was a franchise that quite honestly had been in sharp decline over the years, though many fans will acknowledge the 6th film Rocky Balboa (2006) was a satisfying final note to leave the series on.  To keep going with not only another film, but another film without Rocky himself as the lead seemed foolish, but some brave filmmakers with a vision did come forward to take on the challenge.  Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler surprisingly chose to take on a new Rocky movie for his sophomore project after getting positive notices for his first film, Fruitvale Station (2013).  But instead of making the movie about the famed former boxer, he instead chose to make it about the son of Rocky’s first challenger and eventual friend, Apollo Creed.  But, Rocky would not be forgotten either, and instead he would have the roles reversed this time, playing the part of mentor as he uses all of his years in the ring to give the younger Creed the kind of training he needed to become a champion just like his father.  As a result, this was exactly the kind of story the Rocky franchise needed to become relevant again.  Audiences, both long time fans and newcomers to the series, fully embraced this new twist on the Rocky franchise, and the movie became a box office hit, as well as a critical success.  It even helped to put Stallone back in the spotlight, with him earning an Academy Award nomination for the first time since the original Rocky (1976) forty years prior.  The movie also propelled it’s leading man Michael B. Jordan to new heights as a movie star, and it also helped director Ryan Coogler get the most ideal job in the world for a filmmaker of color at the time.

Building off his success with Creed (2015), Coogler was wooed over to Marvel to be the one in charge of bringing it’s ground-breaking Black Panther franchise to the big screen.  With his time now being taken up working on this massive new project, it seemed like Creed would stand as a one and done revival of the Rocky franchise.  But, the franchise’s stakeholders, MGM Studios, had other ideas.  Plans were immediately started for Creed II, but this time it would be made without Ryan Coogler at the helm.  Some believed that this was a mistake, since much of the reason why Creed worked so well in the first place was because of Coogler’s unique vision, and doing a sequel without him might end up spoiling the franchise as a whole, right after they had successfully brought it back to life.  Still, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone committed to returning for the sequel, and despite not being in the director’s chair, Coogler still was involved as a producer.  Remarkably, in the hands of new director Steven Caple, Jr., they not only managed to make a sequel that didn’t ruin the franchise, but in many ways it actually was as good as the first Creed film.  Creed II (2018) worked as well as it did because it found the right angle to take in it’s story.  It very much involves Rocky even more in the story, as an adversary from his past, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren making a return to the role) has been training his own son to fight and he now has his sights set on defeating the young Creed in the ring as a way of getting revenge on Rocky.  This battle of wits between the trainers gave this extra bit of weight not just to the film, but to the franchise as a whole, as it helped to bring the whole life and career of Rocky into the context of this new revival, making the whole series relevant again.  Certainly, the success of a sequel ensured that there would be more films down the line as well, but with Coogler still working within the Marvel family on his own sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2023), questions arose over who would be the one to keep the series going.  The answer, in many ways, was history repeating itself, as Michael B. Jordan would follow again in Stallone’s footsteps and step behind the camera himself for the sake of the franchise with this third installment titled easily enough Creed III (2023).

Not long after defeating Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) in the ring, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) further solidifies his status as the greatest boxer of his generation, becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, Adonis decides to retire from professional boxing in order to focus on his family and business.  Managing his gym, he’s now the one bringing up the next generation of fighters, continuing the legacy that Rocky had instilled in him.  At the same time, he is supporting his wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) music career, as well as being an involved dad in the life of his hearing impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).  One day at his gym, a face from his past makes an unexpected visit.  Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) was a one time close friend of Adonis’ back when they were both taking part in amateur matches in their youth.  However, their lives together parted ways after Damian was arrested for possession of a firearm and he was given a harsh sentence based on his prior record.  Now out of prison, Damian hopes to rekindle their dormant friendship and Adonis is very willing to welcome him back into his life.  He invites Damian to spar at his gym with the professional boxers that train there.  However, Damian fights far more aggressively than the other boxers, which alarms the head trainer there Little Duke (Wood Harris).  Sharing concern about Damian’s return is Adonis’ adoptive mother Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who always saw him as a bad influence.  Still, Adonis keeps giving his friend second chances, but over time, Damian’s alternative motives are revealed, and Adonis realizes the only thing to stop Damian’s unethical rise is to step back in the ring himself.  But, have the years out of practice made Adonis too vulnerable and unable to compete at that level now?

