Despite being a fictional character, Rocky Balboa is a deeply beloved Philadelphia sports figure. Not only is he our most successful champion (despite, once again, being quite fictional), he also represents what so many of us here in the cheesesteak capital see in ourselves: A talented, scrappy low-life who could make something of him or herself if just given the chance. Doesn’t matter that we break thumbs for the mob or try to write silly jokes to entertain our significant others despite not really knowing how jokes work. All that matters is that we have the heart and grit to succeed. This is not just a figurative assumption either. Every Philadelphian truly believes that if we were to set foot in a boxing ring, no fighter could knock us out, no matter how well-trained or talented. Our opponent could be heavyweight champion of the world and our hearts, despite being clogged with cholesterol from decades of chopped red meats and substances that are cheese-like but must legally be referred to as cheez, would lead us to victory.
We’re tough guys and gals, and ain’t nobody gonna get in our way but ourselves, which is exactly what we plan to do. And amidst it all, we will do our darnedest to forget that just about every theme present in the entire Rocky franchise is not even remotely unique to Philly. Far from it, in fact. The themes of working hard, doing your best, and treating every obstacle only as a means to self-betterment are universal — themes that, before 2015’s Creed, were in the need of a bit of a shakeup.
And a shakeup is what we got. Ryan Coogler and his team created the perfect vessel through which to take these timeless notions and not just update the visage of our hero, but update the look of Philadelphia to one much more contemporarily accurate. On top of that, they found a way to incorporate Rocky’s fading, leathery existence into things and move the story forward with a compelling new character: Adonis Creed.
Then came Creed II, which took the pieces of Rocky IV and worked them into a functional remake of Rocky III. It kicked serious ass, but it nonetheless felt like the series was moving backwards toward established formula rather than blazing a new trail forward. Unfortunately for us Philadelphians, it became clear that the one thing holding the series back was Rocky himself. Fortunately, Creed II gave him a proper send-off (much like Creed, Rocky Balboa, and Rocky V had already done) with a fulfilling arc — an arc that also gave the Drago boys a respectful send off. Enter Creed III, the first entry in the franchise to be completely without the Italian Stallion, and to spend absolutely no time in the City of Brotherly Love, where our sports fans who throw things at both friends and enemies.
There’s no official reason for Rocky’s absence, but the silent acknowledgement that he’s one hundred years old and unwilling to leave Philly is enough. Plus, this is no longer his franchise. Stallone’s real-world battles with producer Irwin WInkler notwithstanding, it’s Adonis Creed’s time to shine, and boy does he shine (both figuratively and literally — the Creed boys are a shiny bunch!).
Our story begins with Adonis Creed’s final fight before retirement. He’s back in the ring with the man he unceremoniously lost his car to way back in the day when trying to prove himself at Little Duke’s gym. After defending his title one last time, Adonis (michael B. Jordan, but you knew that) decides to hang up his gloves (in a trophy room that features an entire wall dedicated to his own image — an aspirational possession if there ever were one), and move into the world of fight promotion. While Adonis isn’t enough of a shithead to be a great promoter, he does have some of his father’s savvy for marketing. There’s no doubt that he’ll be able to do it well enough to pay the bills, keep a foot in the ring, and continue being a present father and husband. Parallel to this, his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is moving into the world of music production, since her progressive hearing loss has made performance increasingly challenging. Theirs is a beautiful relationship, one based in love and communication (the latter of which Rocky and Adrian never had, if we’re being honest), and a mutual respect for one another’s goals, one of which is to raise their daughter (Mila Davis-Kent) to be a dignified young woman.
All is going swimmingly until a figure from Adonis’ past emerges. His name is Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), and he’s fresh out of prison. In flashbacks we learn that he and Adonis made some trouble together as kids, and Damian’s own boxing career was put on hold when bad circumstances and a dumb decision landed him on the wrong side of the law. Needless to say, tensions arise, and before long these old friends are going to have to box each other about it. It’s just how these things (Rocky movies) go.
What emerges is a flip-flopping of the classic Rocky tale, imbued with the social dynamics of Creed. Instead of having a protagonist in the form of an underdog in serious need of an opportunity, we are instead following the champ as he gives said opportunity to an underdog. This time around, the underdog is the antagonist. Framing the story as such thickens the personality bonds between Adonis and Apollo, but also offers an opportunity to recontextualize the original film (lest we forget, Rocky was a criminal before he got his shot too). What elevates this above being a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ story is that Damian is given a strong motivation to behave the way he does, and his complicated background plays into the notion that Adonis himself was just a few lucky breaks away from becoming the exact same person. Rocky IV this is not. Jonathan Majors, who is about to have an insane year of superstardom, is able to simultaneously play a big bad and a man broken by circumstances beyond his reach. It’s a bold bit of stpry made that much more real by one of the most exciting actors on the planet. It’s not easy to create a situation where we want to see the big, scary villain lose, but also want him to be okay. As much as I love this franchise overall, when it comes to the main event, there’s not typically a lot of nuance to go around. Here it exists in droves.
Creed III also marks the directorial debut of Michael B. Jordan, who proves as gifted behind the camera as he is in front of it. Being three movies deep in his leg of a nine movie franchise, Jordan had every reason to shoot a film that looks like a medley of the filmmakers who came before him, and while he does manage to hit some familiar tonal beats as laid down by his forbears, there’s an exciting new style on display here that marks a notable departure from all that came before. The edges are a bit softer, the takes a bit longer, and heck, even the overall color palette has changed. In pre-release interviews, Jordan mentioned that anime was a big influence on how he chose to shoot the boxing sequences, and it pleases me to report that he wasn’t just blowing smoke. The influence is felt. Once sequence that occurs midway through the main event is a bold stylistic flourish that could’ve failed miserably, but instead marries the larger narrative of the fight itself to all of its established thematic weight in a propulsive way that feels brand-spanking new. Jordan may be a bit green in the director’s chair, but as debuts go, this is a home run (or should I say knockout?). Not only has Jordan established himself as the architect of this series moving forward, he’s also established himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with outside of Creed. And as far as series concerns go, Creed III would serve as both a fitting end to the story at large or, if the powers that be deem it to be so, a solid jumping off point for a whole new era of pugilist melodrama.
Just like the man who gave birth to this never-ending world of thematically rich boxing movies, the whole business of Rocky/Creed is one that you simply can’t bet against. Every time the world thinks its time to move on, a surprising new entry comes along and declares that not only is there plenty of juice left in the tank, but that exciting new things can happen beyond just the rehashing of old formulas, so long as there is great talent behind it. Creed III is a showcase of technical craft, script wizardry, thoughtful direction, and some of the best performances you’re apt to find anywhere, let alone in the NINTH MOVIE IN A HALF-CENTURY OLD FRANCHISE. Just incredible.
Directed by Michael B. Jordan
Written by Keenan Coogler, Zach Baylin, Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes