A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2023


2023, PG-13, 116 mins.

Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed  /  Tessa Thompson as Bianca Taylor  /  Jonathan Majors as Damien Anderson  /  Phylicia Rashād as Mary Anne Creed  /  Wood Harris as Tony 'Little Duke' Evers  /  Tony Bellew as Pretty Ricky Conlan  /  Mila Davis-Kent as Amara Creed  /  Jacob 'Stitch' Duran as Stitch  /  

Directed by Michael B. Jordan  /  Written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin




For the first time in the CREED franchise, star Michael B. Jordan has taken a page out of Sylvester Stallone's playbook and has assumed the mantle of director, giving him a level of creative control not previously granted to him.  This seems like a logical career and series move, seeing as Stallone directed all but two of the ROCKY films that gave birth to CREED, so part of the excitement in seeing this third installment of the boxing exploits of Apollo's son is in witnessing what Jordan can do behind the camera and bring to the table here.  

The first CREED from 2015 (co-written and directed by Jordan's FRUITVALE STATION helmer Ryan Coogler) was a revelation and achieved the near impossible, being both a rock solid series reboot and a sequel to the iconic ROCKY films that Stallone created.  The inevitable follow-up in 2018's CREED II wasn't as fresh and perhaps clinched too much to franchise troupes, but it was nevertheless an intriguing and enjoyable chapter.  Now comes the Jordan quarterbacked CREED III, which tries to shake things up a commendable amount while perhaps still adhering to obligatory storytelling conventions for these types of films.  It also has sorely and distractingly erased Stallone's Rocky character completely from the proceedings (more on that later), which will undoubtedly rub fans the wrong way.  But CREED III makes up for its obvious creative sins with a nuanced and chilling new villain, not to mention that Jordan has more than a few compelling tricks up his sleeve as director here, making me yearn to see more films from him (CREED based on not) in this capacity.

In CREED III we are re-introduced to Adonis in retirement, who has said goodbye to the sport that has meant everything to him and, in turn, has decided to settle down to domestic family time with his loving wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and their hearing impaired daughter, Amara (a wonderful Milas-Davis Kent). Before this, though, Jordan and screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin open their film back in 2002 L.A., during which time we meet young Adonis as a plucky teen that has become friends with the wrong kind of troublemaker in Damien. Both adolescents not only get involved in the dicey world of underground gambling, but also the amateur boxing world, which the older Damien is a part of as a highly promising up-and-comer that could go far. Things change forever for the pair of tight BFFs when - on one fateful night - Adonis snaps and gets violent with someone that had once done him seriously wrong, but Damien intervenes before his pal gets too carried away.  Wielding a gun, Damien takes control of the situation, but then the police show up and Adonis flees the scene, leaving poor Damien being arrested, charged, and then sent to prison.  I have to say, as far as outside-of-the-box openings to this series goes, I found this one unexpectedly gripping.

Flashforward nearly two decades and Damien, now an adult (played by Jonathon Majors, who recently played another baddie in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA), has just been released from prison after a tough 18 years and makes his presence immediately felt in Adonis' life.  The retired pugilist doesn't immediately recognize his old friend, but when he does he shares a hug and lunch with him so they can reflect on old times.  Damien, being an ex-con, is obviously down-on-his-luck and penniless, whereas Adonis has achieved wealth, fame, and respect in the world of boxing, something that Damien was obviously hungry for all those years ago.  Adonis offers him money, but the proud Damien refuses and instead asks him to help get him back into the boxing world so he can finally attain his own dreams.  Reluctantly, Adonis acquiesces, much to the chagrin of his former training (Wood Harris ), but he allows Damien to become a sparing partner for their protégée and champion of the world in Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez).  Damien has the obvious drive and abilities to make it as a boxer, but he becomes obsessed in asking Adonis to fast track him to a title shot.  From hereon in, Damien begins to show his true dark colours as a psychotic manipulator that wants to destroy everything his now former friend has going for him, which culminates in Adonis having to come out of retirement to...well...c'mon now...it doesn't take a fortune teller to know what happens in this film's third act. 



