The key to a good franchise is a healthy sense of evolution. That can be difficult when you’ve been in the works for as long as “Rocky,” but “Creed,” Ryan Coogler’s 2015 spin-off about the boxing juggernaut, did the trick. Eight years and a sequel later, Creed III advances this evolution.
Creed III continues the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed and an unstoppable force in the world of boxing. After the events of Creed II, Adonis has less on his shoulder than we’ve seen before. He is on top of the world, finally settled with his life situation. But a ghost from his past lurks just around the corner, out to destroy everything he’s worked so hard for.
Not only does Jordan reprise his role as Adonis in the third installment, but he also makes an impressive directorial debut, proving he’s just as much a force behind the camera as he is in front of it, and breathing new life into the franchise. In the first two Creed films, Adonis sets out to prove something, either to the world or to himself. But Creed III is less about proving something and more about reconciliation and growth. With a strong script, skilled hands behind the camera, and two lead performances that work in perfect tandem with one another, Creed III manages to tackle tough topics like forgiveness and guilt while still creating an enjoyable sports movie.
At the beginning of the film, Adonis, after an incredibly successful performance in the ring, has retired to a rather quiet life. He is married to Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who has become a famous music producer, and they live in a stunning mansion in the Hollywood Hills, almost to the point of vomiting. He spends his days helping to mentor the new generation at the gym with Tony “The Little Duke” Evans (Wood Harris), or throwing fictional tea parties with his adorable daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). In short, everything is pretty perfect.
But someone has returned to remind Adonis of the past he tried so hard to forget. After years in prison, his childhood friend Damian (Jonathan Majors) is finally free. They were inseparable when they were young, and Damian was the most promising boxing prodigy – until a night outing led to a chance encounter that turned violent. The police showed up, Adonis ran away, and Damian left. Now he’s back with a bone to pick, the prodigal son is back and only Adonis stands in his way.
At the beginning of “Creed”, we are introduced to the difficult childhood of Adonis. Creed III tells the story of his early life, but injects the light of friendship into the equation. Young Adonis (Alex Henderson) watches over young Damian (Spence Moore II) like an impatient puppy, happy to turn a blind eye when Damian picks a fight or hangs out with the wrong people. The older Adonis feels the same affection for his friend, but is exponentially more wary—not only of what Damian’s return means, but of what emotions he will experience if he allows himself to return to that harrowing night. But there is still the same reverence, now tinged with guilt, that blinds Adonis to the fact that Damian may not have the purest of intentions in returning.
Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin’s screenplay does a great job of juxtaposing Adonis and Damian’s personal grudges against each other against the larger context in which they exist. It is understandable why Damian resents Adonis’ success and why Adonis, despite sound advice from those around him, allowed the guilt of what happened that night to cloud his judgment about how to proceed with Damian’s return. But the script also has an undercurrent of sadness over lost friendship that is always there, even if Adonis and Damian don’t see it themselves.
In multiple flashbacks, we’re privy to the easy chemistry between young Adonis and Damian before things go awry. In the present day, the two men work so hard to protect their true feelings from each other that the uncomplicated relationship they once shared is erased. The way the flashbacks unfold heightens the audience’s sense of loss, especially as we watch the two men fail to communicate how the world has failed them. They were children, and there is no one to blame – but it is easier to blame a person in front of you than a system that you cannot see.
With his direction, Jordan brings to life the personal and larger tension in both the fight scenes and the quieter moments. The boxing matches are thrilling, with the camera following the action closely to showcase the mastery of the fight choreography and expertly using sharp and fast cuts to emphasize the power of the punches. But the power of struggle would be useless if we could not see the weight of human emotion behind it. Unsurprisingly, in a movie like this, Adonis and Damian would have to face each other in the ring at some point. But even when Damian meets another fighter, the camera still focuses on his connection with Adonis, with the other boxer’s injury less important than Adonis’s reaction. No matter who Damian is in the ring with in his rush to the top, he is really fighting Adonis.
If Creed III is anything to go by, the film teeters on the side of the Adonis medal, giving his reconciliation with the past more importance than Damian’s journey. But what Majors can do with a character that hasn’t had much to do with should make us even more excited for where his career will go. His superpower lies in the vulnerability that seeps through his tough-guy act, a quality that makes him an even more compelling antagonist. When he and Adonis finally enter the ring, that threat fades, even as the fight itself gets more brutal.
Although it is a boxing film, some of its strongest moments are its quietest. In one of the film’s best scenes, Adonis and Damian are sitting in a diner moments after their reunion. Jordan cuts to intense close-ups on each man as they talk, evoking an intimacy that feels very private. Both men are isolated from each other, but the closeness with which the camera observes them allows micro-expressions to move across each actor’s face at their leisure, revealing the truth behind the mask. There’s a look of guilt on Jordan’s face as he carefully sidesteps the issue of their shared past, and Majors uses his natural charisma to hide the subtle notes of anger and anguish that play across his features. Their conversations throughout the film feel more like chess matches than a true connection, and Jordan emphasizes the different lines of their lives through his direction. These are two sides of the coin – the same, but opposite. And this is the truth they have to accept.