The inspirational sports movie format is so firmly ingrained at this point that studios can pump them out in their sleep. What makes one special is a filmmaker who isn’t sleepwalking, and it seems like MGM found one right under their noses. Creed star Michael B. Jordan directs Creed III, this latest installment of the Rocky spinoff (the ninth Rocky movie, for those keeping track) in his directorial debut, and makes it feel like fresh eyes were just what it needed.
Jordan doesn’t reinvent the format, but like any good sports movie protagonist, he gives the impression that he was hungry; that he’d had been sitting on a few ideas for how to make one of these movies for the past eight years. There are a few charming videos going around, with Jordan’s co-star, Jonathan Majors, talking about how Jordan had made him prep for the role by watching a bunch of anime. I’m not enough of an anime guy to point out every anime touchstone in Creed III, but it was palpable that Jordan had a vision. Freed from the burden of direct homage if not the genre, Jordan feels like he’s making his movie, rather than “a Rocky movie” — a crucial distinction.
Speaking of Jonathan Majors, whose career has taken him from The Last Black Man In San Francisco to Kang in the last Ant-Man movie (which he was the best part of even though it mostly sucked), he’s a luminescent presence, with one of those effortlessly expressive faces that you can’t help constantly searching for hidden meaning like a renaissance painting. One of Creed III‘s obvious strengths is that stars a bunch of people who are interesting to look at, even when they aren’t doing much. Majors joins Tessa Thompson and Michael B. Jordan, and with Stallone gone (his absence neither addressed nor explained in the film) there’s room for even more Wood Harris — as Creed’s trainer, Duke. “More Wood Harris” is a good rule of thumb just generally, one of the most underrated, thoroughly watchable dudes around since he was playing Avon Barksdale on The Wire. I would watch him paint a house.
Which also goes for Majors, who clearly wasn’t cast because he looked good throwing a punch. At least, that is, if I’m to judge by how seldom Creed III actually shows his character throwing a punch with his face in the same frame (virtually never). For Majors, it’s a sacrifice worth making.
Majors plays “Diamond” Damian Anderson, who was once like a brother to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis “Donnie” Creed. They grew up together in a violent group home (shades of the Shamrock boys), and I admit I was struggling a bit to remember the Creed lore — that Adonis was the son of world-famous boxing champion Apollo Creed, but importantly, a bastard son, not acknowledged by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne, played by Phylicia Rashad, until she adopted him as a teen. Creed III doesn’t waste any time rehashing these facts and I probably should’ve studied up a little beforehand, which is probably more a criticism of the previous two Creed movies for not being more memorable than this one for not holding our hand.
Anyway, before Donnie was adopted by Mama Creed and became a securities broker and then retired to become a boxer and subsequently became a champion (phew!), we learn that he was in a group home with this dude Damian, who was a little older, Donnie’s mentor in both boxing and life. Then Damian got locked up for 18 years, presumably shadow-boxing cinder block walls and cursing his bad luck while Donnie was out becoming champion. But now Damian’s out, trying to make up for lost time. At first Donnie helps him, out of a sense of guilt, whose origins will become clear only later — but there’s always a sense of ungratefulness and an undercurrent of menace with which Damian accepts Donnie’s help.
Some of the best villains are the ones who kind of have a point. Michael B. Jordan played one himself in Black Panther, and Majors nails it here, embodying the classic tension between the striver whose crass (but maybe necessary) grasping rubs the now-complacent overachiever the wrong way. Jordan, meanwhile, does a solid job conveying the tension of his character trying not to be the selfish dick he worries he is, to the point that he’s maaaaybe ignoring his correct instincts. As Wood Harris tells him (in a great line made even greater coming from Wood Harris), “This guy already showed you who is, Donnie. Believe him.”
The personal drama between Damian and Donnie is the heart of the film, so well written and surprisingly nuanced (with a script by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin) that it could’ve worked as a story arc on premium cable. If there’s a big drawback to Creed III, it’s the actual boxing (which the format requires make up a decent portion of the film). It’s not terrible, just a little anticlimactic by comparison.
Movie boxing doesn’t look nearly so fake and stagey as it did in the 70s (even the actual boxing in Raging Bull looks pretty bad), but the relative seamlessness with which they can stage it now might not be such a good thing. Filmmakers can make punches look and sound more realistic than ever before, such that they don’t have to compensate with as many art tricks and stylization.
What this review presupposes is… maybe they should? The artsy stylization of Raging Bull or the exaggerated fight choreography of Rocky IV might not have been realistic, but it was an effective way to communicate emotion. A lot of modern boxing scenes to me are like the fight equivalent of that Carl’s Jr. ad where Todd Gurley eats a CGI burger. It looks okay enough to fool you in a two-second shot, which is actually a pretty incredible technological advancement, but it doesn’t stand up to further scrutiny. It conveys “realism” only in the most cursory sense and little else.
Jordan does utilize a degree of stylization in Creed III’s fights, probably more than his predecessors, Ryan Coogler and Steven Caple Jr., but still not enough. It feels like Jordan is holding onto the fights themselves as climactic moments because that’s true for past movies, though it applies more awkwardly to this one.
In its character development, Creed III actually accomplishes what so many Marvel movies lately have attempted and failed: creating compelling lore and characters who could (and surely will) exist beyond the ending of this movie. It would be nice to see the Creed franchise go the way of early Game Of Thrones and have more of the actual battles take place offscreen or only briefly; the buildup, the characters, and the larger lore are much more interesting than the actual fights.
But look at me, playing fantasy studio exec when I’m on record calling that a terrible way to watch movies (and experience life). Maybe that’s because while Creed III is satisfying enough as a movie (definitely better than Creed II, and probably comparable to Creed) it feels like there were more viable storylines here than it could tie up.
‘Creed III’ opens in theaters nationwide March 3rd. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.