Every Rocky movie is in some way about redemption and legacy, but the best are the ones that extend a defeat or victory in the ring into a greater notion of self-growth and newfound emotional clarity.
The greatest example of this is obviously the 1976 original, a film hardly about boxing and more about a general search for a spiritual release of greatness amidst an adrift sense of American malaise. Every sequel and spinoff since has generally been increasingly silly, and none quite as good until 2015’s intelligent and exciting Creed. Now on the third entry of the franchise revival, it’s just as well that a series so hung up on legacy has let go of the former title character (this is the first film in the franchise to not star Sylvester Stallone) to home in even deeper on Adonis Creed (Jordan) himself.
Indeed, the skillful touch of Creed III comes from the way it repositions Adonis into new emotional perceptions and makes him the absolute sole focus, bringing ghosts from his past to life to turn this into a fight not just about a title, glory, or even personal honor, but about forgiving himself by coming face-to-face with his demons in the ring. The screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin springboards off these ideas to make a no-frills sports melodrama that excels because of everyone’s commitment to making a great one.
Adonis’ new struggle comes in the midst of his retirement from boxing via Damian Anderson (Majors), a fellow kid in the group home the two occupied where they formed a bond – as close as brothers, as Adonis puts it. But Damian’s seemingly innocuous appearance after years in jail puts Adonis on edge, and bad blood between the two reveals itself as Damian, a former Golden Gloves amateur whose professional ambitions were ended by nearly two decades in jail, demands to challenge for the world championship.
Creed III does right with Damian what Creed II did to a middling degree with Viktor Drago: It develops him as a sympathetic antagonist with a complex relationship established between him and Adonis. It’s not hard to understand Damian’s anger and resentment as he watched from behind bars his childhood friend become the famed titleholder. Damian sees his whole life as a missed opportunity, exacerbated by feelings of abandonment toward Adonis.
That said, he’s also a great antagonist foil, with Majors continuing to prove why he’s one of our best new stars. There’s tragedy behind his eyes, but he also carries himself with an often grating sense of ego and disrespect for Adonis’ achievements. The friction between the two gives the film a real sense of grounded emotion and makes the climactic and inevitable final fight a rousing and refreshing respite from the typical formula. At one point, the fighters transition the battle to within their own psyches while out on the canvas. It’s a sufficient break from expectations that helps to nullify the fact that the fake crowds at the fights throughout the film look especially digital this time around.
It shouldn’t go unmentioned that this is also Jordan’s directorial debut. Working with an established identity for the franchise, he takes the visual cues and personality of the series and works to incorporate his own distinctions and grace notes. I always find these films to be more viscerally effective when engaging with the specific street-level grit of Philly, and in this entry Adonis owns a multimillion-dollar house and is on huge cologne ads in the streets of L.A. Yet Jordan is still able to carve out his own personal, engaging perception of Adonis’ journey.
Apparently, Creed IV is already in the works with Jordan behind the camera once again, and though it’s getting to the point where you have to start thinking about diminishing returns from this franchise, I’ll be happy to see how he continues to develop his cinematic voice within a series that so far has proven itself to be reliably fulfilling.