Friday, March 17, 2023

Focus and Control: Creed III (2023) Review

Director: Michael B. Jordan

Notable Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Mila Davis-Kent, Jose Benavidez Jr, Selenis Leyva, Florian Munteanu 


One step. One punch. One round at a time. 


This mantra from the first Creed makes a brief appearance in the final act of Creed III. It’s a smooth callback to the original and it’s a small reminder of just how far this sub-series within the Rocky franchise has come in three films. Yes, it’s a phrase that has stuck with me since the first film, but hearing Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed mutter it under his breath prior to the big final match was a stark reminder of why this series has had potency in recent years. For a franchise with almost 50 years of material, Creed III is tackling legacy in such a smart way that even bringing back the mantra as thematic is potent. 


However, the problem that plagued the previous sequel was that the Creed series was still living in the shadow of its past. Creed II was less a sequel to its predecessor and more of a sequel to Rocky IV. Fun, yes, but it’s a problem that Creed III needed to address. Creed needed to step out from the shadows of the past and into the future, both as a character and as a film series. 


This is the first reason why Creed III finds success. The series attempts to alter the course by pulling as far away from Rocky as possible. Yes, Rocky’s mantra makes an appearance and Sly Stallone’s Italian Stallion is mentioned briefly, but this entry is making the intelligent maneuver of leaning away from Rocky’s lore as a basis and finding its own lore to create. Although it is still hard to beat the coming-of-age and rise to glory of the original Creed, Creed III is a large step up from its predecessor and finds an incredible balance of entertainment, heart, and a new vision for the franchise's future. 


Now that Adonis Creed has established himself as a powerhouse in the boxing world, reclaiming his name and establishing a life for himself and his family, he is retiring. However, as with any great character in an action-esque franchise, it’s not so easy to just walk away. An old friend from his childhood, Diamond Dame, has recently been released from prison and pops up to be a new and wildly uncouth boxer that Adonis feels responsible for. 


If anything, Creed III sets itself aside from every other film in this series with Diamond Dame. Not only is Dame representative of so many great themes around guilt, the dark past, and lost time for the film’s narrative, but it’s brought to life with a vividity of acting skills by Jonathan Majors. Majors imbues the sadness of a young man beaten down by life in the body of a finely crafted military tank chiseled to reclaim what was lost in such a dynamic way that the rest of the cast - an incredible cast might I add - feel simplified in his wake. Even the big bad villain birthing sequence where Creed confronts Dame on a beach is layered with such incredible acting from Majors that the sequence ends up being one of the best and not nearly as endeared to the tropes as it might have. Not only is Dame the highlight of what Creed III wants to accomplish in plot and theme, but he’s the best opponent to ever grace a Rocky film. Easily. 


Naturally, with a force de jour like Majors playing with such a fascinating character to co-headline the film against the already fleshed-out titular hero, Creed III gets to dabble in a lot of intriguing material about lives lived and lives lost to choices and consequences out of our control. Jordan, as a first-time director, ably handles most of the material while giving a much-needed boost of energy to Creed’s family dynamics and how it interweaves with his own story. 


If anything, the script is often overstuffed with too many interesting ideas that it never quite gets to explore many of its secondary themes. A subplot revolving around Creed’s daughter, Amara, and fighting at school never quite sees a full resolution and both the wife and daughter end up being mostly spectators to the finale act. Even the transition in the film from Creed figuring out where he stands with his past to choosing to fight Dame seems oddly rushed and lacks the familial discussion necessary for that decision. It’s a shame too because when Tessa Thompson is on screen, she owns the character with vigor and represents so much of the emotional weight for the film’s continued future. 


Yet, despite some of its scripting flaws and a narrative that doesn’t quite play out all of its intriguing sub-threads, Creed III has one more trick up its sleeve: incredible action sequences. While Michael B. Jordan surprises with his aptitude for dramatic moments as a director, it’s in the film’s action that he gets to showcase his style. Now it’s already been heavily covered that he was inspired by anime in how he approaches these moments, but don’t let that detract from the fact that he just knows how to pace and shoot action. While Coogler directed the action of the first Creed to be incredibly realistic, shooting so much of it in long expertly choreographed takes, Jordan opts for style here and even goes so far as creating a type of dream-like quality to major sections of the final fight - where all the elements of the past enter the ring with Dame and Creed. It’s spectacular and ecstatic when it’s free-flowing in its dramatic heft. For this alone, one ought to give Creed III the benefit of the doubt. 


Although the Rocky fans who leaped over to the Creed series might take beef with it for trudging out on its own, it’s hard not to love what Creed III is doing with the material. It’s not only continuing with the themes and ideas that made this franchise great, but it’s staking its own claim on expanding the world and creating its own identity. With its stellar performances, brutally stylish fight sequences, and thematic gut punches, Creed III simply moves the entire series forward by focusing on making one good movie. 


In fact, Michael B. Jordan must have been taking the mantra to heart. One character. One scene. One movie at a time. …and this is why Creed III wins.


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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