Where does a champion boxer go when the hunger is gone? In real terms, the figher with nothing left to fight for, no mountain to climb, falls off when a hungrier fighter comes along. It’s why boxing movies are usually best short and sweet. Rocky might be the best boxing franchise ever but not even Sylvester Stallone could stop it from getting stale and repetitive. And now that’s begun to happen with Creed III, which finds star Michael B. Jordan not only in front of the camera but making his directorial debut, as well. And while it promises a slugfest for the ages with equally-jacked co-star Jonathan Majors, this sequel isn’t so much a knockout as a 12th-round split decision.
Although a Rocky spinoff, Creed III is the first to not feature Stallone or have any of his creative input. It DOES show, especially in the lack of street-level grit and grizzled emotion the veteran actor brought. This is Jordan’s movie and so this is 100% about Adonis, who has elevated past the squared circle and into comfortable retirement. Now he’s basically a sports promoter and ambassador, a Don King, if you will. His life isn’t about taking punches in the ring, it’s attending lavish parties, promoting fights, and running the gym where the heavyweight champion (who looks like a welterweight, but whatever) trains every day.
But has Donnie gotten soft, sporting designer suits and living the high life, literally, in a posh home with a gorgeous view of Los Angeles below? He’s not without life dealing him some harsh blows, the kind that would’ve powered his rise to championship glory but now scan as diversions. Musician wife Bianca has settled into producing hit records due to her progressive hearing loss, an unfortunate trait passed down to their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent, a real find). Another health issue more inclined to affect those of an older age, and probably would’ve landed on Rocky’s doorstep, is instead given to another character and saved for maximum emotional gut punch impact.
Much of the first part of Creed III feels like waiting. Waiting for Majors to enter the picture as Adonis’ childhood friend, Damian “Dame” Anderson. Let’s be honest; much of our anticipation is seeing what a few thousand calories-a-day and an endless workout regime has gotten these two chiseled titans. Majors is poised for a big year, but we’ve yet to see him turn that personal intensity into rugged physicality. He’s instantly a commanding “can’t take your eyes off of him” presence, as Dame eases his way into a willing Adonis’ life. Once best friends, a run-in with the law saw Dame locked up and Adonis getting away scott free. It was Dame who was the boxing prospect back then, but now he sees Adonis living the life he was supposed to. Dame is, understandably, fueled by rage and revenge, just as Adonis used to be.
The story is a simple one, with Dame a reflection of the man that Adonis used to be. But the script paints a thin picture of Dame, turning him into a stock boxing movie villain. Doing as all boxing movies do and we just accept, rules are bent and broken so that Dame, who has NEVER had a professional fight, gets a shot at the world champion. Adonis’ world champion. The predictably brutal and underhanded result sets Dame and Adonis on a collision course.
Let’s put it this way; there’s more meat on the bones of Jordan and Majors, especially in a testosterone-fueled montage that I’m pretty sure impregnated every woman at our screening, than there is flesh in this thin screenplay. While flashbacks deepen our understanding of the beef driving this championship confrontation, and there’s a nice subplot where Adonis must teach Amara not to solve all of her problems by fighting, it feels like an emotional element is missing. The connection between Adonis and his father, the late Apollo Creed, is sorely gone despite the underrated Wood Harris, as Tony “Little Duke” Evers, trying to convince us that it’s there.
The problem is that it doesn’t feel like Adonis is fighting for anything. His conflict with Dame, which could have been solved with a phone call, lacks weight which is why, after their battle, it is dismissed with a single conversation. They do wage one Hell of a war on one another, though. While all-too-brief compared to the epic throwdowns of movies past, Adonis and Dame rip one another with toxic blows meant to kill. Jordan, who plays it safe as a filmmaker for most of the film, takes his biggest risks during this sequence, pulling from anime and other influences to capture the magnitude of this match.
There’s too much talent everywhere for Creed III to be a failure. More like a modest success for Jordan in his directing debut, the film chugs along at previously-established momentum. Adonis remains a compelling fighter, if a bit less so, and the Creed family’s future endeavors in the world of boxing are worth investing in emotionally. That’s especially true if the torch is soon to be passed to another generation of Creed. Because these films have always been about establishing the legacy of Adonis Creed, so that he can finally step out of the shadow of his legendary fighter. Adonis accomplished that in the second movie, and it was never more apparent than in Creed III that he’s done all that he can, and the hunger to be the best isn’t what it used to be.
Creed III opens in theaters on March 3rd.