“Creed III,” the ninth Rocky movie, falls both very far from the original Rocky tree and, simultaneously, right under it. Far, in the sense that Rocky himself—Sylvester Stallone, creator of the Rocky universe—is nowhere to be seen.
And far also because “Creed III” reverses the dominant premise of “Rocky,” wherein the main protagonist (Rocky) was a barely-scraping-by, washed-up, underdog heavyweight boxer with a lot of heart. Here, Adonis Creed (son of Apollo Creed, the boxing champion who gave Rocky a title shot in the original) is retired, wealthy, and has become the one dispensing underdog opportunities.
“Creed III” also falls right under the Rocky tree in that the star, Stallone, wrote the original. He didn’t own the rights and didn’t direct, but it was always clear that Rocky was Stallone’s creation.
Star Michael B. Jordan, who plays Adonis Creed in “Creed III,” directs, and while also not owning the “Creed” franchise rights, would now appear to be the most influential and impactful individual guiding it. And there will be more, since the whole Rocky-Creed kit and kaboodle has earned Hollywood $1.7 billion.
An Almost Perfect Life
Again, running contrary to the grittier, previous “Rocky” entries, “Creed III” paints a perfect-picture postcard of the domestic bliss and luxurious lifestyle of boxing’s retired heavyweight champion of the world. Adonis lives in a Los Angeles hilltop mansion, wears finely tailored suits, and has supercars sitting in the garage. He drops by his state-of-the-art gym to keep an eye on his stable of up-and-coming fighters.
He’s the kind of dad who dresses up in animal costumes and has Mad Hatter type tea parties with hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). He’s an immensely supportive albeit emotionally distant husband for musician-turned-producer wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson).
It all gets to be a bit cloying, but then Adonis’s past comes back to haunt him. There’s a ratty-looking boxer leaning against Creed’s Rolls Royce outside the gym, whom he doesn’t recognize. That’s because this is his childhood bestie, ex-con and failed Golden Gloves contender Damian “Dame” Anderson (played by Jonathan Majors, currently also starring in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”), who just got done with a long prison stint.
Damian starts off friendly and ingratiates himself with Adonis and wife Bianca. But he soon leverages the long-dormant guilt from the incident from their youth that sent Damian to jail (recapped in flashbacks) to manipulate his old friend.
What might that manipulation consist of? A shot at the heavyweight championship title, naturally. Never mind the fact that both he and Adonis are both too old for the young man’s game of pugilism.
In a scene straight out of 2011’s “Warrior,” Damian’s brought in to warm up one of Adonis’s top-dog contenders, Latino Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), whereupon Dame reveals that he’s the more dangerous dog with a ferocious bite. Will he end up in a title bout with Chavez? Will his insult to Adonis’s manhood be enough to cause the testosterone to flow freely and for Adonis to come flailing and howling out of retirement?
As a director, Michael B. Jordan has a tendency to italicize and boldface the emotional scenes in various ways. This, in addition to Stallone’s absence lends no Rocky-credence to this Creed-ence and makes “Creed III” nowhere nearly as fresh and endearing as Ryan Coogler’s “Creed“—the original spinoff from the Rocky lineage.
The fight scenes are invigorating, except when they’re superimposed on images meant to provide a meta-context and generate a Shakespearean tragic atmosphere: Is that Damian’s bedbug-infested mattress I see behind him, instead of the arena crowd? Are those his prison bars taking the place of ring ropes? It’s all a bit overreaching and has the unintended effect of being maudlin and sentimental.
The crowning achievement of “Creed III” is that both Jordan and Majors are seriously spectacular physical specimens, and the film might be best used as a substitute for when art models call in sick for drawing and anatomy classes at New York’s Art Students League and the Chicago Art Institute. Instead, the professors can just show “Creed III” fight scenes, hit play, hit pause, say “This will be a 15-minute sketch,” hit play, hit pause, “This will be a 20-minute sketch,” and so on.
Much as he’s also doing in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” Jonathan Majors reigns here as the de facto champ of “Creed III,” with a grounding world-weariness and gravitas that scene-steals from the comfy complacency of Jordan’s Adonis. The meanness and cruelty of Major’s Damian are often mitigated with eyes that tear up inexplicably, revealing the depth of his dark mystery and pain.
There are, of course, African-American cultural politics at play here that professors of those studies will eventually have a field day with. For example, much like the simplistic villain-versus-hero conflict in “Blank Panther” between antagonist Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan, directed by Ryan Coogler) and protagonist T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), director Michael B. Jordan here repeats a cliché. Instead of taking the opportunity to dig deeper into black male anger and pathos with Adonis and Dame, Jordan settles for the ghettoized, dog-eat-dog narrative that America is more familiar with.
Overall, except for the fight scenes, it’s all tad boring, and since installment No. 10 really has no choice but to be titled “Dame” and if Stallone is out for good, it would seem that the Rocky universe, quality-wise at least, is set to implode. However, Jordan recently said:
I think there’s always space for Sly, for Rocky, to come back. That’s one of those amazing things about that character. It would make sense in any story line because it all stems from the world of Rocky. So any version of that, it would make sense.
So Rocky is now, again—and true to character—the underdog who might make a comeback into his own world that he created. Stay tuned.
Director: Michael B. Jordan
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jonathan Majors, Mila Davis-Kent, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Jose Benavidez, Wood Harris
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release Date: March 3, 2023
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars