Nostalgia can only take audiences so far when it comes to films. It’s not that sequels or reboots and the like are bad, it’s just that they so often rely on meta material rather than moving things forward or making them contemporary. There is the rare outlier that not only moves the story forward within the original narrative universe, but allows itself to grow into something new. I say this because when one considers Creed III, the directorial debut of actor Michael B. Jordan (Creed I & II), it’s important to remember that this is the ninth film in the Rocky Universe kicked off in John G. Avildsen-directed Sylvester Stallone-written/led 1976 film Rocky. The Creed films are a complete miracle, the rare lightning in a bottle that’s managed to, in varying shades, capture the essence of the original films, explore significant moments in the series from a different perspective, and, ultimately, move them forward. Smartly, rather than give audiences what they expect out of a third Creed film (Clubber Lang redux), Creed III goes smaller and more intimate without pulling a single punch.
Adonis Creed (Jordan) has done exactly what he set out to do. He’s the Lightweight and Heavyweight Champion, he’s reclaimed the Creed name, and he’s built a beautiful life with adoptive mother Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). Things are seemingly going smoothly until an old friend from Adonis’s past, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), shows up at Delphi Gym looking to reconnect after being recently released from prison. Feeling a sense of responsibility, Adonis offers to help out Damian anyway he can, unaware that this is merely the first move in a larger game of chess between the two men, in which the Adonis initial offer is actually Damian’s preliminary action toward total domination and checkmate.
Of all the Creed films, III is the shortest, clocking in at roughly 116 minutes with credits, compared to 133 minutes for Creed and 130 minutes for Creed II. The reduced runtime occurs because the script from Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (Ryan Coogler only has a story-by and producing credit this time around) makes great use of the groundwork laid before, enabling the film to move swiftly, landing the emotional beats within the new narrative conflict constructed. This is the beauty of making a third film in a series, so make sure that you’re well-versed in the prior two films before watching III if you want to understand the shorthand utilized here. Don’t mistake this to mean that the script fails to explore the characters in order to make space for the new, it’s that things are treated with a certain realism in the way that characters interact or interrogate each other, allowing the performances and setting to fill the space of dialogue that would otherwise be required with characters or circumstances the audience doesn’t know. For instance, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is full of exposition due to the new environment and brand-new villain, Majors as Kang the Conqueror. Here, however, all the principles are well-established, so having Damian and Bianca merely stand together by themselves at a crowded party where they discuss their dreams and happiness may be brief, but it directly relates to the larger theme of the film of personal happiness as it relates to where people thought they’d be in their lives. We’ve seen Bianca’s trajectory in the prior two films, so Tessa’s work as Bianca in the scene relies on that prior knowledge (which she does beautifully), allowing for new character Damian to get more dialogue in. This short-hand is used throughout the film, trusting the audience to be well-versed in the mythology of the Rocky Universe so as to be able to keep up.
Where the runtime is noticeably short is the way in which some aspects seem to be skipped, creating several continuity issues. One is more theatrical, like the way wounds heal perhaps too quickly from one scene to another. This can be forgiven within the scope of the story. The other, however, is a little harder to navigate as it relates to rules set up by the prior two Creed films: the absence of Rocky. Charmingly nicknamed “Unc” in the previous two films, aspects of the script head to places where Rocky would undoubtedly appear, yet he doesn’t. In fact, he’s not even mentioned. This story is incredibly intimate to a degree where it’s almost bare-bones — the scoring is stripped down at times, less triumphant; the narrative about brothers in conflict and unaddressed trauma rather than title shots — so it makes sense that the characters involved would also been reduced to the necessities. This is smart and only enhances the thematic and narrative tension (again, credit to the screenwriters on this), but as this is the first film *without* Rocky, it’s something that’s hard not to notice, especially in the more emotional moments of Adonis’s journey where Rocky would be a reliable support.
That said, a great deal of Creed III — thematically — is about letting go of the past in a healthy way and moving forward. Sometimes, in order to do that, you need to be able to address the past and stand on your own. In Creed, Adonis was trying to make his own way without trading on his name, yet he needed Rocky to break in properly. In Creed II, it was about settling old debts and healing old wounds via the Creed/Drago bout. Therefore, as a means of growth, Creed III shrinks everything down so that the battle is really between Adonis and himself. Wood Harris’s Little Duke reminds Adonis what Adonis and Rocky have been told before, boxing is about the battle within. So while so much of III is about these two men litigating their relative offenses, the film as a whole is about their inability to reconcile these things within themselves. Certainly we wouldn’t get the boxing matches that the Rocky films are famous for if there weren’t some kind of fisticuffs involved, but more than any other film in this current trilogy, there’s possibly far less fighting and way greater stakes. Again, this speaks to the intimacy of the narrative because it’s way more personal than it ever was as the fight these two characters — Adonis and Damian — wage is not with each other but themselves.
Speaking of the fights, III has some of the best since the first. It’s not that II didn’t have electric boxing sequences, it’s that Coogler made us feel like we were *in* the ring whereas more distance was felt under Steven Caple Jr.’s direction. Jordan blocks the action and stages the shots so that we’re not only closer than we’ve ever been, but we, the audience, get a sense of the mental processes, the game of chess in their minds, that fighters undergo in a bout. Where are they looking, what do they focus on and why, are just a few of the things that Jordon drills into, making each of the fights something that the audience often feels like they’re in the middle of. It’s evident that Jordan’s been paying attention while on set, deftly managing the difficult task of running the set while also acting. But what will surprise is the way that Jordan communicates the internal with the external. Leaning into the already stripped down dramatic elements, the bout the entire film builds towards is as much a scream as a whisper, harkening back to the days of gladiatorial combat but where life or death is more figurative and honor bound. Those who are aware of Jordan’s anime fandom (rumor has it his Killmonger get-up in Black Panther (2018) is inspired by Sayian fighter Vegeta of long-running anime Dragon Ball Z (1989-1996)) will particularly love the confrontation between blood brothers Adonis and Damian, the depiction looking as brutal and heartbreaking as anything from well-known Japanese shōnen (juvenile) manga and anime.
By the way, the screening set up by MGM for media was in a standard theater. I mention this because I found myself absolutely locked into the fight sequences, not just because of the execution but due to buying in on the emotional aspects. Now, this film was shot in IMAX, so I can only imagine how intense Creed III will feel the first time through. Make of that what you will.
There is a great deal to be discussed about Creed III, but not all of it can be explored without spoiling specific elements of the film. I can’t wait for the home release in order to dig even deeper into the film. For now, though, I’ll leave you with this: Jordan is an incredibly assured director for his first time in the chair. He understands the geography he’s working with and the performances he gets from his entire cast, from the main performers to the smaller, almost cameo-like parts, indicate a level of trust and comfort. Majors, once again, devastates on-screen. He brings a quiet danger to Damian that isn’t blind rage or greed (ideas that may be ascribed to Clubber Lang of Rocky III (1982)), but speak to larger issues of communication, grief, and healing. As with the Creed films before, Damian is a “villain” in so far as he tries to put Adonis on his heels and Majors is so skilled at bringing out the layers necessary for the audience to believe the character as a mirror to Adonis. Though the other characters don’t get the kind of screen time you may want due to the shortened runtime, none of them feel as if they’re absent an arc or purpose. One step at a time, one punch at a time: this series just gets better and better.
In theaters March 3rd, 2023.
For more information, head to the official MGM Creed III webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews
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