Michael B. Jordan directs and stars in this slick, by-the-book Rocky sequel which hints at more but retreats to formula

Creed III

Source: Warner Bros

‘Creed III’

Dir: Michael B. Jordan. US. 2023. 116mins

A thoughtful drama about guilt, privilege and friendship lurks within Creed III, a frustrating sequel which squanders strong performances in service of by-the-numbers plotting. Michael B. Jordan makes his feature directorial debut while once again playing the soulful Adonis Creed, a now-retired heavyweight champion confronted by his past in the form of an old buddy (Jonathan Majors) who has recently been released from prison. The moments in which these two actors navigate the complicated relationship between their characters can be quite moving, but eventually the dictates of a Rocky picture begin to take hold, resulting in a film that succumbs to cliches and the inevitable third-act punch-up.

Polished, briskly paced entertainment

Opening in the UK and US on March 3, this sequel follows in the footsteps of 2018’s Creed II ($214m worldwide), which was even more commercially successful than the 2015 original ($174m). With Tessa Thompson reprising her role as Adonis’ supportive wife Bianca — and rising star Majors enjoying a high-profile spring thanks to this film and Ant-Man And The Wasp: QuantumaniaCreed III should make franchise aficionados happy without necessarily expanding the fan base.

Now focusing on marriage and fatherhood after his retirement from boxing, Adonis (Jordan) basks in his legacy as a beloved champ. But he’s shocked one day to run into Damian (Majors), an ex-con who just got out of prison after being incarcerated for nearly two decades. Close friends as boys — with Adonis looking up to Damian like a big brother — they haven’t spoken in years, which makes Adonis feel guilty since his boxing stardom was something Damian had wanted for himself, too. Reunited, Damian asks his pal to help give him a shot at the title, which he thinks Adonis owes him because of a shared secret from their past.

As a director, Jordan has produced polished, briskly paced entertainment but what’s disappointing is that, quite often, Creed III hints at being something more: a mature, melancholy story of an athlete who must adjust to his post-boxing life while making peace with painful childhood memories. Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin’s screenplay contains the promise of emotional and thematic depth, only to ultimately cater to the conventions of the Rocky franchise, giving audiences perfunctory training montages and a predictable narrative arc in which our protagonist can only prove himself through athletic excellence. 

Bianca tries to get through to her husband, who is so closed-off that he seems trapped by his past — in particular, the traumatic poverty and violence he longs to forget. It’s a touching turn from Thompson, who has frequently been forced into a narrowly conceived girlfriend/wife role in these films. But Creed III’s most dynamic performance comes from Majors, who plays Damian as wiry and quietly volcanic — a man who has lost too many years to prison and is determined to make up for lost time. Initially, the beaten-down Damian is a deeply sympathetic figure, causing Adonis to regret turning his back on his friend, but this ex-con is secretly scheming, resulting in a twist that’s fairly easy to guess. Once Damian reveals his true colours, though, Majors is utterly convincing as a ferocious prizefighter, his chiselled body and imposing presence recalling his superb work in the Sundance title Magazine Dreams

Creed III examines Adonis’ misgivings about his wealth and celebrity in a superficial manner. He sees how little Damian has but is still competitive with his friend, fearful that he has lost his edge by letting success change him. Masculinity itself is scrutinised in this sequel, with Adonis trying to learn how he can confront his problems without resorting to violence — and also how to counsel his young deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), who is dealing with a school bully. Adonis has made his name with his fists, in part inspired by Damian, who was the tougher of the pair as kids — but he slowly begins to understand that he can’t rely on that approach forever.

What a shame, then, that Creed III eventually shies away from these provocative ideas to instead conclude with a big fight, Adonis and Damian resolving their issues by punching one another. Jordan films the sequence with an almost martial-arts-like panache, and does attempt to make the showdown emotional and intimate — a visceral manifestation of the contentious brotherly bond that was forged in boyhood. Just as Adonis is considering a new path for himself, Creed III similarly flirts with breaking free of the familiar contours that have defined the Rocky franchise for decades. But in the end, both the boxer and the film find themselves retreating back into the ring.

Production company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions

Worldwide distribution: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures (US), Warner Bros. Pictures (international) 

Producers: Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Elizabeth Raposo, Jonathan Glickman, Sylvester Stallone

Screenplay: Keegan Coogler & Zach Baylin, story by Ryan Coogler and Keenan Coogler & Zach Baylin

Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau

Production design: Jahmin Assa

Editing: Tyler Nelson, Jessica Baclesse

Music: Joseph Shirley

Main cast: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Mila Davis-Kent, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad