Creed III: Boxing crowd-pleaser sends the wrong message

Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

Creed III: Boxing crowd-pleaser sends the wrong message

Film Details:

Director: Michael B. Jordan

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Mila Davis-Kent, and Selenis Leyva

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Available in wide theatrical release


Violence is the solution. To Adonis Creed, standing up for yourself means holding up your fists.

When his young daughter gets into a fight with a bully at school, Creed (Michael B. Jordan) suggests that he give her some fighting lessons. His wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), maturely pushes back. Maybe violence doesn’t have to be met with more violence.

Had the producers, writers, and the director of “Creed III” taken Bianca’s sage advice, it would have marked an evolution in the franchise. Instead, the third spin-off installment in the “Rocky” series follows a well-worn crowd-pleasing path. In a film filled with so many big physical swings in the boxing ring, not enough sincere emotional punches land.

“Creed III” goes for style over substance in depicting its protagonist as a hugely successful entrepreneur. And despite his riches and achievements outside the ring, the film tries to convince us that Creed has no choice but to put back on the gloves. Why? Because, at its core, the “Rocky” formula, perfected by gifted screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, must be recycled.

In playing Creed, Michael B. Jordan never lets us forget that he’s a movie star--from his character’s expensive designer clothing and fabulous LA mansion to his impeccable Rolls-Royce. In this slick production, Jordan looks rich from head to toe, even when his Creed’s taking a beating in the ring.

That wealthy, polished persona belies the rough and ready one that handsomely launched this “Rocky” spin-off franchise in 2015. By contrast, “Creed III” lacks the raw edge and the street cred that the 2015 film captured nearly flawlessly. This entry is a marginal improvement over the cartoonish “Creed II,” but it’s still a wasted opportunity for Jordan, who also makes his directorial debut.

When interviewed about this project, Sylvester Stallone said, “I like my heroes getting beat up, but I just don't want them going into that dark space. I just feel people have enough darkness.” In exploring Creed’s relationship with an emotionally damaged childhood friend, arguably, “Creed III” might not be dark enough.

Stallone built his career on getting beaten up. And after the immense success of 1976’s “Rocky,” which netted him multiple Oscar nominations, including for writing, he turned to an earlier screenplay that followed a similar story arc. That film, “Paradise City,” focused on wrestling in the 1940s and didn’t work nearly as well as his boxing narrative. Licking his wounds, he returned to what launched him and produced, directed, wrote, and starred in the terrific crowd-pleaser “Rocky II.”

What was clear is that in Balboa and boxing, Stallone found a likable, relatable character and a format that was box office gold. The Italian Stallion never left him until this movie, where he’s effectively kicked to the curb. Even though Stallone does not appear in this film, the structure he originally relied upon in 1976 and refined for decades is partially recycled in “Creed III.”

In this film, Adonis “Donnie” Creed retires after a rematch with former nemesis Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). As a second career, Creed turns to promotion and management.

One afternoon, he’s visited by old friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), who has recently been released from a long stint in prison. Anderson, whose age hovers around 40, was once a golden glove champ. He desperately wants Creed to give him a shot at the title. Can Creed overcome the demons of his past and make things right with his friend? Naturally, this is gonna end up in the ring.

“Creed III” is the kind of pulpy entertainment associated with lesser installments in the prolific boxing movie franchise. But something is off, as the central theme is confused, with an irresponsible message promoting that all problems can be settled by knowing how to punch harder and better than your opponent.

In an inexplicable turnaround, Creed’s wife’s previous beliefs on rejecting violence are jettisoned with a weak line of unbelievable dialogue. It’s a false moment when the thoughtful Bianca embraces the violent solution with little explanation. Viewers might experience whiplash.

Majors, who just last month was the best thing about the MCU’s “Quantumania,” once again proves that he’s the real deal. If only this script would have allowed him to be genuinely as frightening as he could be. But what’s surprising is that despite his questionable motives, I found myself rooting for his character as the final battle with Creed hits the ring.

Part of this affinity for the bad guy is that Majors is just so darned convincing in every role we’ve seen him inhabit. And here, there is an effort to humanize the beastly Anderson by suggesting that he was cheated out of his shot at the title. But here, too, that narrative thread is confusing. Creed tells the story one way, but we’re shown the events with a slightly different spin.

Jordan and his production team’s missed opportunity is in failing to invent a new way forward for the Rocky/Creed character. It was a problem for Stallone as well. He continually went back to the fading magic formula with each lesser-than-movie. But Creed lacks an appreciable dimension in this movie and doesn’t show much emotional growth. Even a final denouement between Creed and Anderson falls emotionally flat when it should be raw and abrasive.

In the end, Jordan, the movie star, takes over. Immediately following a brutal match (all 12 rounds), we see him standing in the ring wearing a perfect tracksuit with little visible injury. It’s unconvincing and the stuff of popcorn cinema when this narrative should aspire for something deeper and more dramatically satisfying.