‘Creed III’ Review: A Majors Challenge

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Creed III, another well-made, crowd-pleasing entry in the Rocky/Creed series, which finds Michael B. Jordan delivering as director and star, with Jonathan Majors adding terrific support.
User Rating: 8

My biggest question for Creed III concerned how Michael B. Jordan could possibly defeat Jonathan Majors. Sure, this is a sports drama and the 9th film set in the Rocky BalboaVerse (the RBCU, if you will), so “good” must triumph over “evil,” right? Naturally, Jordan’s Adonis Creed would have to prevail over Major’s Damian “Dame” Anderson. But how? I do not just mean that in terms of physicality, either. In a short span of time, Majors has proven himself to be a tremendous talent, easily rivaling what Jordan has brought to the screen. Setting up a seemingly impossible challenge only seems fitting in a series that has always focused on the will of the underdog to succeed and holding onto honor amid all the turmoil. As a directorial debut, it seems as though Jordan felt the call and purposely stacked the deck against himself, only to still manage to go the distance.

A brief prologue sets up what we need to know. At a younger age, Creed (played as a youth by Alex Henderson) was friends with Dame (Spence Moore II in these early years). They knew each other through a group home, and Dame aspired to become a boxer. Something happened that led to Dame going away to prison for nearly two decades, but now he’s out and wants the heavyweight title he believes he deserves. Meanwhile, Donnie has retired. He’s living a family life and helping to push new talent into the spotlight. Will a clash with his old friend lead to the most dangerous of ways to settle a score?

Yes, obviously. It’s on the poster. There will be a climactic fight, as that’s what we’re owed when it comes to these kinds of movies. Fortunately, thanks to a story by producer Ryan Coogler, Keenan Coogler, and Zach Baylin, this series has not lost sight of what matters most – the characters. That should not be a surprise. Both the Rocky and Creed films have relied heavily on exploring all the facets of these individuals, allowing the performers to shine as they dig deeper into what makes their signature characters who they are. With that said, Rocky is nowhere to be found this time, so it’s up to Creed to carry this narrative.

Fortunately, he has help. While Jordan continues to shine as Adonis Creed, his strong relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca continues to be a significant component that helps him unveil more of himself. The two have also produced a daughter, Amara, played by young deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent. The representation is appreciated, but watching the film allow two strong personalities define what their child would be like is a nice touch. Rounding out the Creed family, reliably good work also comes from Phylicia Rashad as Creed’s adoptive mother.

Major’s work as “Diamond” Dame Anderson is the largest addition to this film, however. Functioning as a dangerous force of power with a chip on his shoulder, Majors plays this man as a beast who knows how to channel the right energy into all of his scenes. Given plenty of definition as a character, even with enough being shown to know we cannot necessarily root for Dame, it’s very easy to understand where he’s coming from. Best of all, the story and Jordan’s direction put in a lot of work for us to buy the Creed/Dame relationship in a way that suggests a world where these two could still be friends, let alone one and the same, if things were different.

After Creed II played as a riff on Rocky IV by utilizing the son of Ivan Drago (Florian Munteanu’s Viktor Drago actually returns here in a fitting way), there could have been some worry that Creed III would go down that well one time too many. However, given how great Creed II turned out to be, there should have been little doubt. Rocky III and V are mined for ideas a bit with Creed III, but what allows this film to outdo both is the way it makes Dame into a real character. Majors’ work as an actor is a massive part of that, but there’s a more layered approach to what he and Jordan’s characters share that allows this antagonist to outshine the minimal work done to truly define Clubber Lang or Tommy “The Machine” Gunn.

A lot of this comes down to the way Jordan shares the spotlight. While this is very much a Creed movie, even without Rocky, the series has done a fine job opening up this world enough for the various characters to earn their moments. Having the rest of the Creed family, Wood Harris’ “Little Duke” Evers, or even the other boxers’ presence means these characters all exist in a grounded reality. As a result, Creed functions as a human with ways to grow and a system around him rather than a superhero with no shades of grey. The same can be said for Dame, who doesn’t need to twirl his mustache while going after what Creed has.

With that being said, in a world where superhero movies dominate the cinemas, the fights presented in this film are as stunning as ever, and always emotionally compelling. The way this film is able to call back to previous entries in ways that make narrative sense, as well as thematic sense, is a fun way to continue feeling invested in all that’s going on. With that in mind, being the latest in a long-running series, one would hope there are a few new tricks to deploy to mix it up in the ring.

Fortunately, Jordan and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau found some exciting ways to change things up in their presentation (and I’m not just talking about the stunning use of IMAX cameras, a first for a sports film). The intensity is on display, along with some abstract ways of communicating the characters’ mental state with the assistance of visual effects is an innovative effort. It doesn’t undercut the physical shape these men are in, either, as we still see powerful athletes jab and pound into each other. Creed III‘s bouts may not be as epic as some of the best sequences in previous Rocky or Creed films, but they are very well done (and if you didn’t know Jordan was an anime fan before, well, the fights here will undoubtedly bring that realization forward when seeing these figures yell at each other and launch what feel like super punches).

It’s great to observe how remarkably consistent this franchise has been. These Creed films, in particular, have really delivered on what could have merely been a desperate attempt to keep the Rocky series going. The level of respect remains very apparent, and Jordan is clearly eager to continue delivering on the iconography that began with the “Italian Stallion,” only to carry on effectively with “Hollywood Donnie.” With Creed III, I appreciated the work done to make an unexplored area of Adonis’ past play so well for a fleshed-out story. Having Majors providing more excellent work only helps matters. Wherever things go from here for Creed, I’m just happy to know this series has no room for bums, just champions.

Creed III opens in theaters and IMAX on March 3, 2023.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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