‘Creed III’ review: Michael B. Jordan directs, stars and impresses

Michael B. Jordan (left) opposite Jonathan Majors in ‘Creed III’. United Artists Release

With that of 2015 Beliefdirector Ryan Coogler gave us the pound-for-pound best “legacyquel” in the world, building a stable and satisfying new addition to the foundation of Sylvester Stallone’s rocky franchise. But just like with the rocky movies, the next movie was confused and forgettable, struggling to strike the balance between heartfelt family drama and hyperbolic sports movie bombast found in the saga’s most successful installments. The rocky series struggled with this formula for decades, often resulting in overcorrections such as the 2 hour workout montage of Rocky IV or the dour and depressing Rocky V.

FAITH III ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Michael B Jordan
Written by: Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad
Duration: 116 minutes.

Now, similar to how Stallone reinvented his boxing saga as a colorful comic book in Rock IIIhas imbued star and debut director Michael B. Jordan Creed III‘s adult character drama with the intensity cranked up to 11 of his own childhood cartoons. Good news: cartoons have a lot better since 1982, and consequently Creed III is amazing, confidently handling the poignancy and playfulness of its most memorable predecessors.

Years after defending his heavyweight title in Creed II, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Jordan) has hung up his gloves and devoted himself to training and promoting younger fighters, as well as his family life with pop producer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and young daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) . Donnie has outgrown the shadow of his late father Apollo and his mentor, Rocky Balboa, to the extent that the latter’s absence in this episode feels completely natural. This film is about Donnie’s own past, personified by Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), his childhood best friend who has spent the past 18 years behind bars. Damian, a promising amateur boxer before his arrest, is who Donnie could have become if he hadn’t been plucked out of poverty by his father’s fabulously wealthy widow (Phylicia Rashad). Following Damian’s release, the guilt-ridden former champion offers to help him get back on his feet, but Damian has higher ambitions and will stop at nothing to take back the life he believes Donnie stole from him.

Damian becomes the Iago of Creed’s Othello, masterminding a coup for the highest crown in boxing and throwing our hero into emotional turmoil. It’s a score that can only be settled in the ring, leading to a clash that owes just as much Dragon Ball as it does Raging bull. This conflict is not only compelling, but refreshingly self-contained, making it the rare modern sequel that capitalizes on its franchise’s complicated history, but also feels like it would play just as well for someone with no previous experience or interest in it.

Though not quite as compelling as Coogler’s masterful one-take attacks from the first Belief, Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of boxing does a better job of emphasizing the sport’s strategy and intellectual challenge, using slow motion and extreme close-ups to highlight not only the power of hooks and jabs, but their precision and timing. The fights of Creed III play like chess matches, and Creed’s new nemesis is, appropriately, as much a cerebral threat as a beefcake. (Related: I want to give a compliment Creed III for how long until we see Jonathan Majors shirtless. You just realize how big this guy is too late.) Damian is by far the most complicated opponent this franchise has ever given us, and Majors puts so much pain, anger, and sadness behind his eyes that it’s hard not to connect with Damian, even in the moments when he wants to be seen become like a swaggering, moustache-twirling villain. One can easily imagine a version of Creed III that’s straight-up drama without the silly sports intrigue, and that would have worked just fine, but Jordan and Majors absolutely deserve the added anime intensity of their feud, too. When their ill-fated final fight takes an expressionist turn, it’s admittedly quite corny, but not inappropriate, especially when it’s only ten minutes apart from the mandatory dueling training montages common in all rocky & Belief movies.

Tessa Thompson (left) and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Creed III.’ United Artists Release

The film’s broader elements are balanced by the more intimate family dynamic among the Creeds. In the absence of Rocky Balboa, Donnie’s other relationships are given much more room to grow, especially his marriage to Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a musician with degenerative hearing loss. Creed III continues to explore Donnie as the anti-Rocky, a hothead who finds it hard to be vulnerable in front of his confident, successful partner. Both as a father and a manager, he is now forced to be the adult in the room, a role that is difficult to fulfill when he is still afraid of his own feelings. Jordan isn’t as dialed in here as he was in the first film (possibly a result of directing himself), but Thompson and Majors more than pick up on his slack.

The story cleverly draws a parallel between Bianca’s condition and Damian’s incarceration, as both represent lost time with the craft they nurture. Deaf itself thankfully isn’t stigmatized (Creed’s vivacious daughter Amara was born deaf and has boxing aspirations of her own), but the movie also stops at roundly condemning the justice system that locked a poor, orphaned teen in jail for the better part of two decades. The focus remains on the specific character conflict, and the screenplay (by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylan) makes it clear that Donnie doesn’t have to feel guilty about his massive, high-tech mansion or his personal chef. Still in the spirit of the original rocky, Creed III strongly implies that many of life’s “losers” could become champions if only given the chance. Best of all, the story forces Adonis to examine the privilege he spent the first film trying and not throwing away. With this third chapter, the Belief series remains a more interesting examination of class, caste, and American meritocracy than the rocky movies ever were, all within the confines of crunchy, buttery popcorn cinema.

Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.

'Creed III' review: Michael B. Jordan directs, stars and impresses

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