Can the Creed series survive without Rocky? That question was batted around by some in the wake of the announcement that the character originated by Sylvester Stallone in the Oscar-winning 1976 franchise-starter Rocky, who he reprised in numerous sequels and in Creed and Creed II, the latter of which garnered him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, would not be returning for the third installment (Stallone is still involved behind-the-camera, however, as a producer). Michael B. Jordan’s compelling lead presence as Adonis “Donnie” Creed—the son of Rocky’s former rival and his new protégé—ought to have been enough evidence to prompt an answer in the affirmative, but sitting in the director’s chair for the first time on Creed III as well, Jordan more than proves that both he and his character can stand on their own.
Creed III opens with some jumping around in time. In 2002, as a child in Los Angeles, Donnie (played by Thaddeus J. Mixon), sneaks out with his friend Damian Anderson to watch an underground boxing match, and is inspired by Damian’s determination to become the best. Their evening ends in a violent encounter outside a convenience store. Fast forward to 2020, and Donnie is crowned heavyweight champion of the world after winning a rematch against Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew). Three years later, Donnie is retired from the ring, running the Delphi Boxing Academy and promoting other fighters while raising his daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who shares her mother’s hearing impairment and is acting out at school, wanting to be a fighter like her dad. Donnie’s peaceful world is shaken up by the sudden appearance of Damian (Jonathan Majors), just released from a stint in prison and wanting to get reacquainted with Donnie. Their initial encounters—Donnie leery before opening up to reminiscing about their childhood and experience living in a group home, Damian eager to please—mask Damian’s true intentions: a desire to use Donnie to resume his boxing career, despite his alarmingly aggressive fighting style.
Creed III is a lean entry in the boxing movie genre, almost to a fault. There’s an anticlimactic air to the requisite training sequence that leads into the final fight that we know the film is always heading towards right from the beginning. But that’s because this film is less about the fight and more concerned with reckoning with your past. And Jordan proves himself to have a lot of promise as a director in the way he stages that final fight (and indeed, the visceral fights that precede it), drawing on his knowledge and enthusiasm for anime to flip the battle into one that transcends the merely physical. Reality and dreams merge as the audience surrounding the ring fade away, and Donnie is forced to wade through visions of both his and Donnie’s traumatic past. There’s nothing cartoonish about these flourishes, however. The force behind every punch is palpable, from the sound design to the way that the camera lingers on the sweaty, muscled bodies.
While Creed III feels rather underwritten in regards to Donnie and Damian’s relationship, both actors turn in compelling performances that at the very least makes their lingering old feelings of regret and resentment believable, if their present-day motivations are lacking somewhat. Creed III finds most of its heart in the warm relationship Donnie shares with Bianca and Amara, who stick by his side even when it seems he may be in over his head, and Phylicia Rashad as Donnie’s mother is the source of some real tear-jerking moments. As wonderful and essential Stallone has been to these films over the years, at the end of the day, his presence here isn’t deeply missed. Without his mentor to guide him, Donnie is forced to look inside himself and navigate his doubts and fears, not wholly alone, but with his family by his side. There’s nothing quite as good as a solid sports movie, despite its predictable beats. Creed III proves that there’s still plenty of life left in these stories and these characters, wherever the filmmakers decide to take them next.
Creed III is now playing in theaters and is available to watch on demand. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.