Majors is most definitely one of the core new ingredients that makes CREED III work as well as it does despite its deficiencies, and the attuned actor has a field day sinking his teeth into this deeply unnerving new adversary for Adonis, who has more than his fair share of gripes with him.  He is not an unthinking brute of masochistic rage that has permeated past ROCKY films, and under Major's shrewd performance dynamics and the intriguing scripting developments (at least in the earlier stages), Damien becomes a protagonist with understandable levels of heat with Adonis that later gives way to ferocious mind game antics that see him attaining lightning quick success in pro boxing.  Then there's the whole added new subtext of Adonis' past that's tied to him abandoning Damien and letting him take the fall and ruining his life in the process, and through this character dynamics between hero and villain have more personal weight.  For Adonis, initially helping and then having to confront Damien in the ring is not just about rousing victory, but dealing with past demons that he has kept bottled up for years from all those close to him.  CREED III is the ninth film in the ROCKY cinematic universe (if I could call it that), and just when you think that it has all but run out of gas as far as evil opponents go, Jordan and company thanklessly deliver a good one here.  Having said that, it is never once believable that an ex-con with 18-years in the slammer and with no pro-experience whatsoever would ever, ever be given an instant title shot.  What boxing organization vetted this?  Rocky, by comparison, was also given a million to one shot, but he still had a pro record in the books when handpicked by Apollo.  

Movies of this ilk build, of course, to the climatic big fight in the film's final act, and although I became invested in the narrative leading in that showed patience and an observant eye in dealing with Adonis and Damien's falling out of grace, CREED III seems to really rush its way trough the compulsory dual training montages and to the fight itself.  I am usually at odds recently with films that are too bloated and long for their own good, but Jordan could have perhaps added another ten minutes or so to his rookie effort to build up this world-shattering bout between these ex-buddies.  And as far as outcomes go, CREED III forges as predictable of a path as any of the previous films in this near fifty-year franchise is concerned.  I could counter-argue that old formulas are not the main issue with these films, but rather how they pull them off, and for the most part, Jordan successfully achieves his end game.  Added to that is Jordan's considerable stylistic flair that he brings to this epic donnybrook itself, and there's a crucial moment when he does something thoroughly unique in the manner he uses visual effects, sound design, editing, and some fantastical imagery to condense this long match into a few minutes.  The ROCKY and CREED films have played with time before in their final bouts, but Jordan does something more dreamlike and haunting with his choices here, giving audiences a reinvigorating perspective on these two warriors pummeling each other for supremacy.

All of this is great, but what's not great is the larger elephant in the room for CREED III, that being the totally AWOL presence of Rocky himself, who was an instrumental driven force in the development of Adonis as a boxing legend.  To be fair, CREED II offered a pitch perfect sense of closure to Stallone's immortally cherished character as far as his future participation in boxing goes and allowed for him to find peace with previously estranged family members.  I also understand the need of this series to look forward as opposed to backwards in handing over the torch to new blood.  No one should be suggesting that Stallone - who already casts an overwhelmingly large shadow in this franchise - should have been a primary focus here.  Unfortunately, Jordan and his writers do nothing to explain Rocky's whereabouts.  Where is he?  What's he up to?  Why does he have virtually no contact with Adonis anymore?  Are they estranged or still tight?  There has been some well publicized bad blood between Stallone and producer Irwin Winkler as of late over series rights, which has clearly soured to the point where the Italian Stallion has been all but retconned out of these films.  Hell, his name only gets dropped once by Adonis in a conversation.  Even in his mansion's vast and elaborate shrine of mementos from his career, there's not even a single picture of everyone's favorite punchy Philadelphia brawler.  Stallone retains an Executive Producer credit here, which almost seems like a slap in the face.  I get that the main attraction of CREED films for the future needs to be...well...Creed himself, but the confusing and confounding treatment that the out-of-sight and mind Rocky gets here is quite sad.   

Jordan fumbles the ball on a few other elements, like Thompson's character, who's going through her own career transformation this go-around, but seems to be more sidelined in this picture without as much to do.  Also, there's a completely telegraphed subplot involving another key character whose outcome can be seen from a mile away.  I did appreciate that this CREED film focuses more on the ties between father and daughter and how the story embraces not only inclusiveness with its hearing impaired characters and the natural way they use sign language, but also with how Adonis and Amara form their own unique bond separate from what he has with Bianca.   I had more nagging qualms with CREED III than I had with the previous two entries, and while it makes concentrated attempts to challenge formulas, it still sticks to many of them, making for a mostly conventional boxing picture.  What saves it from being disposable - and why I'm ultimately recommending it, but with caveats - is Majors' sizeable presence and Jordan's natural skills as a director, and it's a confident and splashy debut for him.  I'm not entirely sure where Jordan and his team can logically take this series next...and maybe - just maybe - they should stop while they're relatively ahead.  Even the ROCKY films started creatively fizzling out after its second sequel (with the exception of the improbably good ROCKY BALBOA late in the game).  

As the very wise Mr. Balboa once said, "Time takes everybody out. Time is undefeated."

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