Review: In Creed III, a Retired Boxing Champ Faces His Greatest Opponent Yet: His Past

For the first two movies in what is now a trilogy of Creed films about boxer Adonis Creed (played by a distractingly ripped Michael B. Jordan), son of fictional Rocky franchise boxer Apollo Creed, the filmmakers paid due tribute to the legacy of the Rocky movies and the role that Rocky Balboa played in raising up young Adonis and making him a champion. But those two films placed Adonis in the context (and sometimes in the shadow) of what came before him with his father and Balboa. Now, with Jordan making his directing debut, Creed III places Adonis in a story that takes him mostly out of that shadow, forcing him to deal with a ghost from his own past, a former best friend and mentor, Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), who went to prison nearly 20 years ago (when he was 18) for a crime that was partly Adonis’s fault. And even if he isn’t to blame, the guilt has lived inside him ever since.

When we’re re-introduced to Adonis this time around, he’s defended his championship belt and retired to enjoy life with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who has moved on from singing to songwriting for other artists. Together, the two take care of their hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). In the flashback sequence that opens the film, we see a portion of the incident that got Damian (at 18, played by Spence Moore II) sent to prison. But before that, it’s clear that he was well on his way to becoming a boxing phenomenon in his own right, with 15-year-old Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) as his corner man and best friend. So when the older Damian shows up at Adonis’s training center (run by Creed’s trainer Little Du, played by Wood Harris), it’s a bit of shock for Adonis seeing his old friend and hearing that Damian wants to get back into boxing and take the title that he believes he was destined for.

Jordan and Majors are such strong actors that they’re able to sell the depth of their friendship (although it’s clear Damian is a little bothered by the fact that Adonis never visited him in prison), as well as the tension that quickly springs up between them when Damian starts demanding that Adonis help him get a title shot without spending the necessary time building up a fight résumé. Adonis doesn’t see how that’s possible, so Damian shows him the way using a few tricks he learned in prison. And it soon becomes clear that Damian’s goal to become champion is more about manipulating and betraying Adonis the first chance he gets.

From a screenplay by Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin (with an additional story credit by original Creed director Ryan Coogler), Creed III attempts to balance the boxing world with Adonis’s home life. But with the fight moments (both training and actual bouts) being far more dramatic and interesting, the wife and daughter scenes feel like distractions, despite the fact that Thompson gets a tremendous amount of screen time; even the returning Phylicia Rashad, as Adonis’s mother, seems like a dramatic tool more than an actual, meaningful human being in his life.

Naturally, the only way Damian can be the true champion and settle his score with Adonis is by dragging his old friend out of retirement for one last epic fight, which Jordan shoots in a variety of ways, including an unusual visual trick where he drops out the sound and eliminates the audience so that all the boxers see are each other. Jordan also makes sure we understand the techniques and strategies that both fighters use to search for weaknesses and deliver deafening blows. I’m not even sure this is a criticism of the film or not, but I spent the entire time watching it assuming these two would go through these trials and tribulations and still be friends (of a sort) in the end, and I wasn’t too far off. To that point, there isn’t much about Creed III that isn’t predictable, but that goes for all boxing movies and most sports movies, so I’m not going to knock the film too hard for that. I think Jordan’s directing hand is strong, and both he and the writers at least attempt to create a believable scenario between these two men that I responded to. All of that being said, I wish this were the end of this series (I doubt it is), because I think it ends on a decent, satisfying note. Time and inspiration will tell.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.