‘Creed III’ Gives the Franchise a Hard-Hitting New Tone With Michael B. Jordan as Director

Franchises are such a norm now that we’re getting entirely new ones spinning out of classic titles. The “Rocky” movies gave birth to “Creed,” which was followed by “Creed II,” a sequel of sorts to “Rocky IV.” Now “Creed III” firmly establishes this film series as its own brand, without needing to continuously anchor back to the one that came before. And, while Sylvester Stallone is absent after apparently disagreeing with this film’s tone, Michael B. Jordan carries on the torch in an appropriate way. Like Stallone, Jordan is now both star and director, displaying a dynamic eye for action. The recognizable bits of melodrama and testosterone are present along with the more personal, sharper touch that has made this film series stand out. 

The setting now switches from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Time has passed and Adonis Creed (Jordan) has reached such a pinnacle of success that he can retire in (what seems like) his late 30s. He lives in luxury with wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). Adonis remains involved in the boxing world as a trainer-manager of new contenders. When exiting the gym one day, Adonis finds lounging next to his Rolls-Royce a figure from the past, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors). Years ago, when they were kids, Adonis and Damian lived together in the same group home. “Dame” had a natural talent for boxing but his Olympic dreams were dashed when the two were involved in a tragic incident. Adonis went free while Dame went to prison for 18 years. Now the old friend wants a chance at a title shot, which he knows Adonis has the means to help him get. 

“Creed III” can stand on its own as a sports drama for newcomers unfamiliar with the last two movies. Those were about the “Rocky” legacy, with “Creed” introducing Adonis as the son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) seeking training from his dad’s old opponent-turned-friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone).  “Creed II” basked in glorious sequel popcorn fun, pitching Adonis against the son of Rocky’s former Soviet nemesis Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Apollo with a monster punch in 1985’s “Rocky IV.” By making it this new plot all about Creed’s individual journey, Jordan also helps solidify his own voice as a filmmaker helming the franchise. “I think something that happens the first time you’re directing is you’re in your head thinking about what’s your style going to be? You overthink yourself going into it. You’re trying to create your own visual language,” Jordan recently told Entertainment Voice about directing this threequel. “I think something that you start to realize is that it’s just showing up and being honest every day. You know, and then slowly your style will start to shape itself.  I can’t even tell you what it is right now.  But now that it’s done and finished, I think this is a representation of just my truth.”

The screenplay is by Keenan Coogler, brother of acclaimed director Ryan Coogler, who directed “Creed” and continues as producer, and Zach Baylin. They use a familiar premise and then expand it into convincing drama. Old friends from the past appearing and becoming rivals is nothing new, but Jordan and an excellent Jonathan Majors turn Adonis and Dame into engaging mirrors of each other. Adonis is a hugely successful Black American athlete, and while he had to work hard, he had the luck of finding out his father was a boxing icon. Dame’s youth was taken away in prison, now he wants something back. Adonis can be seen as either playing favoritism by potentially giving Dame a chance or being a sell out by watching from his plush tower. It would also not be surprising if Coogler and Jordan found inspiration in personal experiences. As anyone who has achieved immense fame and fortune can tell you, it’s astounding who suddenly materializes out of the past the moment you gain prominence. Jordan, who was the highlight of the recent “Ant-Man: Quantumania” as the MCU’s new villain, Kang the Conqueror, gives Dame empathy as a specter from not only Adonis’s past, but from the corners of Los Angeles easily ignored in flashy fantasies of the city.

“In a nutshell, first and foremost, it was my stepfather who inspired the character.  My stepdad was locked up 15 years before he got with my mom and then raised me up. The ankle monitor situation, the PO. I was the kid that was, trying to make sure dad got home on time before the parole officer got to the crib. And, I watched it. You know, I watched that happen,” Majors told Entertainment Voice about tapping into personal memories for the role. That attachment to realism helped the last two entries be strong, grounded films beyond mere sports entertainments. Jordan still flexes his abilities as a director of action with pounding fights in the ring, bringing back the slow motion trick of letting us linger over a punch to the jaw or a whopping hit to the side. “Diamond Dame” receives his moment where we know he’s our assured antagonist in classic “Rocky” fashion by pummeling one of Adonis’s prospects, a Mexican star named Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). The hits never get as unbelievably extreme as “Creed II,” or the “Rocky” sequels for that matter, but nobody is walking into this movie for a sleepily realistic bout. While we can also cheer the film’s diversity, Hollywood can’t help itself and Chavez enters the stadium wearing some kind of Mayan jaguar head, with a dancer wearing a Dia de Los Muertos skull mask clearing the way with smoky effects. Dame’s background is a subtler nod at L.A.’s Black American community with his constant references to Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw. 

This is a big movie, shot on IMAX cameras which give the fight sequences an even grander scale. A few good story elements tend to get lost in the main standoff. Bianca has given up singing in public because of hearing loss, so now she produces, even if she seems eager to return to performing. She tends to recede into the background, only appearing to bug Adonis about sharing memories he refuses to face. The script also finds too brisk of a way to settle things with Apollo’s widow, Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who is given an exit that feels like a bit of a rush to truly cut remaining chords with the original franchise. The movie is also in such a hurry to get to the action that little details are left for us to explain on our own, such as who Dame’s trainer is or how he acquired so many shady friends with guns to hang out with him on a beach at night. The movie is so well-produced we don’t mind once Jordan brings in the intensity, along with the required training montage teaching prospective boxers that you can train by punching a tree in the forest. Such moments are part of what make these movies an excellent time. The expected, titanic climax then settles into a much deeper, you could even say believable, resolution that is more about the characters instead of violence. Composer Joseph Shirley’s score is thrilling but more subtle than the usual “Creed” symphony, though the soundtrack is a propulsive collection of songs by artists like Black Sherif and JID.

After the bell rings on the last round of “Creed III,” the movie has firmly established there is plenty of fight left in the franchise. On an even more important level, it establishes Michael B. Jordan as a talented director to follow. Of course, time will tell how he will follow this title. Will he go for something original or continue adding to the “Creed” pantheon? As he told Entertainment Voice, “There’s some scenes, the shots in the movie, that I had dreamt about. Literally, I had dreamed them. I imagined them, daydreamed them in my head, and when you see it on screen, I’m like, ‘Oh, man.’ The type of gratification you get out of that is crazy. Even though there was nothing that anybody could really tell me to prepare me for what the journey was gonna be like, it was one of those things you just have to… you have to live it and get through it. And, it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far. But at the same time, I felt the most alive doing it, so it was rewarding.”

Creed III” releases March 3 in theaters nationwide.