The Rocky franchise has left an indelible mark on cinema history. It created the blueprint for the modern sports movie that had audiences passionately cheering for the underdog and making them want to get up and start shadowboxing any time Bill Conti’s iconic track “Gonna Fly Now” starts playing. Almost 40 years later, the saga continued with 2015’s Creed, a cinematic underdog with the unenviable task of living up to the reputation and legacy of such an iconic series. It had the very capable hands of Ryan Coogler at the helm, the superstar-in-the-making Michael B. Jordan in the titular role, and the Italian Stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone, giving a career-best performance that saw him land an Oscar nomination. The film was a knockout success that no one saw coming and is arguably the best legacy sequel we’ve seen thus far.
After another solid outing with these characters in 2018’s Creed II, Michael B. Jordan is back in front of the camera once again as Adonis Creed, but also behind the camera as he takes a seat in the director’s chair for the first time with this third installment. But he will be without Stallone who despite being credited as a producer has stepped away due to reportedly being unhappy with the direction this film takes the series as well as an ongoing rights feud with producer, Irwin Winkler. (In July 2022, Stallone labeled Winkler and his family as “blood suckers” on Instagram and included a crude image of Winkler as a vampire biting the neck of Rocky.)
Five years on from the events of Creed II, Adonis Creed has conquered the boxing world. He has retired from the sport as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and has retreated into his luxurious Hollywood mansion with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) to become a family man and raise their daughter Amara (the scene-stealing newcomer Mila Davis Kent). Bianca has also stepped away from the stage and the spotlight to turn her focus towards producing music, preserving what is left of her degenerative hearing for as long as she can.
But a figure from Creed’s past re-emerges in the form of Damian ‘Dame’ Anderson (a very imposing Jonathon Majors), a former boxing prodigy and childhood friend of Adonis. The two had a thick-as-thieves brotherly bond when they were in the same group home as teens, until a violent incident they were involved in resulted in Dame spending 18 years behind bars while Adonis ran away. Watching Adonis live out the dream life Dame hoped for himself before it was “taken from him” has made him jealous and resentful. Now out of prison with nothing to lose and eager to prove his worth, Dame feels entitled to a shot at the championship he never got, and his old friend Adonis Creed is the one standing in his way. Creed must confront the guilt from his past and put his future on the line in a face-off with Dame that is so much more than just a fight.
The film opens with a rematch of Creed against “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (the opponent from the first Creed film, played by former pro boxer Tony Bellew) that takes place in 2017, and immediately, Rocky’s absence sticks out. Chronologically, this fight takes place before Creed II where Rocky is still training Adonis, but, for whatever reason, he isn’t there. However confusing this is in regards to the timeline of this trilogy, it was done out of necessity not just because Stallone stepped away from this film but also for the Creed saga to use it to fully emerge as its own entity separate from the shadow of the Rocky films.
That’s reflected not just in Jordan being given the reins as director, but also the motivation behind Adonis’ character in this film and what he is really fighting for. In the first two films, Adonis is fighting tooth and nail to honor the memory of his father; to be able to live up to everything it means to carry the Creed name and use it with pride, with Rocky being along for the ride to train him for his own journey of vindication and redemption. But because Rocky is no longer in Adonis’ corner, Creed III feels like the first time in the series that he is truly fighting for himself and doing so completely on his own terms. He’s established his own path in life and has now made his own legacy; separate from Rocky, separate from Apollo, and from everyone else, and Dame resurfacing in his life and challenging him threatens to take all of that away.
This idea of “staying true to those that came before but forging your own path” is emblematic of Jordan’s approach as the director. Creed III has everything you have come to expect from this series, but Jordan has taken a leaf out of his good friend Ryan Coogler’s book as he joyfully plays around with the form in ways you don’t see much in the boilerplate sports movie genre. Jordan has been outspoken about his love of anime and its influences on Creed III and he gleefully lets his inner otaku run wild. The breakdown of the fraternal relationship between Dame and Creed, friends-to-enemies arc has the operatic machismo melodrama you see a lot in anime, but the soul of it does not get lost in translation.
But it is of course the spectacular fight sequences where the anime comparisons are most apt and importantly most invigorating in Creed III. The changing, dreamlike environment of the ring, the disappearing and reappearing crowd, a shot of Dame and Creed striking each other in the face at the same time and punches that turn to slow motion on points of impact, watching in awe as the full force of the blow makes the skin ripple like a drop in a pond. There may not be any Kamehamehas or Hadoukens performed in the ring, but these flourishes Jordan implements, especially in the finale where Dame and Creed throw down, is where he shines brightest as a director. One particular shot with a slo-mo punch right into the solar plexus resulting in blood streaming from the mouth and droplets of sweat flying off the back feels ripped straight from Dragon Ball Z.
If you were wondering how a franchise that has been around for almost half a century — one that has multiple legacy sequels and soft reboots that all follow the same very rigid genre template — can breathe in some new life and do something fresh in its ninth installment, the answer is what Michael B. Jordan did with this film. No Rocky? No problem, as Creed III is yet another fantastic entry into this remarkable series that, much like Adonis Creed, honors the legacy all the while continuing to forge a path of its own greatness.
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