With 2015’s Creed, director Ryan Coogler gave us the pound-for-pound best “legacyquel” in the world, building a stable and satisfying new addition onto the foundation of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise. But, just as with the Rocky films, the very next movie was muddled and forgettable, struggling to achieve the balance between sincere family drama and hyperbolic sports movie bombast found in the saga’s most successful installments. The Rocky series wrestled with this formula for decades, often resulting in overcorrections like the 2-hour training montage of Rocky IV or the dour and depressing Rocky V.
CREED III ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Now, not unlike how Stallone reinvented his boxing saga as a colorful comic book in Rocky III, star and first-time director Michael B. Jordan has infused Creed III’s adult character drama with the cranked-to-11 intensity of the cartoons of his own youth. Great news: Cartoons have gotten a lot better since 1982, and consequently, Creed III is a blast, confidently managing the poignancy and playfulness of its most memorable predecessors.
Years after defending his heavyweight title in Creed II, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Jordan) has hung up his gloves and dedicated himself training and promoting younger fighters, as well as to his home life with pop producer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and young daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). Donnie has outgrown the shadow of his late father Apollo and his mentor, Rocky Balboa, to the extent that the latter’s absence in this installment feels perfectly natural. This film is about Donnie’s own past, personified by Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), his closest childhood friend who has spent the past 18 years behind bars. A promising amateur boxer before his arrest, Damian is who Donnie might have become if he hadn’t been plucked out of poverty by his father’s fabulously wealthy widow (Phylicia Rashad). Upon Damian’s release, the guilt-ridden former champ offers to help him get back on his feet, but Damian has higher ambitions and will stop at nothing to take back the life he feels Donnie has stolen from him.
Damian becomes the Iago to Creed’s Othello, masterminding a coup for boxing’s highest crown and casting our hero into emotional turmoil. It’s a score that can only be settled in the ring, leading to a clash that owes as much to Dragon Ball as it does to Raging Bull. This conflict is not only compelling but refreshingly self-contained, making it the rare modern sequel that benefits from the complicated history of its franchise but also feels as if it would play just as well to someone with no prior experience or interest in it.
Though not as immersive as Coogler’s masterful one-take bouts from the first Creed, Michael B. Jordan’s depiction of boxing does a better job of highlighting the strategy and intellectual challenge of the sport, utilizing slow motion and extreme closeups not only to emphasize the power of hooks and jabs but their precision and timing. The fights of Creed III play out like chess matches, and Creed’s new nemesis is, appropriately, as much of a cerebral threat as he is a beefcake. (Related: I want to commend Creed III for how long it takes before we see Jonathan Majors without a shirt. You do not realize how huge this guy is until it’s too late.) Damian is by far the most complicated antagonist this franchise has ever given us, and Majors puts such pain, rage, and sorrow behind his eyes that it’s hard not to connect with Damian even in the moments when he wants to be seen as a swaggering, mustache-twirling villain. One can easily imagine a version of Creed III that is a straight drama with none of the silly sports intrigue, and that would’ve worked just fine, but Jordan and Majors also absolutely earn their feud’s added animé intensity. When their fated final bout takes a turn for the expressionistic, it’s admittedly pretty corny, but not inappropriate, especially when it’s only ten minutes detached from the obligatory dueling training montages found in all Rocky & Creed movies.
The film’s broader elements are balanced out by the more intimate family dynamic amongst the Creeds. In the absence of Rocky Balboa, Donnie’s other relationships get much more room to grow, particularly his marriage to Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a musician with degenerative hearing loss. Creed III continues to explore Donnie as the anti-Rocky, a hothead who has a hard time being vulnerable with his confident, successful partner. Both as a father and a manager, he’s now forced to be the adult in the room, a role that’s difficult to fill when he’s still afraid of his own feelings. Jordan isn’t as dialed in here as in the first film (possibly a consequence of directing himself), but Thompson and Majors more than pick up his slack.
The story cleverly draws a parallel between Bianca’s condition and Damian’s incarceration, as both represent lost time with the craft they treasure. Deafness itself is, thankfully, not stigmatized (Creed’s vibrant daughter Amara was born deaf and has boxing aspirations of her own), but the film also stops short at outright condemning the justice system that locked a poor, orphaned teenager in a cell for the better part of two decades. The focus remains on the specific character conflict, and the screenplay (by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylan) is careful to clarify that Donnie does not need to feel guilty about his massive, high-tech mansion or his personal chef. Still, in the spirit of the original Rocky, Creed III strongly implies that many of life’s “losers” could be champions if only they were given a chance. Best of all, the story forces Adonis to examine the privilege that he spent the first film trying and failing to discard. With this third chapter, the Creed series continues to be a more interesting examination of class, caste, and American meritocracy than the Rocky films ever were, all within the bounds of crunchy, buttery popcorn cinema.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.