Creed III Review: A Knockout That Swaps Spectacle for Sincerity

One of the biggest themes of Ryan Coogler's Creed was that Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) wanted to step out of the shadow of his father Apollo Creed, a focal point of the original Rocky films, and carve his own legacy. By directly including Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa in Creed, the film served somewhat as a spinoff but also as an authentic continuation of the franchise that kicked off in 1976. With Creed III, the franchise has pulled off what Adonis aimed to accomplish, as we're given a movie that fully steps out of the looming shadow of both Balboa and Stallone that shirks the constraints of a typical sports drama to lean more fully into the heart of our lead character, instead using those depictions of athleticism to heighten the tension.

After conquering the boxing world from inside the ring, Adonis "Creed" begins focusing more on promoting his boxers at the Delphi Gym and spending time with his family. When childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) returns to catch up with Creed, he hopes to make up for the years he spent in prison, asking Adonis to get him a shot at a title. Creed finds himself torn between his commitment to his family, his reputation, and his past, putting all aspects of his life on a path that leads him toward stepping back inside the ring.

Creed is nothing short of a triumph, as Coogler's direction and script (which he co-wrote with Aaron Covington), along with a commanding performance by Jordan, was already enough to make it a captivating experience, with the inclusion of Stallone's Balboa evoking a deeper emotional connection to the story unraveling on screen. The sequel, however, wasn't nearly as effective, as Stallone co-wrote with Juel Taylor while Steven Caple Jr. stepped in as director. The absence of Coogler was severely felt, as the sequel's story of Creed having to fight the son of the man who killed his father in the ring tipped too far into the realm of legacy and Rocky's former glory than the power of Adonis himself as a character. With Stallone (begrudgingly) exiting the franchise entirely and Coogler scoring a story by credit (alongside Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin), the series has fully left the Rocky connection behind and it's all the better for it.

Regardless of the merits of each individual installment, the Rocky and now Creed franchises could assuredly be described as "boxing movies," with many audiences buying a ticket for the boxing and being drawn in by the characters. Creed III is arguably the first entry in the franchise in which boxing feels like an afterthought, where the audience will be less invested in the results of any given match and will become more intrigued by seeing how these characters and their lives unfold amidst the tension. Watching Creed's daily activities, such as how his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) copes with taking a backseat as a musician to become a producer or the struggles his deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) faces at school, especially as the daughter of someone praised for their combat abilities, rival how engaging the boxing sequences are. Even Damian, who we know to be the antagonist, has a complex and compelling backstory, leading audiences to hope to see these two childhood friends find common ground, as they both have justifiable motivations and explanations for their falling out. 

This isn't to say that the boxing sequences aren't riveting in their own right, as Jordan -- making his directorial debut -- finds new ways to showcase the sport in ways that feel fresh to the franchise. There feels like only so many ways boxing can be filmed and only so many ways that any bout can end, yet Jordan still manages to keep us on our toes. We're no longer shocked by the impact of each and every punch, showcasing the physical resilience these boxers take, but our fighters are instead allowed to demonstrate their precision, strategy, and control, highlighting how Creed has matured as a fighter. The final match specifically showcases how these conflicts are less about dealing devastating blows and instead serve as extensions of the characters involved. The Creed franchise has featured a lot of metaphors already, with this sequel getting a bit more experimental and a bit more literal when depicting what these men are fighting for. Given that Jordan has already expressed interest in continuing the franchise, we wouldn't be surprised if future installments drop the boxing almost altogether.

Much like Adonis himself, Jordan has also matured and grown more nuanced with the character. It's clear that he knows this character inside and out, making it a joy to watch him with his family, especially given how many times we've seen him assume he could punch his way out of any situation. Whether he's having a tea party with his daughter, listening in on Bianca's recording session, or trying to convince his mom Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) to move in with him, Jordan and his costars show that they all have what it takes to explore this franchise in any direction they see fit. Majors similarly delivers a tragic figure who avoids the bombast of his recent villainous turn as Kang the Conqueror for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with his fidgety energy making it both easy to sympathize with him or loathe him for how he navigated the situation. Wood Harris also deserves recognition as an unsung hero of the franchise, as his Tony "Little Duke" Evers might not ever become a major character, but Harris crackles with charm and charisma every time he's on screen.

That's not to say that the film is a total victory, as the script itself, especially with its dialogue and undercooked ancillary characters, doesn't feel quite as effective as the main figures themselves, or as the direction. The overall story works and all of its pertinent beats make sense, but the dialogue leans into melodramatic tropes, at times, and falls into ineffective formulas. Still, Jordan, Thompson, Majors, and Rashad all manage to do the absolute best with what they're given, managing to make even the most rote of exchanges feel engaging.

Even with scenes of underwhelming dialogue, Creed III reminds us that we're all the main characters of our own stories, challenging us to both reckon with and make peace with this fact. The Rocky and Creed franchises have a history of delivering relatively one-dimension antagonists, whether they be members of the Drago family, Clubber Lang, or "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, though this installment conceptually challenges us to root for both fighters, at least in a sense. The tensions between Creed and Bianca come from a place of love, support, and empathy, rather than descending into the predictable challenges of a champion tasked with embracing a life of domesticity. All of the characters, no matter their physical abilities, have to cope with how there are many struggles that can't be solved with a boxing match and how, in a world that operates by either wins or losses, there actually is more to life than emerging a contest victoriously.  

When audiences first met Adonis, we met a man who felt like he had no other destiny in life than to fight, as it was all he knew as a kid. Nearly a decade later, we see a man who knows he doesn't have to fight anymore, and it's a testament to his, and the franchise's, journey that there is more vulnerability and power in a conversation between two men in a locker room than even the most well-choreographed fight scene. Even if Jordan never continued the character, Creed III can serve as a closing of the book on the figure, thanks to the film showcasing that, just because life throws you emotional hardships, it doesn't mean that you're down for the count.

Rating: 4 out of 5

(Photo: MGM Studios)

Creed III lands in theaters on March 3rd.