If the only thing you knew about Creed III is that it’s a boxing movie, if you went in otherwise completely blind—no trailer, no prior knowledge of the franchise or the Rocky franchise that it’s spun off of—you know by the time the title card pops up that the film will build towards a big fight, and you pretty much know who the combatants will be. So goes the boxing film. Despite the sport’s cratering popularity among the average American sports fan—let alone average person— the boxing film has persisted as one of the consistent genres in American film that directors of many stripes have taken a swing at.
Creed III begins with a flashback, a mini period-piece set in 2002 Los Angeles. Given the age of the film’s director and star Michael B. Jordan, it’s not surprising that this section of the film really sings. Against Dr. Dre’s “The Watcher”, we follow two Black youths as one participates in a local amateur Golden Gloves match—winning convincingly—while the other is his quasi assistant. The mini twist is that Jordan’s Adonis Creed isn’t the boxer in the flashback. That’d be his friend, Dame, from the group home they live at together.
The opening scene ends with a flash of violence, an incident where multiple choices are made that put Adonis and Dame’s lives on separate trajectories. When we enter the present day, Adonis is the just-retired Heavyweight Champion of the world. We see his final victory (a rematch of the big fight from the first installment, against “Pretty” Ricky Conlan played by real-life boxer Tony Bellew), and soon after he’s dressed in a dinosaur onesie playing tea party with his daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) in their astronomically swank L.A. mansion, in the basement of which his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson of Passing and Thor: Ragnarok) continues her career as a major music producer. By day, Adonis is running Creed Promotions, managing the careers of the next generation of boxers alongside the tutelage of trainer Duke (Wood Harris, The Wire). The majesty and relatively tranquil nature of Adonis’s life is extra impactful knowing the other path Adonis’s life could have taken. Things are going well.
Enter the ghost of Adonis’s past. One day Adonis is surprised by the arrival of an old friend, in one of the film’s most arresting scenes. There is Dame (Jonathan Majors, Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania, Lovecraft Country), back in town, back in free society after 18 years locked away, leaning ominously against Adonis’s very expensive ride awaiting to confront him. Does Dame want revenge? Does Dame want Adonis’s life? Does Dame deserve everything Adonis has, and vice-versa? The answer to each is both yes and no, which helps construct one of the more morally ambiguous and dramatic final-showdown setups in recent boxing film memory.
Creed III might have been directed by and stars Michael B. Jordan, but the film belongs to Jonathan Majors. Majors brings a curiosity, devastating sadness, and overall depth to Dame that eclipses everyone else in Creed III, a film with plenty of talented performers. Boxing films—especially the Rocky films and Creed II—often give us a villain who is easy to root against. Creed III bucks this trend, because Majors is so magnetic and fascinating that you’d be forgiven for rooting for him over the film’s hero. In the hands of most actors, even very gifted ones, the character of Dame would solely be a walking metaphor for Adonis’s past, the manifestation of the guilt he’s carried with him all these years that he needs to defeat to feel truly whole. Dame is that, but it’s because of Majors’s layered performance that he also escapes the trope, becoming a fully realized character unto himself. One that, despite the film’s self-justifying attempts to turn him into a heel, you want to root for. His anger is justified. His sadness is tragic. Is his story implausible? Last week, nearly three quarters of a million people purchased a pay-per-view event to watch Jake Paul lose to a famous boxer’s brother…so you tell me.
Jordan steps behind the camera for the first time here. You can sense his passion for this character and this world, and especially for the fight sequences, of which boxing films rely heavily upon. Jordan was heavily inspired by his love for anime, which brings an interesting if jarring visual language to the fights. Yes, they’re brutal—in an IMAX theater, the punches pop like gunshots—but they’re also fantastical. This fits the material, as Creed at this point is almost a superhero franchise. Both Jordan and Majors absolutely look the part of fearsome, formidable and superheroic heavyweight boxers.
The film feels a little cluttered when it veers away from the Adonis-Dame storyline. But nothing comes off as insincere or untrue to the world of the film and its characters. Thompson’s Bianca remains more than a concerned wife and mom, and their daughter’s fascination with Adonis’s career and what that implies not only lays the groundwork for the possible extension of the franchise, but adds a layer of complication to the Creed family drama. Thompson plays such an effective foil to Jordan’s Creed, able to push him with an expression or glance. Bianca’s few interactions with Dame are dynamite, and more than a little charged. That the side-plot around the deteriorating condition of Creed’s mother, played with warmth by Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show), feels underdeveloped is likely due to the fact that it means we’re not watching Adonis-Dame.
Does Creed III stick its landing? I’m skeptical. During the climactic bout—staged as well as possible at Dodger Stadium—Jordan makes a bold visual choice that is likely to engender a mixed reaction. It’s a visual manifestation of metaphor, which brings a high degree of difficulty, and I don’t think it really works. It’s a haymaker that just grazes the cheek. Thematically, the film ends how a boxing film and a franchise film essentially need to. Dame’s story is so interesting, but ultimately exists in service of Adonis’s redemption arc. That’s ultimately a disappointment.
But that doesn’t make the film a disappointment. Creed III is at times exhilarating, both because of the loud, exciting in-ring action, and because of the fascinating internal duel that Jordan and Majors (to be honest, mostly Majors) give us. There are some risks taken, both aesthetically and as it deviates and departs from the Rocky mythology. As far as big-budget franchise filmmaking goes, you can do a lot worse than Creed III.
Creed III is in theaters now.