Out of the Shadows — Creed III
More than anything else in Creed III, this latest entry in the Rocky film series (notably the first where Sylvester Stallone doesn’t appear, serving only in a Producer role) emphasizes the idea of casting aside the shadows of the past. Whether it’s through personal healing, confrontation, or taking the reins on a meta level, this is a movie about forging one’s own identity independent of all that came before. It still acknowledges what made it all possible, but this is very much a story about separating oneself and moving forward. It’s the “Let the past die, kill it if you have to” mantra set in the boxing ring, and it results in the best chapter yet of this spinoff.
After defeating Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) in the last film, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, both starring and making his directorial debut) rides high as a champion, eventually winning a rematch against Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) to unify the various world heavyweight titles and retire on top. Living a happy life back in Los Angeles with wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), he takes care of his mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) and runs the Delphi Gym along with Little Duke Evers (Wood Harris), where he trains the current champ, Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.).
Things change for Donnie when he reunites with Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors), his former best friend from when he lived in a group home, and who has just been released from prison after 18 years. Anderson was a former Golden Gloves winner from their old neighborhood who had aspirations of becoming an elite professional boxer, but his run-in with the law, which Donnie was there for, put an end to his potential. However, as he shows, he’s kept himself in shape, and despite his age (mid-30s, a couple years older than Adonis), he feels he can shine if given the chance. Adonis decides to help, hiring him to be Chavez’s sparring partner, as Adonis is trying to arrange a title bout between him and Drago, and Felix keeps knocking out everyone in the gym, to the point that no one will help him train.
Getting a taste of the sweet life that he feels he’s missed behind bars, Dame ingratiates himself to Donnie’s family, especially Bianca, as he feels a connection with her due to the fact that she had to retire from active music performance thanks to her hearing problems. She now writes and produces tracks for others, but Dame understands the idea that it’s just not the same to hear someone else sing your songs, just like he’s proud of Adonis, but it’s not the same to watch your friend live your dreams.
Dame asks Adonis for a title shot, which Donnie says is impossible, as Dame isn’t even a professional boxer yet. It would be practically unheard of for an untested fighter to make his debut with a belt on the line, but as Dame points out, that’s the exact chance that Apollo Creed gave to Rocky Balboa, and look what happened after that. Donnie is still skeptical, but after Drago is assaulted, his hand is forced. He either has to let Dame stand in and fight Felix for the heavyweight crown, or delay the fight for up to six months while Drago recovers, which could ruin him financially due to contractual obligations. It is at this point that Dame reveals his true colors, announcing his intention to come for everything he feels was taken from him, and it falls to Adonis to come out of retirement and face Dame himself, closing the book on his tumultuous past for good.
Now, the script here leaves a little bit to be desired. The third act feels rushed to get us to the climactic match, there are plot threads (like Amara fighting a bully in school using moves she learned from watching her dad’s fights, or an early flashback where Donnie illegally bets on Dame which Duke himself sees) that are never properly paid off, and the major twist reveal is something of a disservice to Dame as a character, temporarily turning him into an outright villain where before he was just an uneasy antagonist. But what it gets right, it REALLY gets right, including things like an emotional story arc for Rashad (I’m still mad at her for my graduation, but this was good enough for me to set it aside for a while), intriguing exploration into the business side of boxing as well as the physical, continuing the truly heartwarming empathetic treatment of the deaf community that’s been a hallmark of these films, and a refreshing friendship formed between Donnie and Viktor Drago, proving that bad blood doesn’t have to span generations.
But the screenplay’s best work (co-written by Ryan and Keenan Coogler, along with last year’s Oscar nominee for King Richard, Zach Baylin) is two-fold. One is that more than any other main opponent in this series, Dame feels like a fully-realized character. Through contextual flashbacks and clever juxtapositions, we see how quickly things can go well for one person and disastrously for another, but the script never excuses Dame for his misdeeds. He admits his criminal past, and even reveals that some of the behaviors that landed him behind bars are a genuine part of who he is. At first I wanted to criticize the script for missing the opportunity to comment on the prison-industrial complex, but the writers are showing us that Dame did in fact make his own bed, and there wasn’t some deus ex machina bit of bad luck that destroyed his life. As such, he’s a man with a massive chip on his shoulder and nowhere to direct his rage, except at the face of the man who happened to rise while he fell. This creates a complexity rarely seen in this franchise, and it’s beyond welcome, especially since the original idea for this film was to have the main obstacle just be the son of Clubber Lang, repeating the same beats from last time out.
