For a first-time director, actor Michael B. Jordan lands a solid punch. As soon as the bell rings, it’s on.
Continuing a boxing movie franchise that started back in 1976, with the Oscar-winning film Rocky, and sustaining that winning spirit for 47+ years is quite a responsibility. Filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Creed and Creed II) was up to that task and passed it on to Jordan. With characters established by Coogler and now further nurtured by screenwriters Keegan Coogler & Zach Baylin for Creed III, another well-written script respectively continues the legacy. Three-dimensional characters, weighty backstories, fated destinies, revenge, regret… It all pushes the narrative forward.
Former World Heavyweight Champion Adonis Creed (Jordan) has nothing to prove. His glory days, titles and legendary wins are history. Now he resides in a tony part of L.A., comfortably rich. His very understanding and emotionally stabilizing wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Passing) keeps him grounded. Their young daughter Amara (Mila Davis Kent) adores him. He owns the Delphi Academy where boxers train and the current WHC Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez) is coached by his old friend Tony “Little Duke” Burton (Wood Harris, TV’s Empire). Minus his mom’s (Phylicia Rashad) failing health, life is good.
One day an old buddy and boxing mentor from his teenage years shows up. When Damian Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors, Last Man in San Francisco), an ex-con, appears in a parking lot, the old boyz from the hood reunion seems uncomfortable. Dame: ‘I just got out.” Adonis: “What’s the plan? Dame: “I wanna be champ!” On the surface, the ex-boxer just wants a chance to compete. Underneath, something is burning like a man wronged looking for payback. With love and generosity, Adonis takes his old buddy into his life and heart. Mistake?
The screenplay takes its time building the characters and giving them deep emotions, from happiness and sadness, to fear and rage. That thoughtfully drawn blueprint pulls viewers into the Creeds and Dame’s lives, struggles and ambitions. It’s more than enough to keep viewers glued to multiple plights for 1h 56m (editors Jessica Baclesse and Tyler Nelson) . Everyone will feel invested in Adonis and his family. Triggered by the interloper’s duplicitousness. Waiting for the reckoning and big fight.
Largely, the movie doesn’t disappoint. Even when some dramatic scenes drag, like an elongated lunch in a diner scene with Dame and Adonis. Or when Adonis confesses his feelings, or lack of, to Bianca. These extended moments could have been a snooze. But the script is earnest, the actors are deep into their craft, Jordan’s direction is fluid and Kramer Morgenthau’s eye-catching cinematography makes the visuals strong.
Maybe the real measure of Jordan’s creative abilities is best displayed in the boxing scenes. He doesn’t disappoint. Fights with Chavez, Dame and Adonis are innovatively shot. Especially the final fight when it seems like the two boxers are in a world of their own. They are. The camera is invisible as it zooms around like a ghost. The attractive sets (production designer Jahmin Assa) disappear. The focus is on two pugilists working out their demons and trying to punch or mindf–k their way to victory.
With most of the Rocky and Creed movies, the protagonist is so beaten, far down on his luck and victimized by misfortune that a comeback seems impossible. You have to root for them. That’s the secret sauce. But here, Dame is the one who has that hunger. After spending almost two decades in prison, recovering from an incident as an adolescent that estranged him from Adonis and crashed his boxing career, winning can be his only salvation. On the other hand, Adonis is a bit boujee. He isn’t broke. He isn’t desperate. Only one of them has the real eye of the tiger, and the flaw is that it isn’t the Rocky-type main character.
The musical playlist jumps right from the gitgo, with beats by Big Sean, Ari Lennox, Kehlani and J. Cole. While Joseph Shirley’s score rocks the house too. Sylvester Stallone’s presence is missed as the weathered champ turned trainer Rocky Balboa—a bridge to the past. But the cast finds their own way. Thompson exhibits a wonderful sensitivity as the family-focused, career-minded and loving quintessential modern Black woman. Benavidez, an actual boxing pro, brings a touch of realism to the Felix character, as does Selenis Leyva (Orange is the New Black), who plays his manager.
Every performance is professional, but Majors as the aggrieved Dame and Jordan as the guilt-ridden Adonis really bring the gravitas. They melt into their characters, are buff and as bromantic, envious and hateful as Cain and Abel. Working class Crenshaw man in one corner. Moneyed Los Angeleno in the other. May the best man win.
Admirers of this boxing saga, adults craving drama, genre fans looking for a fight and those who enjoy excellent acting will go the rounds with Creed III. Why? Because Jordan doesn’t pull any punches. He lands them.
In theaters March 3rd.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.