‘Creed III’ Review: Michael B. Jordan Directs and Stars in a Rock-Solid Sequel More Like ‘Cape Fear’ Than ‘Rocky.’
Jonathan Majors once again demonstrates his mettle as Adonis’ foreboding friend-turned-boxing-foe in a sports drama that seems like a thriller.
Adonis Creed, like Rocky Balboa before him, is a boxer who confronts his demons and rediscovers his triumph-of-the-human-spirit mojo, all leading up to the inevitable delivery of that knockout punch (OK, Rocky actually lost the fight in “Rocky”). The first two “Creed” films, like the six “Rocky” pictures, were rah-rah crowd-pleasers, with the hero facing off against an antagonist representing the powers of darkness. Boxing opponents in these films resemble comic-book supervillains: Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, Drago’s furious son, and so on. They’ve been catchy and, at times, unforgettable characters, but it’s part of their allure that they’re two-dimensional raging-bull foes who aren’t exactly layered human beings.
Yet, “Creed III,” directed with great first-time flair by its star, Michael B. Jordan, has a distinct taste. Adonis, who has retired to his opulent Los Angeles estate, appears to be on top of the world. He has a tender and playful relationship with his pop-star wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is planning her own semi-retirement (due to hearing loss, she is transitioning into the role of producer), as well as with their deaf daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), to whom he speaks in fluid sign language. At the gym, he’s a coach to Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), the new heavyweight champion, a hothead who likes to pound his sparring partners. But all is fine until an old acquaintance of Adonis appears.
His name is Damian Anderson (nickname: Dame), and Jonathan Majors, who is now tearing up the screen as Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” plays him as the dreaded blast from the past. Dame was just freed from prison after serving an 18-year sentence. He’s liberated, but he has nothing – no money, no contacts, and no family to assist him. But he’s got Adonis, his old hood buddy. In the first scene, we meet Adonis (played with innocent-eyed fervor by Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) as a teenager and Dame (Spence Moore II) as a Golden Gloves competitor with raw skill. Then it all came crashing down outside a booze store when Adonis fought an old foe and Dame took the fall, taking out a revolver.
Majors portrays Dame with a surface amiability laced with a passive-aggressive prickliness that pervades everything he says, from the time he emerges, leaning with louche entitlement against Adonis’s truck. He wants assistance and assistance – a leg up and a powerful ally to provide it to him. And Adonis is on board; he wants to help. But there is already evidence that “Creed III” will be more than just a boxing film. It’ll be a hostile-tormentor film, similar to “Cul-de-Sac,” “The Gift,” or the granddaddy of them all, the original 1962 “Cape Fear.”
Dame, like Robert Mitchum in that film (or Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s 1992 adaptation), is a criminal who believes he has been wronged and has returned to play with the man he believes is to blame. Why, he wonders, didn’t Adonis respond to his letters from prison? (Because, according to Adonis, he did not receive them.) Oh, and Dame indicates that he’d like to compete for the crown. Is this a nightmare, a threat, or both?
Majors has an imperious squint and a quick way of speaking in “Creed III,” as though Dame was throwing away his words to ponder their secret meaning. His most casual remark stings like a small punch. He’s having a “pleasant” dialogue with Adonis in a diner while enjoying his first restaurant meal in years, but he’s also adding, “This conversation isn’t real.” Majors emits a sense of menace that electrifies the air around him, and his Dame is an expert at deception. He guilt-trips Adonis into letting him train at the gym, and once he’s in, he becomes Felix’s sparring partner. The picture then becomes ominous during a record-release party, when the unexpected return of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) opens the door for Dame to win the title in a champ-vs.-nobody combat is reminiscent of “Rocky.” And who do you believe he’ll want to fight next?
Jordan shows dramatic finesse in his staging of the Adonis/Dame relationship, showcasing it as a broken brotherhood that speaks to larger disruptions — the tug between loyalty and violence in dispossessed childhoods — working from a script by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (the story is by Ryan Coogler, who also serves as a producer). “Creed III” is a sports drama with a thriller vibe and an urgent conscience. Even if it can’t match the soulful cinematic bravura of the first “Creed,” it’s a lot more dynamic film than the competent but formulaic “Creed II.”
Jordan, on the other hand, provides his most complete performance as Adonis yet: proud, worried, heroic, emotional, and at the end of his rope. He paces the film brilliantly and stages the boxing matches with harsh inventive accuracy. Dame may be elderly for a fighter, but he makes up for it with a vindictive killer instinct. His body has been sculpted, and his soul has become hardened. He’s a wrecking machine, to be sure, but he’s also the return of the repressed, the aspect of Adonis that Adonis is trying to avoid. If “Creed III” is the final “Creed” film, it will be a gratifying conclusion. But if not, it raises the bar.