The second great aspect is the myriad ways in which the script pays homage to the rest of the Rocky franchise while still making it clear that this film intends to be a separation. Moving the setting completely to Los Angeles, the film ensures that it has no surface links to Philadelphia or Rocky Balboa as elements of the story, but still carries on their thematic importance. For example, several key moments mirror the previous works by setting them against familiar backdrops, but with a distinct L.A. feel, like using Dodger Stadium as the venue for the final fight, or ending the requisite training montage with Adonis running up the trails at Griffith Park to the Hollywood Sign instead of the Philadelphia Art Museum. These are nice touches that could be dismissed as fan service, but are executed in a way that feels thankful and genuine.
That’s because, as I said, this movie is about Adonis Creed — and Michael B. Jordan by extension — casting off anything that might be holding him back, and confronting the ghosts of his past. Even though we’ve gotten plenty of backstory on Adonis to this point, most of it has been filtered through the lens of his father and/or Rocky. But for this first time, this is Adonis’ story all his own. He has to deal with insecurities and trauma from a troubled childhood that he still has problems reconciling, even when he’s living an ideal life. The opening fight against Conlan avenges his only career loss, and combined with the exposition about Drago and their eventual friendship, so many of the loose ends of Donnie’s life are being tied up so that he can move forward as his own man. Dame’s presence is a reminder of the pain and guilt that still follows him, and it’s only compounded by just how great of a performance Majors gives here. Seriously, he’s 10 times more intimidating as an antagonist here than he was in Ant-Man, mostly because the writers and Jordan actually give his character dimensions and motivations.
You can see that maturity in Jordan’s direction as well. There’s a lot of care and attention to detail when it comes to how people are presented in this film, with all the major characters having depth and nuance not typically seen in this series, or sports films in general. This is best exemplified by the lighter moments when Donnie flirts with Bianca or playfully shit-talks with Dame, reminiscing about their youth. The human element is always at the forefront of the character work, which is really spectacular.
From a technical standpoint, Jordan creates some pretty strong moments that again set it apart from the series from which it spun off (to say nothing of the fact that by directing this film, Jordan respectfully echoes Stallone in a meta sense, as the latter directed four of the original six Rocky films). The fight choreography is as stellar as ever, with the additional cleverness of giving Dame the almost assassin-level observational skill of being able to find the spots on his opponents’ bodies that might be injured, allowing him to target them for easier and more decisive victories. It’s an excellent way of illustrating some of the more advanced minutiae of the sport of boxing, as well as making Dame that much more of a threat, because in both a physical and a thematic sense, he knows how to identify and exploit any weakness. The editing of the fights isn’t quite on the level that it’s been for the last two films, but the movement of the characters and the camera work continues to be top notch, and Jordan adds a creative touch to the final fight that gave me chills.
Back when I made my list of the Top 100 films of the 2010s, I noted that Creed was the exception-that-proves-the-rule reboot that actually made the series feel new again. Well now we’re into even more rarified air, as with Creed III, we’ve reached the point where all three films in this trilogy offer something truly special, with this latest entry surpassing both of its direct forebears. By creating something that figuratively, physically, and metaphorically rips off the Band-Aid of everything that came before, Michael B. Jordan has silenced all doubts and announced to the world that he’s not just a part of a franchise, but a legitimate filmmaker who can acknowledge and appreciate where he came from while realizing his own ambition for the future. Ladies and gentlemen, we have the first truly great movie of 2023!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you ever think these movies could get this good? Will boxing ever be as exciting in real life again as it is in the movies? Let me know!