His heavyweight champion status secured, the now-retired Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) spends his days lounging around his Hollywood mansion, having tea parties with daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) and running his gym with coach Little Duke (Wood Harris). But when a long-forgotten figure from Adonis’ past returns, his future is thrown into question.
The Rocky / Creed series has always been about legacy. Missed opportunities, lost futures, regained pasts, victorious presents. And although the Creed films ditched much of the silliness of the Rocky era, that overarching theme of legacy has fundamentally driven this new triptych: indeed much of the thematic ground of this film was already well-trodden in the last instalment, whereby Adonis Creed once again has to ask himself what to do after securing his legacy as champ (Spoiler: it’s to keep smacking people in the face).
The biggest departure from previous entries is that this is the first film in which the Italian Stallion is nowhere to be seen. Creed II left Rocky reconciled with his son on a surprisingly tender note which felt a natural place for the ol’ lunk to depart the series gracefully. Jordan, who has directed this entry, has spoken of not being able to find an organic place in the story for Rocky, and it makes sense for this entry to finally step out from under Rocky’s shadow.
Yet the manner of his absence, with a single named reference and a couple of bizarrely oblique gestures (including one in which he is literally cut from the frame of a diegetic image) feels weirdly bitter. Stallone has spoken of his anger at not being included in the story: it may well be sour grapes but given the film’s themes of legacy and mentorship it’s hard not to wonder if it was behind-the-scenes drama, rather than the needs of the story, driving some of the decisions to excise him so surgically.
So with Rocky out of the picture, Creed steps into the role of mentor figure. A slight retcon of his past introduces Damian (Jonathan Majors), a surrogate brother from Adonis’ group home days, who has spent the past eighteen years in prison, now returning with ambitions of being the next Champ. As Damian persuades Adonis to train him, circumstances appear to conspire in Damian’s favour that mean he is gifted a show fight between with Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), Adonis’ other protégé and the current champ.
It’s not hard to see where this is going, and plot-wise we’re very much in Rocky V territory – in which Rocky trained his own nemesis and the very worst of all Rocky films – but for all its flaws Creed III is no Rocky V and with the outstanding Jonathan Majors bringing him to life, Damian is not the panto villain of that earlier misfire. Meanwhile, the screenplay balances the big narrative beats that this kind of broad crowd pleaser demands, along with posing more difficult social questions to which there are no easy answers. A surfeit of underwritten supporting characters make the film’s first half feel undisciplined, coming off as either predictable, dramatically inert, or both. But after the mid-point bout things snap into focus as the stakes become clearer and the narrative gains momentum, yet those questions around complicity exploitation and culpability drive a kind of drama that the series has rarely before had the depth to explore, even if its apotheosis still amounts to two men punching each other into oblivion.
This series has always been about big, sincere emotions and for all its dramatic grit Creed III still carries its heart on its sleeve. Nevertheless, Jordan understands the difference between the emotionally direct and the simplistic, with his and Major’s lead performances bringing complexity to what could otherwise have been two-dimensional caricatures. Following on from Ryan Coogler and Steven Caple Jr., Jordan acquits himself very well as director with tight, gritty visuals in the dramatic scenes and some of the most dynamic fight sequences of the series to date, including a bravura scene – shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, returning from Creed II – that takes us further into psychological abstraction than any entry yet.
The poster’s tagline may be ‘You can’t run from your past’, but much of Creed III suggests you may be doomed to repeat it. The near total excision of Rocky from the film certainly feels as if the film would like to ignore it. Certainly, after two films that have asked where we go from here, it’s hard for us not to start asking the same questions, setting aside the unsubtle hints at setting up Adonis’ daughter as the next character to carry the series’ mantle. The original Rocky series managed six entries, firstly by being tender, then getting silly, then embarrassing, and then finally with a tender, silly, (slightly) embarrassing reprise in Rocky Balboa. Creed seems determined not to follow the same pattern of becoming self parodic, so although this entry still has some gas left in the tank, perhaps its best to retire now before it does itself an injury.