Taking on the role of director for a franchise with this kind of legacy without any prior experience is certainly a tough job to undertake.  This is a nearly 50 year long franchise that is beloved by millions all over the world.  But, Michael B. Jordan has certainly had the best possible tutors around to teach him everything there is to know about making a movie like this.  Ryan Coogler, Jordan’s closet collaborator who has cast him in every movie he has made (including famously playing Killmonger in Black Panther) has no doubt been a heavy influence on him, both with his sense of story-telling and a visual eye behind the camera.  And Sylvester Stallone, who directed 4 of the original 6 Rocky movies, as well as writing the screenplays for the bulk of the series including Creed II, no doubt demonstrated to Jordan how to succeed at pulling double duty in front and behind the camera on these films.  And the results stand for themselves as this is a fantastic directorial debut for Michael B. Jordan.  There is a great deal of confidence in his direction here that is really impressive to see.  The movie feels very much in line with the previous two movies, hitting all the same notes that we expect perfectly.  Jordan’s direction is also measured and subtle.  He is not trying to show off like so many first time directors are apt to do in order to flex their muscle for attention.  There is an excellent control of pacing, tone, and style found in this movie, and it shows that Michael B. Jordan learned a lot of good lessons about filmmaking from both Coogler and Stallone.  He also knows when to take chances, bending the rules a bit for artistic license at the right moments.  This is definitely evident in the fight scenes in the ring, where Jordan brings in some flashy techniques like slow-mo at just the right time.

It should also be noted that the choice of story here is a worthwhile one to delve into for a continuation of Creed’s story.  I for one was very worried when I heard that Sylvester Stallone was not going to be in this movie.  My worry was that they were going to kill off the character and, even worse, do it off screen.  Thankfully, that was not the case.  Rocky is not in this movie, but his fate is also never brought up, indicating that in universe Rocky is still living; just not involved in this story.  It would’ve been a shame to dispose of one of cinema’s most iconic characters in such an unceremonious way, and I’m glad they didn’t go there.  My hope is that eventually they involve Rocky in the story again down the line, but for this film, it makes sense why they would leave him out.  This is first and foremost Adonis Creed’s story.  Rocky was a supportive player in the first Creed, and he had a much more central part to play in Creed II, but here, he would’ve just been in the way of the conflict that needed to happen in this movie, which is Adonis coming to terms with his past.  That’s why the introduction of Damian is a brilliant new direction to take Adonis’ story.  His meteoric rise certainly echoes that of Rocky Balboa, but what did he overcome to get to where he is.  Damian’s return brings back all the trauma of Adonis’ youth, his abuse in juvenile detention and the guilt of turning his back on Damian after the arrest.  The movie is much more concerned about having to overcome all that as it is about the fighting in the ring.  For the first time, we are really peeling back the layers of Adonis Creed as a person, and seeing more of his faults which helps to make him a much more overall interesting character.

The performances are certainly going to be the thing that people take away the most from this movie.  In particular, this movie features a, for lack of a better word, knockout performance from Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson.  Majors is right now at a breakout point in his career, not just featuring as the antagonist in this movie, but also appearing in theaters at the same time in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania as the new big bad of the MCU, Kang the Conqueror.  There’s no doubt that he has the acting chops to stand out as a memorable villain, but it may surprise a few just how well he does it here in Creed III.  He just commands the screen in every scene he’s in.  He masterfully handles the moments where we see his vulnerable side, like the scene where he reconnects with Adonis Creed after a long time away.  At the same time, when we see the sinister turn halfway through the film, he becomes quite a frightening presence on screen.  I honestly wish we had seen more of this kind of performance from Majors in Ant-Man, because in that movie he kind of toned it down too much.  Here, he gets to let loose as Damian, and it’s captivating.  Not to be outdone, but Michael B. Jordan also excels in his third time around as Adonis Creed.  In many ways, this is actually his best performance as the character to date, because we see more of the broken side of the character come out this time around.  There is vulnerability in his performance that is handled very well, and it’s nice to see Jordan directing himself into that zone fearlessly.  There are also great performances from the ever reliable Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, and a very special acknowledgement to deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent who holds her own in scenes with these seasoned professionals.  I also have to spotlight Wood Harris as “Little Duke,” who continues the franchise’s legacy of crusty, smack-talking trainers who steals every scene that they’re in.

