Directed by Michael B. Jordan | Written by Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, and Ryan Coogler | 116 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Amazon Prime
It’s been almost 50 years, with Six Rocky movies and now three Creed movies. This is a pugilistic franchise with a remarkable cinematic lifespan. The way it pivoted to this spin-off was masterful — many thanks to Ryan Coogler who directed the first Creed. He’s here as writer-producer, helping his star helm his first feature as director. Jordan has done a solid job, fulfilling the genre needs honed over decades while also trying a few new things with a lot of success, lifting it out of the doldrums of the disappointing second instalment.
Jordan’s character, for anyone who needs a reminder, is Adonis “Donny” Creed, scion of champion Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s first enemy and, later greatest friend.
Kinda like in Rocky 3 (with Mr T as Clubber Lang) when Rocky was all rich and soft, Donny has everything a man could want now — the mansion in the Hollywood hills, the infinity pool, the trophy/games room, and a beautiful relationship with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and adorable daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). He’s out of the boxing ring having retired with his head still on and an almost perfect record at the top of his game.
An old friend from his past, Dame (Jonathan Majors, having a real moment with this and Ant-Man) shows up just out of the hoosegow. Turns out Dame’s always been a fighter and wants the same shot in the ring Baby Creed got. Donny’s willing to help him in the memory of the old days at the group home, even though his faithful trainer, Duke (Wood Harris), tells Donny he doesn’t owe this guy anything. And, wouldn’t you know it, a plot contrivance gives Dame that shot.
Just like in Ant-Man, Majors is the best thing here. His every line is delivered with a mix of subtlety, painful vulnerability, and hidden, vicious intent. You can feel the rage lingering under the surface, but also the years of trauma, and all that fuel is what fires the engine of this film. In some ways Majors is protagonist — it’s his dream that we’re seeing come to life while Creed is just reacting. I appreciate the lack of vanity — Jordan lets Majors steal the movie away that he’s directing.
And while the building blocks of the drama are well placed to lead us to an inevitable confrontation of the canvas, the film also touches on a lot more complexity that it refuses to follow through on.
For example, that cute kid, Amara, is deaf, and while she goes to a school where she can flourish she solves her problems with her fists. There’s a whole subplot here where Donny has to shelve his violent ways, his toxicity, to show his daughter how to deal with her emotions like an adult, but that thread is dropped. A parallel opportunity presents itself when Dane bends and breaks the rule in the ring to win and gets away with it — there’s a thread here about honour and fighting clean that’s never explored, not to mention the clear evidence that a crime was committed that’s simply ignored.
Finally there’s the anachronism of boxing itself — a sport that professionally has seen much better days, now living in the shadow of the much more popular MMA. It’s hard to believe they could fill stadiums with fans in 2023. It would be fascinating to see Adonis Creed face up to being a king of a ring that nobody cares about.
All this said, the two performers in that ring in Creed III are so charismatic, it’s easy to overlook some of those structural issues. The implicit theme opportunity in America is all over this thing, and that’s been a big part of the franchise since Rocky in 1976. With race in the mix it just gets more complicated — what chances for success are denied by systemic inequity? Those ideas are writ large all over this thing.
Yeah, I missed Sylvester Stallone as Rocky — apparently he had a falling out with the other producers and so was denied an opportunity to return to the role — but in some ways his absence gives this edition an unexpected freshness, a split from the weight of the franchise’s history. At the same time, what I actually miss more is the Rocky theme — “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti. The score here is good, but nothing on the soundtrack can match that iconic theme.
Jordan the director finally gets his technical knock-out — a training montage followed by an intense, emotional battle between sweaty, muscular dudes, shot in a way that we’ve not seen before.
I won’t give away the particulars, but the last act does something visually that really works, though as satisfying as some of those innovations are between the ropes, a final scene in the locker room after the fight is the most powerful in the movie. It clarifies what’s best here — it’s about forgiveness — and it rings like a bell.