Following up on a tremendous cinematic sports franchise like “Rocky” can be challenging. But Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler have proven they could do that with the Creed films. The first two honor the legacy of its predecessor with new storytelling and visually stunning boxing drama while taking the franchise in a new direction. So, of course, it would be a daunting task for Michael B. Jordan to make Creed III as his directorial debut while closing out the trilogy. And yet, not only is the third installment is a magnificent directorial debut for Jordan, it steps out of the Rocky franchise shadow to tell its own story.
“Creed III” opens with a brief prologue of how a young Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Thaddeus J. Mixson) and Damian “Dame” Anderson (Spence Moore II) survived the difficulties of growing up in a group home by competing in underground boxing matches. Their bond is tight, with Donnie teaching Dame about an opponent’s vulnerabilities. It’s clear that Donnie looks up to Dame, and Dame promises that they will go to the top together. However, the opening also establishes that Dame isn’t so innocent as the easily impressionable and eager to please Donnie. But the friendship ends on a bitter note, with Dame sentenced to prison for 20 years while Donnie becomes a heavyweight champion boxer.
Now retired, Donnie is a happily married family man who helps train new boxing prospects to become the next champion. So when Dame is released, he looks to Donnie to collect rather than reconnect. The man is motivated by moving up the boxing ladder quickly and by any means necessary. So while Donnie and Luke (Wood Harris) drill their prospects about patience, Dame’s desperation is the antithesis of what they teach. So, he resorts to conning the boxing system and emotionally manipulating Donnie into letting him compete for the heavyweight title.
Sure, the story of old friends parting ways only to settle the score in the ring is familiar, but it works so well thanks in part to Jordan’s stylistic choices and his focus on developing character arcs. At this point, Creed doesn’t need to prove himself as a fighter or seek vengeance for the death of his father. So while the first two “Creed” films connected to the “Rocky” legacy, the franchise has the space to flex its muscles to become its own beast.
And we see how Donnie is in a place where he can be happy. He remains anchored thanks to his relationships with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his daughter Amara (played by deaf actor Mila Davis-Kent), and his mother Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). Both Donnie and Bianca made their respective sacrifices by stepping away from the successes that define them, and they are happy with it. Donnie protects his family from those who threaten it, but that sense of duty to protect comes from a place of trauma and a little bit of survivor’s guilt. And at times, he’s too guarded and blinded, not one to reveal the pains of the past or accept that what has happened isn’t his fault. So, given their friendship and what happened between the two, it’s understandable why he feels like he owes something to Dame.
Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin’s script retains much of the spirit of both the Rocky and Creed films by prioritizing the human story but never forgetting that it is also a sports drama. The film squeezes themes of family and socioeconomic disparities. The former sees how the Creeds lean on each other for support. The love they have for each other is clear. What’s more, it’s great to see how the film doesn’t shy away from Amara’s deafness. Instead, Creeds embrace it and use ASL as a point of pride. There’s even a subplot where we see how Adonis and Bianca have to address an issue where Amara is being bullied at her school for the deaf. At one point, we see ASL being used to communicate during boxing matches. It’s a great way to champion more meaningful representation in a film of this size and scope.
Thompson’s Bianca remains Donnie’s strongest counterpart. Their relationship has evolved and thrived, with both now struggling to find their place in this world now that they have moved away from the spotlight. But she still challenges him in ways that help him open up more while maintaining her autonomy. She’s more than someone at Donnie’s side. She also has to deal with the fact that she has to let go of her dreams and deal with her own struggles.
Major’s Dame is more than a powerful and dangerous threat in the ring. He represents a tragic past Adonis he thought he buried and is now trying to escape. But Dame isn’t just a typical antagonist, as his anger and frustration are justifiable. He’s looking to make up for the lost time that he spent while in jail. So it’s easy to see why he may be in such a rush to claim not only titles but Creed’s reputation as a prized fighter. Major’s plays the Dame role with such precision and the same kind of energy as Jordan’s Donnie that their relationship mirrors the idea of two sides of the same coin.
And one cannot talk about the “Creed” movies without talking about boxing. Inspired by Jordan’s love of anime, the fight choreography is visually explosive. Close-ups of the eyes during staredowns add to the drama, and sharp-chiseled muscles glistening in sweat show how powerful each fighter is. And then there’s the slow-motion impact of each devastating punch. There’s even a point during the boxing match where these two men are fighting on a plane of existence away from the noise and baring souls to each other through their fists. It’s so quiet, yet their punches speak volumes.
“Creed III” may repackage some familiar cinematic sports tropes, but Jordan found new ways to challenge Donnie by exploring his past and reimagining boxing choreography with an anime twist. Jordan is at a place in the franchise where is no longer telling the story of the character he’s played through someone else’s voice. As such, it gives him the space to tell his own story and forge the franchise’s legacy on his own terms. And Jordan delivers a solid hit proving that an emotionally compelling story of family and friendship can exist in and outside of the boxing ring.
Creed III in theaters March 3.