Film Review: Creed III
Director: Michael B. Jordan
In Theaters: 03.04
The original Rocky cemented the model for boxing movies and underdog sports movies in general. Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull in turn had an equally profound effect on the rest of the Rocky series with its visceral approach to sound editing and makeup effects upping the brutality in the ring. Creed III, the ninth film in the Rocky franchise, once again draws on Scorsese, this time from the 1991 thriller Cape Fear.
Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is about to fight his final match before retiring with the title of undisputed heavyweight champion, and he’s ready to focus on his family and a career as promoter of up-and-coming fighters. When a childhood friend who was like an older brother to Donnie, Damian (Jonathan Majors), resurfaces after serving 18 years in prison, Donnie relives the trauma of being a child in an L.A. group home. Donnie brings Damian into the gym, and the older man expresses his desire to reclaim the chance to fight professionally. As Donnie grapples with long-standing guilt over the events that sent Damian to prison, Damian’s ambitions become clear as he prepares to settle a score.
Jordan makes a strong directorial debut with Creed III, following the blueprint laid out by Creed director Ryan Coogler while adding some interesting stylistic touches of his own. Jordan’s intent to make his film stand out as the first boxing movie shot for IMAX, and every shot is framed with a sense of large-scale spectacle. This works wonderfully in the stadium scenes but less so in more mundane scenes, such as in the bathroom at the Creed home where Donnie and his wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), talk while she brushes her teeth.
Jordan makes some inventive choices in the boxing sequences, in particular the final fight. Here, he adds a surrealness by showing us things that exist only in the two fighters’ minds, from the bars of Damian’s prison cell popping up in the ring to images of the fighters as teenagers. Though gimmicky, it breaks up the monotony of a basic story structure that we’ve seen so many times before. The choice to include the most tired of the Rocky tropes—the tragic death of a loved one in the middle of the film—is overplayed, despite the actors’ aplomb. Once again, the solution to every problem in Creed III is for two guys to brutalize each other while the world watches, and that’s more frustrating than ever here, because this goes a lot deeper than the macho rivalry we’re used to in these movies. There are real emotional stakes in the issues between these guys, based in a life altering trauma that happened when they were young.
Jordan is a great actor with star presence to spare, but it’s Majors who knocked me out as a complex, sympathetic and meaty antagonist. There’s considerable contrast between this character and his vague, underwritten villain in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Majors channels a bit of the intensity that Robert De Niro brought to both Jake Lamotta in Raging Bull and Max Cady, the vengeful ex-con out to destroy the man he holds responsible for his imprisonment, in Cape Fear. The entire plot seems to be inspired by the latter film, in which the Cady character shows up to terrorize the defense attorney who bungled his case. Instead of a lawyer, it’s the friend who managed to avoid getting arrested that night, yet the parallel—as well as the darker feel and the added level of a suspense thriller element—make the influence hard to miss. Damien is a more sympathetic character than Cady, however, and Major’s most impressive work comes in showing us glimpses of the frightened teenager who was incarcerated years ago and is now imprisoned by the reality that his body has aged while his life has been in a holding pattern. It’s a shame that the story gives Thompson’s Bianca limited screen time because she shines so brightly in these films. Her interplay with Mila Davis-Kent as Amara, Donnie and Bianca’s daughter, is beautiful. Kudos to Jordan for the sensitive and empowering portrayal of the family of a deaf child.
Creed III is another formulaic entry in a series that has gone on for decades. It’s also a strong example of why it has endured. A story well told can be told again and again and still grab our attention, though I would certainly like to see Jordan use Creed III as a step toward moving out of the “big shadow” of Rocky Balboa and starring and directing in something truly fresh. If he does, this heavyweight talent has the potential to be one of the great champions of 21st-century film. –Patrick Gibbs
Read more reviews of films that are installments in long-spanning franchises:
Film Review: Avatar: The Way of Water
Film Review: Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania
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