Heavyweight performances from Michael B Jordan and Jonathan Majors drive the latest film in the Creed series. Here’s our review of Creed III…
Since their debut in 2015, the Creed movies have confidently found their own identity away from the Rocky series which birthed them. Michael B Jordan owned the role of Adonis Creed, son of Carl Weathers’ late champion boxer, Apollo, from the minute he laced up his gloves eight years ago; in Creed III, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is never seen and only fleetingly mentioned, and it’s telling just how little that matters to the overarching drama. Sly may have created Rocky, but Creed’s more than strong enough to stand on his own.
Creed III finds Adonis in his late thirties and nearing the end of his boxing career; with the years and injuries beginning to tell, he’s in the process of transitioning to a new phase as a trainer and promoter.
His protege is Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), a young fighter with the skill to take Adonis’ place as a world champion, and all seems right in Adonis’ cosy, moneyed world. As Adonis is leaving his gym one day, however, he finds a mountainous figure leaning up against his Rolls Royce: this is Damien (Jonathan Majors), who’s recently emerged from an 18-year stretch in prison. As youths, Damien and Apollo were inseparable, with Damien, the older of the two, being the one who looked set to become a champion boxer. But an altercation outside a liquor store saw Damien jailed; Adonis, who was fleet-footed enough to escape the police, ended up being the one who found fame and fortune as a heavyweight champ.
From the moment they meet again in the present, there’s an uneasiness to the old friends’ dynamic; Adonis evidently feels a pang of guilt that he can never quite hide, while Damien’s quiet restraint, as he lays out his plans to resume his boxing career, belies an unmistakable streak of menace.
Jordan takes over from Ryan Coogler as director for this second sequel, and it’s an assured debut. Outside the ring, Jordan maintains Coogler’s focus on keeping the story grounded in something like reality, even if Adonis’ wealth means he spends much of his life in glistening mansions and exclusive parties.
Inside the ring, Jordan’s approach to the fights is strikingly different from Coogler’s; where the latter captured the sweat and sinew of his bouts with long takes and handheld cameras – for this writer, the first fight from the original Creed remains an all-timer – Jordan goes for something more heightened. Fierce expressions are captured in tight close-ups; POV shots signal when a fighter’s spotted a vital opening in their opponent’s defences; punches are captured in pristine, digital slow-motion. Jordan’s fights have a quality akin to anime, making them creative and absorbing to watch, even if they lack the grit and realism of the drama elsewhere.
Now, let’s talk about Jonathan Majors. Marvel fans are probably arguing over whether his Kang is a worthy ongoing villain for the comic book franchise, given he’s just made his large-screen debut in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the opening film in that cinematic universe’s latest phase. What’s undeniable is the strength of his performance in Creed III. From the moment he’s seen leaning up against Apollo’s luxury car, Majors brings a presence and tension to every scene he’s in. With his faltering voice and heavy-lidded eyes, he’s the antithesis of Jordan’s poised, semi-regal Apollo. There’s a low-key rage in Majors’ treatment of Damien, but also a note of sadness and vulnerability. Like a less cartoonish version of Mr T’s Clubber Lang in Rocky III, Majors is nominally the villain of the piece, but his motivations are so understandable that it’s difficult not to feel more than a shred of sympathy for his character: at heart, he’s an ageing fighter yearning to grab a morsel of success before it’s too late. More poignantly, Majors depicts Damien as the same troubled kid that was thrown in jail decades earlier; his body may be older, but his mind can’t move on from his youthful dreams – or grudges, for that matter.
Written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, Creed III finds time to develop Adonis’ relationship with his musician wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who’s going through a career transition of her own, and their daughter Amara (Milla Davis-Kent), whose burgeoning interest in boxing may or may not be a clue as to where the Creed franchise will head next. Ultimately, though, Creed III’s focal point is the fractured kinship of Adonis and Damien; with the tension crackling so thrillingly between the two actors who play them, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the plot’s other assorted dramas pale in comparison somewhat.
The lead pairing is so good, in fact, that it disguises just how closely Jordan’s movie hews to the Rocky formula, right down to a training montage full of gritted teeth, grunting and straining muscles. The strength of the central rivalry is such, however, that scenes like these feel earned rather than a lazy means of evoking nostalgia. Energised by Jordan and Majors’ contrasting performances, Creed III remains compelling right up to the last bell.
Creed III is in cinemas now.
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