“Creed III”: Fighting It Out vs. Working It Out

A giant CREED III theater standee with Jordan and Majors' characters sitting in their corners, glowering, ready to fight.

Killmonger v. Kang. Two villains walk in, one champion walks out.

Previously on Creed: Michael B. Jordan from The Wire IS boxing champion Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the lost son of Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, himself a champ as well as a frequent opponent to, and later best friend of, immortal contenduh Rocky Balboa. In the first Creed, Adonis emerged from his childhood turbulence to seek purpose in the same sport that defined his dad’s life, directed by the great Ryan Coogler (who then moved on to Wakanda). In Creed II Our Hero took on Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, the wrecking machine that murdered Apollo, as overseen by director Steven Caple, Jr. (whose follow-up will be the next Transformers flick). Old man Stallone hung around to show the kid the ropes and assure folks all this was canonical in the Rocky Cinematic Universe.

Next up is Creed III, the RCU’s ninth entry. Rocky is out of the picture and Jordan has taken over the director’s chair, but he’s far from alone in prepping for his next title bout.

Years after Creed II, Our Hero is safely retired and enjoying his rise from childhood group-home poverty to a world-champion lifestyle whose fringe benefits include high-end product-sponsorship deals, a standard reward that’s all in the game. Still at his side is his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose hearing issues complicated her performance aspirations but led instead to a fulfilling career as an in-demand music producer. They have a cute, tiny, deaf daughter named Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) whose favorite streaming subject is all of Dad’s old fights, from which she’s learned a lot of self-defense moves that can too easily be turned on the offense, to one bullying schoolmate’s painful regret. Also living with them is Donnie’s adopted mom, Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, once more with feeling), who’s making progress in her comeback from a recent stroke. Thus the RCU tradition continues of giving us at least one elderly character to worry about deeply and pray for their safety while we’re watching.

Their cushy everyday life, surrounded by Donnie’s sports memorabilia collection inside a mansion with enormous vaulted ceilings (cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau invites us to keep staring up and up) is disrupted when a face reemerges from Donnie’s dark past: childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors, far more intimidating here than in Quantumania). Once upon a time he and Donnie were BFFs until a fight between them and an older man in front of a liquor store sent Damian to prison for 21 years. He’s done his time and wants his life back, up to and including his original aspiration of becoming a boxing champ. Donnie tries gently to break it to him that boxing is a more of a young man’s game, but Damian’s dream is his dream. For old time’s sake, Donnie puts his considerable resources at Damian’s disposal — to the extent that Dame’s ego will allow — and lets him chase that dream to what he thinks will be an abrupt, unhappy ending.

But Damian is hungry. 21 years is a long time to be out of the game, but he focused every minute of it — time to reflect, to plan, to keep training, and to sculpt himself obsessively into a relentless, furious boxing machine. When they were young, Donnie wasn’t even planning to get into the ring, but here he is, living Damian’s dream. Now he wants it back. One against-the-odds win after another, one smooth-talking manipulation after another, Damian’s benign gratitude for Donnie’s charity belies his drive to become The Greatest, even if it means pounding his old pal’s face into mulch. Especially if it means that.

Donnie could’ve just said no and gone diving in his money bin, but deep regret and guilt still haunt him about what went down on that dark night, though he was doing great at manly repression and never mentioning any of that till just now. At first he resists Damian’s loutish master plan (though he strains really hard to resist responding to the old “Baby Creed” taunt like he used to, the same way Marty McFly rankles when you call him “chicken”), but he’s been a capital-B Boxer for a while now and graduated to a far more level-headed place than he was when we first met him. Credit goes to Rocky and Mary Anne for mentoring some self-control into him.

Credit also definitely goes to Thompson, who subtly partners with Jordan to deliver one of the best parts of Creed III. Bianca helps keep his head on straight, supports his choices, and doesn’t fall back into Concerned Wife cliches that’d require her to second-guess his every thought and list a thousand reasons to stay safe outside that ring. When he decides he’s got to fight, he explains his reasoning in a manner more mature than “Damian triple-dog-dared me”, and she’s literally and unironically like, “Okay.” That’s how deeply this husband and wife get each other. They agree it might be the only way to get Damian to shut up and calm down so they can just talk to each other. By a third installment, other film series would be brainstorming ways to test the main characters’ marriage by contriving conflicts to wedge between them. Here we get a rare depiction of a functional marriage that, although talks get rough when Donnie struggles with communicating his feelings, sees past the manly-man issue and they work it out together.

Yeah, inevitably Donnie and Damian fight and fight and fight. In the precursors as well as the final match, Jordan and Morgenthau employ tricks we saw in the last two films, but also display surprising influences from the world of anime. Sliding freeze-frames, angular cuts, extreme slo-mo hits (such as an excruciating body blow that knocks the individual sweat droplets off Donnie’s back) — all of those moves might count as heresies to Stallone purists, but a new generation of boxing-drama fans might appreciate messing with the formula and giving the same old bouts some new edges and new ways to show deep impacts.

As a movie fighter and an actor, Jordan’s still got it in him — that same charisma that made the first two chapters work — but Majors’ overwhelmingly magnetic presence forces him to up his A-game, in the ring and out. Damian is no Clubber Lang (then again, I’m also no longer 10 years old), but he brings far more personality, charisma, and just overall levels than Donnie’s last two Big Bads did. That’s partly thanks to its screenwriters — Ryan Coogler himself, his brother Keenan (Space Jam: A New Legacy), and King Richard‘s Zach Baylin — but mostly on Majors giving his all for yet another knockout performance, one of many that’ll keep him popping onto movie marquees for years to come.

Creed III doesn’t quite hit the gut-level emotional response I had to the first one, which tore into an old, festering wound of mine. But what makes everything ring especially true between these powerhouse opponents is what happens between them after the fight. After the audience has gone home and it’s just them down in an empty locker room, that’s when two grown men set to working out their lifelong issues and 21 years’ worth of extreme tension that needs a better solution than just fight-and-fight-and-fight. It’s a testament to the man Adonis Creed has become and a possible turning point for the man Damian Anderson could become in the next chapter of his life.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other returning friends include Wood Harris from The Wire given a lot more to do this time as Donnie’s manager Duke, who now also runs Donnie’s gym, is still in his corner when it’s time to get back in the ring, and gets some choice opportunities to coach him past his bigger mistakes. Also great to see: Our Hero’s past foes are still in the game because they didn’t simply quit boxing and go become realtors: welcome back Tony Bellew, a.k.a. big-bad Ricky Conlan from the first Creed; and Creed II‘s Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu, who went on to become Shang-Chi’s nemesis Razorfist), much friendlier to live life outside his dad’s monolithic shadow.

Though I don’t really know of him, a special shout-out goes to real-world boxer José Benavidez, Jr., who plays Creed protege/gym member Felix Chavez and, along with everyone else mentioned above, does his part to bring variety and personality to the boxing world beyond the original Rocky films’ parade of glum rage-monsters. Other players with resumes include Selenis Leyva (Orange is the New Black) as Felix’s mom/manager and Spence Moore II (A.P. Bio, The CW’s All-American) as Kid Damian in flashbacks.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Creed III end credits, though the cast list contains nearly as many boxing industry pros playing themselves as it does actors not playing themselves. And the standard list of borrowed copyrights confirms I missed a Lupin III Easter egg, which is understandable given I’m one of those casual dabblers whose go-to is Cowboy Bebop, as opposed to a reputedly certified otaku like Jordan.

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