Creed III Is the Kind of Movie the Big Screen Was Made For

4 minute read

Now that our lives revolve around tiny screens tailored to our individual likes and dislikes, the act of trying to please a crowd—specifically, a crowd of moviegoers gathered at an actual theater—has become more a noble pursuit than a purely money-grubbing one. Relying on the popularity of a franchise is one way to pack ’em in. But those of us who care about movies, and about the experience of seeing them together, have become understandably wary of that strategy. We’re IP weary. Is it even possible, at this point, to build a better sequel?

Creed III, Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut—a sequel to a sequel to a sequel, tracing back to the 1975 boxing blockbuster Rocky—proves that it is. Jordan also reprises the role of Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the underdog boxing superstar he played first in Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Creed, a brash surprise, and later in the less-satisfying 2018 Creed II.

Donnie is the son of the late Apollo Creed, the former foe and later friend of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa; across two movies, he has overcome his daddy issues and become his own man. Now, in Creed III, Donnie has retired from boxing and lives a cushy life in Los Angeles with his wife, Bianca (the always engaging Tessa Thompson), a former musician and performer who, to preserve her deteriorating hearing, has become a record producer, and their pint-sized daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), who was born deaf. Donnie now spends his days sipping from tiny cups at Amara’s tea parties (dressed in a frog suit, at her request); sometimes he ambles down to the gym that bears his name (for this, he swaps the frog outfit for the casual cool of a matching hoodie and suit jacket in luxe, muted mushroom tones—this guy sure knows how to spend his money).

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Mila Kent, Tessa Thompson, and Michael B. JordanMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Life is good! Until it’s not. A half-needy, half-menacing figure emerges from Donnie’s murky past. Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) shows up at Donnie’s gym unbidden, dressed in rumpled Carhartt and worn-down work boots. His shambling, long-time-no-see humility is a kind of reproach, and Donnie is both moved and dismayed at seeing him. The rest of the movie unpacks their backstory. The way forward won’t be easy, involving guilt, payback, and some pretty brutal boxing.

Read more: Michael B. Jordan Is Redefining What It Means to Be a Movie Star

As both actor and director, Jordan pulls off some fancy footwork in Creed III. He has a knack for melodrama, with all its heightened emotional textures, but he’s careful to keep it from going soggy—he buffs it down til it glows. (The story is by Ryan Coogler, with a script by Keenan Coogler, his brother, and Zach Baylin.) The boxing sequences are sharp-elbowed, smartly edited and beautiful in their own pitiless way. In one brief slow-motion sequence, droplets of sweat fly into the air like wayward Swarovski crystals as two angry bruisers beat the hell out of one another. It’s the sort of effect, artificial as a drawn-on beauty mark, that the big screen was made for.

Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson in 'Creed III'Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Especially for a first-time director, Jordan shapes his own performance with admirable restraint. He’s believable as a man who suddenly finds himself adrift after thinking he’s secured a permanent perch at the top of the world. And Majors is scarily superb. His Damian is a glowering, self-pitying presence, a mess of a man constantly seeking approval. His neediness is as obvious as his bulging muscles. You’re never sure how to feel about him, but you can’t look away.

The climactic fight of Creed III leaves you feeling good—for about 30 seconds. And then a note of melancholy wafts into the ring; the winner’s victory is bittersweet. The formula Creed III springs from is as familiar as your basic right hook, but instead of trying to buck convention, Jordan leans right into it. He’s playing to the crowd, all right. But maybe it’s about time someone gave some thought to what we might want to see.

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