Combustible Celluloid Review - Creed III (2023), Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, based on a story by Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Mila Davis-Kent, Jose Benavidez, Selenis Leyva, Florian Munteanu, Thaddeus James Mixson Jr, Spence Moore II
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With: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Mila Davis-Kent, Jose Benavidez, Selenis Leyva, Florian Munteanu, Thaddeus James Mixson Jr, Spence Moore II
Written by: Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, based on a story by Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, Ryan Coogler
Directed by: Michael B. Jordan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sports action, violence and some strong language
Running Time: 116
Date: 03/03/2023

Creed III (2023)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Inner Struggle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Ryan Coogler rebooted the Rocky series with his masterful Creed (2015), it was a surprisingly humane and touching achievement, and the equal of the original 1976 film. The inevitable sequel Creed II was fine but perfunctory. But now, with star Michael B. Jordan making his own sledgehammer directing debut, Creed III is, once again, something of a surprise. It's a powerhouse film whose hardest blows take place outside the ring.

Written by Coogler's brother Keenan (Space Jam: A New Legacy) and Zach Baylin (King Richard) — from a story by Baylin and both Cooglers — Creed III of course follows the familiar Rocky formula, including an early "surprise" loss, a tragedy, plenty of training montages, and a final showdown. Yet these scenes are fully-fleshed out with rich characters and Jordan's strong, confident visual command. A great early juxtaposition moves from a revisit of Adonis Creed's final fight, all noise and hoopla, then sharply cutting to Adonis dozing and snoring on the couch of a huge mansion.

All conflict is gone from his body. He's at peace, and his limbs are loose, rather than coiled. His adorable daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) enters the room and wakes him up in the silliest way imaginable. It's time for him to play tea party with her. (Adorable!) Amara was born deaf, so the family frequently communicates in ASL. Donny's wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) still struggles with preserving her own deteriorating hearing, and has taken to producing rather than performing her own music.

At his gym, Donny is working with a new heavyweight champ, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). Felix is a bit too hard on his sparring partners, however, and he's burned through them all. That's when Damian "Dame" Anderson (Jonathan Majors) shows up. We meet Dame in flashbacks when Donnie is just a kid and Dame is a young boxer. Donnie worships Dame and carries his gym bag to fights. But, after an incident at a liquor store, Dame goes to jail, and Donnie grows up to become champ. Now Dame is out and wants to keep fighting, despite his age. Donnie feels obligated to help.

As he just showed in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Majors is a quicksilver actor, commanding and slippery. He's difficult to get a read upon. He can convey kindness and menace at the same time. In a later sequence, when Dame comes for dinner at Donnie and Bianca's giant mansion, he suggests both gratitude and resentment, mingled together in a subtle way that makes you keep your eyes on him, perhaps waiting for a reveal that never comes. This is a masterful performance, and Majors gets credit for delivering it, but Jordan also gets credit for casting him, probably knowing full well that he might have his scenes stolen out from under him. (This does not happen, by the way; Jordan can hold his own.)

The plot goes through its motions. Dame becomes Felix's sparring partner. Felix prepares to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whom we met in Creed II. Someone attacks Drago and injures him. Felix's fight is on hold. But... wait a minute! Here's a crazy idea. Why doesn't Felix fight Dame? What's the worst that could happen? Even though we know the answer, the fight is brutal anyway. It takes sickening turns, and as it does, the reality of what it all means becomes clear.

It's of course silly that Dame would get a shot at the title right out of the gate, but the movie is as persuasive as Dame is. "Why not?" they both ask. Both Rocky and Creed got the same chance. Indeed. But Jordan also uses the fight to frame the film's single best shot, his director's calling card. Just prior to the fight, after Donnie visits Dame in the locker room, Donnie walks out. The shot splits into a mirror image, with the two men — unable to see each other — standing in similar poses, equals yet opposites. Yet it's Dame that takes up the majority of the frame.

In the film's second half, there's a lot at stake. Dame becomes corrupted by his new power and uses it to attack his former friend. It's a bad look for the champ. Donny must win back the title and bring honor to the role once again. But even more importantly, Donny and Dame must untangle their complex history, all that blame, guilt, and even love that got so mixed up. Some have said that Creed III is more of a relationship movie than a fight film, and that's not far from the truth.

The screenplay is so deep and generous that it even gives Bianca time to express herself. It goes without saying that in most masculine bash-fests, women are pretty much just decoration, but Bianca is a force to be reckoned with. (And Tessa Thompson is easily the equal of her male co-stars.) When Amara begins punching bullies at school, and Bianca and Donny try to handle the problem (Donny wants Amara to fight back and Bianca wants peace), Donny's pent-up secrets begin to twist their relationship. She demands honesty, and he doesn't know how to give it.

In the original Rocky, it doesn't really matter that Rocky loses the final fight, since he got his shot and gave it everything he had. In Creed III, what matters is the victory over inner turmoil. Jordan gets a lot of credit for finding such an effective physical way to express such an emotional story. The brilliant climactic fight is done in a way that captures its interior struggle. And, unlike the other films, which merely end after the final fight, this film gives us an important coda, suggesting new growth. We come away truly knowing these characters, which feels far more important than a KO punch.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Jeremy Kahn.

In May of 2023, Warner Bros. Home Video released the film on Blu-ray, accompanied by a bonus DVD and digital copy. Picture and sound are excellent. Bonuses include two featurettes, "Michael B. Jordan: In the Ring/Behind the Camera" and "There's No Enemy Like the Past: Donnie and Dame," each running about ten minutes (and each with a decent selection of behind-the-scenes footage), plus three deleted scenes, running just over four minutes. Recommended.

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