Creed III Review: Jonathan Majors Is a Knockout

Creed III is a stylish showcase for Michael B. Jordan as a director and gives us the best challenger this series has seen in decades: Jonathan Majors.

Michael B Jordan and Jonathan Majors in Creed III Review
Photo: MGM

There are boxing sequels and then there are boxing sequels. Longtime fans of the Rocky and Creed franchise should know exactly what we mean by both. Fortunately, Creed III is the latter, as well as one of the best entries in this long-in-the-chipped-tooth franchise. More interesting still, its success pivots on a fairly subversive idea: What if Rocky was the bad guy?

That summary might be an oversimplification of the motivations and backstory ascribed to Jonathan Majors’ Damian Anderson, but it’s also the point. In a series where the opponents are either likable yet oblivious blowhards, a la the original depiction of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), or masochistic cartoon brutes (Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago), here is a rival that challenges our hero Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, compelling as ever), and yet who can also claim a Cinderella story just as sympathetic as the Italian Stallion. Perhaps even more so, since Dam was the childhood pal of Adonis before he took an 18-year rap in prison for a fight Donnie started. 

Yeah, it’s easy to root for Dam in his improbable yet inevitable heavyweight match against Creed. So the fact that the movie is still able to make us cheer Adonis, and (almost) never wonder where Rock is in all of this, is some kind of impressive magic trick for the title character and the actor who brought him to life.

Indeed, Creed III marks Jordan’s third time in the ring and first in the director’s chair. Borrowing a page from Sylvester Stallone, who helmed nearly every sequel with Rocky in the title, Jordan embraces and transcends that legacy by revealing the most visually stylish and exciting eye for fisticuff carnage this side of Ryan Coogler. And even then, Coogler’s first Creed movie attempted to put you inside the ring, finding new ways to make the body blows feel urgent. Jordan, conversely, teases an operatic sensibility as a storyteller, embracing the bombast and melodrama of most of the franchise, yet also elevating it. Creed and Dam’s blows are an exchange between gods doing mighty battle, high above the earthly concerns of this mortal plane.

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When it isn’t concerned with mythic bouts, however, Creed III balances the domestic side outside the arena fairly well, and certainly better than the often turgid Creed II. If the first (and still best) Creed was Adonis’ own Cinderella story, and the second a misguided attempt to remake Rocky IV without the ‘80s robot butler (or fun), then Creed III is at least on paper a reworking of ideas from Rocky III—while doing them better.

As off-screen, it’s been five years since the last movie. That’s a lifetime in the career of a boxer. During the interval, Adonis Creed ruled the world of heavyweight boxing as the undisputed champ for three years. He watched his and wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) daughter grow and flourish, even though young Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) was born deaf. And Adonis hung up the gloves. He’s still managing a brand based on celebrity endorsements and mentoring a new generation of boxers at his gym, but he’s retired, rich, and happy. Like Rocky III, this indulges in the wish fulfillment of seeing the lonely young man flourish in a mansion and status, but it’s not quite Reaganite propaganda (though there’s plenty of product placement). It’s the image of a kingdom built from chaos… and perhaps on a lie of omission.

That omission’s name is Damian, who was Adonis’ big brother in a group home before Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s widow, adopted Adonis as a child in the first movie. However, even after Adonis was taken into the home of a father he never knew, he still ran with Dam who was on his way to a boxing career of his own. At least he might’ve been until Dam tried to fight Donnie’s battle in front of a liquor store, and the cops showed up (these childhood events from 2002 are the first scenes of the movie).

Now in the present, Dam appears like the Ghost of Christmas Past outside Creed’s gym asking for a job, but also implicitly more: He wants a shot at Creed’s life and status, both of which we know without it being said that Dam thinks should’ve been his. To Adonis’ shame, he might agree.

Creed III’s plot pivots on melodramatic revelations and buried secrets—the forgotten “brother” you didn’t know Adonis had, and the guilty memories we try to forget rising to the surface again like an undead revenant in the Cape Fear river. A large reason that it’s so effectively devastating though is Majors’ ferocious performance as Damian. He’s getting a lot more attention these days because of his role of Kang in the MCU, but Creed III is the most captivating he’s been in this reviewer’s mind since his breakout work in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Dam is a wounded, tragic figure who rarely says what’s on his mind, but his anguished face speaks volumes. Flashes of shame, regret, and gratitude intermingle in every interaction he has with Jordan. The way he swallows his pride to ask for help, and is perhaps even disgusted by his own initially controlled envy for his old friend, flickers in his eyes. Entire 15-round duels are internally being waged in the character’s mind almost every time we see him.

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It’s a multifaceted performance wherein Adonis and the viewer have as much reason to root for this guy as they did for Donnie eight years ago. While Damian being so competitive in his late 30s is improbable, the character is not a cartoon, and his grievances are genuine. Jordan, working from a screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, with a story credit by Ryan Coogler, also doesn’t run away from that. He happily frames the two men as doppelgängers, including wide shots where one is bathed in light and the other shadow, each in the same stance while being separated by a wall. The grandeur with which Jordan, the director, treats the material elevates what could be soapy plotting—or at least something as hamfisted as half the other Rocky sequels.

In the press, Jordan has also spoken about being greatly inspired by his love for anime cartoons growing up, and it shows in boxing scenes that rely on speed-ramping to highlight certain punches like a freeze-frame in Dragon Ball Z. It’s certainly more heightened than what Ryan Coogler went for in the first Creed, but it’s provocative enough to never descend into self-parody, which is a frequent risk for this franchise.

It also makes the more formulaic bits palatable. Thompson is unfortunately not given a lot to do as the dutiful and patient wife this time, and the couple’s domestic bliss feels largely like a box being checked. Similarly, there are plot threads not involving Dam that lead to nowhere, such as Adonis learning his daughter is getting into fights at school.

But the lesser parts take away little from the satisfying whole about where life has taken the Son of Apollo Creed. It provides a fairly satisfying conclusion to his journey, too, if this was to be the end (although we doubt it). If they did make another, they may have to address the elephant in the room: Where’s Rock? This movie only mentions him once and avoids his absence feeling inorganic fairly well (other than in one major life-event that occurs to Donnie midway through). But like Creed III hints at, you can’t just bury the past.

Still, Adonis is fully his own man now, and Jordan has never appeared more formidable as he towers above the ring.

Creed III opens on Friday, March 3.

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4 out of 5