The movie also is visually one of the more striking in the franchise as a whole.  If Creed II has a flaw, it was it’s more basic style of filmmaking; not bad but also a bit uninspired.  Creed III on the other hand takes some risks when it comes to the visuals, and that makes it far more akin to the original Ryan Coogler film.  In particular, the fights inside the ring are spectacularly well filmed.  Michael B. Jordan doesn’t get in close like Coogler did in the original Creed, but instead he weaves in and out of close-ups and full frame shots.  There seems to be a real effort to actually show the fight in full view for the audience.  For the most part, Jordan shows us the fight from the perspective of what the referee may see, which is both fighters in full view.  The visceral throws of the punches carry more weight as a result, and when a devastating punch is landed, Jordan goes in for the close-up and slows the film down to capture the full devastation of the hit in bullet-time.  There were several instances of watching these scenes with the audience in a theater where I witnessed people having a visceral reaction to the fights on the screen.  I heard a lot of people audibly go “Oooh” in my theater when a big hit was landed.  That’s a good sign that you’ve done a good job filming the fight scenes.  But, Jordan does something very brave with these fight scenes as well, which we’ve actually never seen in the franchise before.  He gets inside the headspace of these characters and imagines an almost dreamlike state in which they fight in.  A flight of fantasy like those moments could be a step too far for a series that has relatively remained grounded up to now, but the context of them here does make sense, and Michael B. Jordan is a capable enough filmmaker to make it work without going too far into the surreal.  And yes, of course there is your standard training montage sequence; a franchise staple.  The one here doesn’t disappoint, and it stands up well against all the others; though I do miss the underscore of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now” theme from the original Rocky.

In total, this is the ninth film in the Rocky/Creed franchise that has spanned over five decades, and it’s amazing that it still hasn’t run out of steam yet.  From Stallone, to Ryan Coogler, to now Michael B. Jordan, this franchise has still managed to find new threads to pull in this story about overcoming the odds in the world of boxing.  Perhaps it is fitting that this is the first film that doesn’t feature the underdog boxer that started it all in the picture, because the cycle of change has now passed on to the next generation.  I think there’s still a chance that Rocky will be seen again, and that Stallone can have the chance to sunset the character in his own way.  But, that’s not the story that needed to be told now, as Adonis Creed had to make a major turn in this film in order to continue into his next phase.  There is an indication now that Adonis Creed will be stepping more into a mentor role in future film within this franchise, if there are any more (most likely there will be).  And as a result, the full legacy of Rocky and Creed’s purpose will be seen in the cyclical passing of the torch from one underdog story into another.  We’ll see how that torch is passed down in the future, but for right now the franchise continues to be in good hands under the direction of it’s star Michael B. Jordan.  If there is anything that could be improved upon from this movie it’s the need to handle the set ups better.  The movie does kind of take it’s time when it doesn’t need to and it also uses some narrative shortcuts that kind of undermine the drama a bit.  But, it’s still an impressive debut for a first time director, and he remarkably does a good job of directing himself on screen, as well as get some astonishing performances from his cast; in particular a standout Jonathan Majors.  Here’s hoping that if they ever make a Creed IV that it continues to build upon the insightful character development found here.  Creed III is another champion in this long running series and a match you definitely don’t want to miss out on in theaters on the biggest screens you can find.

Rating: 8.5/10