Adonis Creed is no longer an underdog, but Creed III needs us to believe he still is.
The latest installment of the popular Rocky follow-up series, helmed by Michael B. Jordan in his directorial debut, builds itself upon this shaky foundation.
The Bottom Line
The foundation shows wear and tear, even if the facade shines.
If we take its claims at face value, Creed III is a rousing success, a slick, cool and inspiring narrative about boxing’s prince trying to defend his title and honor. Adonis (played by Jordan) has come a long way since his scrappy days in Ryan Coogler’s Creed, when chasing answers about his past and guidance for his future landed him in Philadelphia. In that film, the nearly forgotten son of Apollo finds in Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) a reluctant trainer and father figure. Creed imbued the franchise with new life without abandoning its sentimental core, a tricky balancing act that won over existing fans and courted a new generation of viewers. (Creed II kept with tradition but, with Coogler no longer behind the camera, felt lifeless in comparison.)
In Creed III, Adonis, now living in Los Angeles, is retired. Having proven himself many times over and been named the world champion, the boxer is easing into the routines of celebrity and fatherhood. His days are spent caring for his daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), accompanying his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) to her music label events, and nurturing the next generation of boxers at his gym. He drives an expensive car, lives in a mansion atop a hill and wears expensive, tailored suits. Jordan and DP Kramer Morgenthau choose a lush visual language to match Adonis’ new life: Creed III was filmed with IMAX certified digital cameras, which render each scene with a distinct and expensive-looking crispness — so much so that the movie can’t help but feel like a two-hour advertisement for being extremely rich.
Beneath the layers of glitz and glamour, Adonis is the same emotionally guarded and avoidant man of two films ago. That, the film seems to insist, still makes him an underdog despite his meteoric rise into a different tax bracket.
It’s hard to buy into this fantasy when Damian (an arresting Jonathan Majors) enters the picture. He’s Adonis’ friend from childhood, the closest person the boxer has to a brother. Through flashbacks, we come to understand the contours of their bond and the painful depths of its end. In Creed III’s cold open, a young Adonis (Thaddeus J. Mixon) sneaks out of his bedroom (he’s living with Mary-Anne, still played by Phylicia Rashad) to meet a young Damian (Spence Moore II). They are heading to a local ring, where Damian, one of the city’s promising young boxers, will cinch another win. Their lopsided dynamic reveals that young Adonis stood in the shadow of Damian’s glory and dreams, carrying his friend’s bags and gloves from tournament to tournament.
When Damian ends up in prison after a grocery store brawl, the relationship shifts dramatically. In those 18 years, Adonis builds a life that Damian watches from inside his cell. The sting of betrayal lingers in these flashbacks. The once-hopeful boxer writes to his friend, but Adonis never responds. Their friendship shrivels, so much that when Damian posts up on Adonis’ car after his release, Adonis doesn’t recognize the figure in the hoodie.
The addition of Majors is a boon to Creed III, which doesn’t feature Stallone as Rocky. The actor imbues Damian with refreshing complexity. In a lesser performer’s hands the character would have remained a thinly drawn antagonist to Adonis, someone we’d root to be defeated. Major teases more out of Damian, turning him into a compelling representation of the emotional ebbs and flows of restarting dormant dreams. Over lunch with Adonis, Damian confesses that he wants a chance to box again, to build the life the carceral system robbed him of.
Creed III self-consciously leans into that narrative, but its priority is Adonis. Damian’s presence perturbs the champion, who must now address long-buried parts of his past. We see Adonis facing pressures from those around him to ditch his old pal. The class allegiances teased at the beginning rear their ugly head at these moments, as when Duke (Wood Harris) reminds Adonis that their gym isn’t a YMCA at the suggestion of Damian training there. Still, Adonis, out of a sense of guilt, fights for his friend to have a chance. It’s almost too late when he realizes that Damian wants more than an opportunity in the ring; he wants to defeat Adonis.
In the spirit of its predecessors, Creed III gears audiences up for a fight of the century: The battle between Adonis and Damian is billed as one between an underdog and a man with nothing to lose. But the implications of those categories are murky and unsettling. Even as Damian amasses more championships, putting him at a level respectable enough to fight Adonis, he has neither the capital nor the social power that his former friend does. The film, to its credit, doesn’t overplay Adonis’ struggles, but it never lets go of the idea that we, by default, are on his side.
Jordan uses the full power of IMAX to direct some glorious fight scenes. The ace music supervision amps our sense of the stakes of each match long before the athletes enter the ring. Montages of Adonis and Damian training not only recall the ones in Coogler’s Creed; they also give viewers a chance to bask in the aesthetic glory of our leads. Jordan borrows from his love of anime to — along with his stunt team — choreograph the encounters as one would a modern dance. We get to see the ring from each fighter’s perspective, to live in their mind as they plan their next moves.
These flourishes will surely delight many fans of the franchise, even as the narrative — the reason we keep watching Adonis fight in and out of the ring — lets us down.
Distributor: United Artist Releasing
Production companies: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Glickmania, Outlier Society, Proximity Media
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Mila Davis-Kent, Florian Munteanu, and Phylicia Rashad
Director: Michael B. Jordan
Screenwriters: Keegan Coogler & Zach Baylin (screenplay by); Ryan Coogler and Keenan Coogler & Zach Baylin (story by)
Producers: Irwin Winkler, p.g.a., Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Ryan Coogler, p.g.a., Michael B. Jordan, p.g.a., Elizabeth Raposo, p.g.a,
Jonathan Glickman, Sylvester Stallone
Executive producers: Sev Ohanian, Zinzi Coogler, Nicolas Stern, Adam Rosenberg
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Jahmin Assa
Costume designer: Lizz Wolf
Editor: Jessica Baclesse, Tyler Nelson
Composer: Joseph Shirley
Casting director: Alexa L. Fogel
1 hour 56 minutes