Creed III REVIEW – A Duel for the Ages

Creed III
Creed III

Ryan Coogler’s Creed surprised almost everyone when it arrived in theaters in 2015, managing to tell a powerful new story about a new protagonist while also genuinely continuing the Rocky Balboa story. Creed is a legacy sequel that satisfies fans of the original but is also entirely open to first time viewers. Creed II, by contrast, felt too much like a sequel to both Creed and Rocky IV, a movie that makes almost no sense to anyone not familiar with the previous entries in the lengthy franchise. So it brings me great joy to report that Creed III manages to stand on its own, not only as a boxing movie but also as a drama.

The narrative begins with Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan, who also directs) having retired from fighting, now focusing on running the gym that made him a champion and spending time with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). But when an old friend reenters Adonis’s life after having been in prison for nearly two decades, his idyllic life is thrown into chaos as he navigates conflicting loyalties and struggles with acknowledging his past.

Those conflicting loyalties are certainly enough to make a compelling film, and they do, but Creed III falters by taking on too much. A plotline about Donnie’s adoptive mother suffering a stroke feels somewhat overwrought and unnecessary. The engagement with Donnie’s past flirts dangerously with falling into the current trend of movies and TV shows “about trauma,” but (thankfully) doesn’t commit the film to that being the focus. Both of these plotlines are clearly in service of what can be called the movie’s message, that even strong men need to accept vulnerability and address their complex emotions, but they slow the film’s narrative momentum and put too fine a point on the message in a way that ironically makes it less powerful.

The film’s other drawback is an uncomfortable insistence on respectability politics and “the right way” to go about things. Donnie’s friend Damien “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors) was a boxer with a bright future before going to prison, and now that he’s out, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get a shot at the title. But Donnie repeatedly tells him that there are certain ways he has to do things, and the film seems to be on Donnie’s side. It’s also strange that when Dame teases Donnie about trading in his gloves for a suit and walking red carpets, the movie seems to want us to feel that these taunts are a moral failing on Dame’s part and perhaps even cruel, to say nothing of the outright villainy of some of Dame’s actions later on. Any film that places a Black ex-con as a villain and a wealthy person of any race as a hero raises some eyebrows.

But even with raised eyebrows and some unnecessary diversions, Creed III’s central story of two men with a strong bond coming into high-stakes conflict is riveting. Jordan slips back into the character of Donnie without missing a beat, and Majors is magnificent as always, lending Dame a simultaneous world-weariness and hungry intensity from his first moment on screen. Any doubts about Jordan’s abilities as a director are also laid to rest in the first moments of the film which opens in 2002 Los Angeles offering a glimpse at Donnie and Dame’s past together that highlights the class divide of the city and perfectly introduces the relationship between the then teens.

But it’s the first fight of the film between Donnie and “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) that demands we pay attention to Jordan as a director of action. Much has rightfully been made of Jordan’s anime influence and it’s impossible to miss for anyone who has ever seen action anime. The frenetic editing that draws viewers in as we struggle to make out who’s winning a fight that then abruptly switches to slow motion for devastating blows is invigorating to watch.

Beyond his talent as an action filmmaker, it’s clear that Jordan is willing to make bold visual choices as the final bout between Donnie and Dame takes a surreal visual turn at one point that is heavy handed but emotionally effective. He also uses the LA setting to emphasize issues of class throughout, and as an LA native I can’t help but love to see Jordan running through the Hollywood Hills and Majors working out at Venice Beach.

Creed III is sadly held back from being a masterpiece by its own ambition, but it’s still a visually distinct and emotionally effective film that deserves your attention.

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Creed III
Despite some overwrought melodrama and questionable politics, Creed III succeeds as an emotionally powerful and visually exciting boxing movie.