With Creed III, Michael B. Jordan makes the leap from actor to director, as well as trying to take the Creed franchise out of the shadow of the Rocky franchise that birthed it. He is mostly successful at both endeavors, though he’s hamstrung somewhat by an overcrowded script that is doing too many things at once (the film is written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, with a story assist by Ryan Coogler).
Creed III rockets back and forth on the timeline, taking us back to Adonis “Donnie” Creed’s childhood in a group home (Donnie is played by Thaddeus J. Mixson as a teen), where his closest confidante is his surrogate brother, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Spence Moore II). An incident outside a liquor store ends with eighteen-year-old Dame going to jail for the next eighteen years—the years in which Donnie becomes the heavy weight champion of the world, something young Dame was aiming for himself as a Golden Glover.
We then see Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) at his last fight, after which he retires to focus on his training gym and his fight promotion business. And then we launch forward a few years to find Donnie as a successful promoter, and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), now retired from her own singing career, as a multi-platinum producer and songwriter. They are a Jay-and-Bey inspired power couple, complete with a precocious daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). There are essentially two films jammed into Creed III, one of which is about Donnie and Bianca and legacy and building generational Black wealth within the confines of white capitalism, and the other is the story of Donnie and Dame.
It's the second story that Creed III mostly focuses on, but enough subplots exist from the other story to make Creed III feel like too much and not enough—too much plot, not enough story, and not enough, really, for Thompson, or Phylicia Rashad as Donnie’s adoptive mother, Mary-Anne, to do. They’re present in the story, and Bianca’s central positioning is testament to everyone’s belief in her importance to the Creed franchise, but Thompson spends most of her ample screentime chewing on an underwritten arc that feels superfluous in the face of Donnie’s real emotional challenge: squaring off with Dame and finally confronting years of guilt and bitterness. The family stuff in Creed III just doesn’t feel as well developed, and at least one subplot needs to go in order to give the film the same light-stepping flair as Donnie in the ring.
Because oh, when Creed III drills down on the fraught relationship of Donnie and Dame, it transforms into something special. Falling victim to the franchise trap of “more is more” is really too bad, because the heart of the film lies between two men struggling to communicate with one another. Jordan and Majors give stellar performances, particularly Majors, loading implicit threat and almost unbearable charm in equal parts into Dame. A confronting conversation in a diner is as riveting as any of the fight scenes. As a director, Jordan definitely know what he has, focusing on faces and letting emotions play out in wordless exchanges, which has the additional benefit of letting good acting cover for the script’s weakest points.
About those fight scenes, though, here Jordan reveals a deft touch as a director. There’s a little “look at me” showiness that first-time actor-directors often fall into, but the way Jordan stages the climactic fight—lensed by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau—is truly excellent. Drawing from his love of anime, Jordan deploys a number of techniques, such as dropped sound and blotted perspective, isolating the combatants into narrow fields of vision, that heighten the tension while delivering a well-choreographed fight that feels as breathless as the real thing, and still maintaining the emotional stakes established between Dame and Donnie. It really feels like everything is on the line for both men, and each punch contains all the words neither man could speak.
Without the presence of Sylvester Stallone, in front of or behind the camera, and without Rocky Balboa in the film, Creed III still manages to tell a Rocky story in which boxing is a metaphor for struggle, and a champ can still become an underdog. It proves that Creed can live without Rocky, though Donnie’s arc ends so satisfactorily, one wonders if this is about to become the Dame franchise. There’s a little too much going on in the script, rendering the film top heavy with exposition and undercooked character arcs, but the central conflict of Donnie and Dame and their messy past is solid. Jordan and Majors deliver, and behind the camera, Jordan shows a talent for capturing both emotional and action moments. Creed III is a lot for a rookie director to take on, and Jordan delivers, even if the story is a little wonky. Like Adonis Creed, Michael B. Jordan lands the hits he most needs to.
Creed III is exclusively in theaters from March 3, 2023.
Attached - Michael B. Jordan leaving a Creed III event last night in LA and Jonathan Majors at LAX.