Michael B. Jordan Ably Takes the Reins on CREED III
It may be the 9th in a saga, but CREED III continues to tell a story with grace and depth
For the third film in the story of Adonis Creed — itself part of the larger Rocky legacy now nine films deep — most viewers probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect from one of the most venerated and consistently exciting of cinematic franchises.
Part of the risk of continuing sequels in a sports saga is the inherent danger of diminishing returns and losing the meaning of the story through repetition or the character’s aging. Rocky’s sequels, while great, showed a sense of this as their boxing plots became more rote — renewal, retirement, and comebacks — but they excelled because the films were less about the boxing and more about Rocky’s relationships and growth.
Creed III exhibits one of the greatest lessons of the franchise by embracing this — the “foe” is a friend, and the greatest battle isn’t about boxing, but in finding peace with a tragic past. It’s a film where the emotional climax takes place after the final bell.
Jonathan Majors, whose star has been on the rise since he first stunned me with his performance in the incredible The Last Black Man in San Francisco, plays Damian Anderson, Adonis’s childhood friend and a young boxing phenom who has spent his adult life behind bars, stemming from a fateful and tragic night that Adonis has tried — and almost succeeded — to forget.
Reunited, the men resume their friendship, but something has changed. Damian has watched from the shadows as his friend lives the life that was meant for him, and his love for his boyhood pal is poisoned with entitlement, jealousy, and justified resentment for how things went down. Majors is a coiled spring, brimming with tension and complete unpredictability — a freight train of a human being with a massive chip on his shoulder, and the souring between the two men leads to a confrontation in the ring, not for the Championship title but for the illusory satisfaction of winning an unwinnable argument.
There are some elements here that I really appreciate. Taking a page from Stallone’s book, star Michael B. Jordan helms from behind the camera as well, and really does a tremendous job, clearly bringing some of his own style, which we’ll hopefully be able to see develop and continue in additional films under his directorship.
The fight sequences utilize kinetic camera work with a ton of movement and unusual angles. The first of these, a retirement bout for Adonis as he readies to hang up his gloves, a rematch of his first championship fight with Ricky Conlan. This also demonstrates another really terrific aspect of these stories, and one that’s been true of much of the Rocky family of stories: these characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and other characters, not only in the immediate sphere but also fighters like Conlan and Viktor Drago, make their return to continue to populate this world in a natural way. After all, the pool for championship-caliber heavyweight boxers is a small one.
Well, there’s one exception to the rule, which is the absence of Rocky Balboa himself — Adonis’s mentor and adoptive “unc”, who has remained an important supporting character even as his cinematic saga moved on to the next generation. Sylvester Stallone’s legendary character simply isn’t in this film (even if his imprinted legacy is still all over its world).
On the one hand, there’s a beautiful transition taking place here, with the series steeping out of his shadow and truly coming into its own, and I appreciate that. But narratively, Rocky’s absence is a little jarring. Deemphasis is one thing, but it seems crazy that Rocky wouldn’t be present for his protege’s comeback bout. Ringside is the obvious place for a small but impactful cameo, but alas, didn’t happen.
The real-world reasons for his absence — whether creative, business, or personal — aren’t fully clear, but thankfully he’s not killed offscreen or anything equally stupid, so… there’s that.
But perhaps most poignantly, Creed’s family life — his relationships with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), and adoptive mother (Phylicia Rashad doing MVP-level work) — remains the lifeblood of the story and his primary motivational engine.
Amara, who was introduced as a deaf infant in Creed II, is now grown up a bit into a precocious youngster, and Bianca’s hearing loss has also progressed somewhat. A lovely aspect of the film is the presentation of these challenges. The family communicates through signing, and Amara attends a special needs school, but these are presented simply as a reality of the family’s natural fabric, rather than something abnormal to draw attention to.
It’s these persistent themes of relationships and growth, which — as they have since 1976 — continue to make these films about so much more than just men punching each other.