By Manohla Dargis
The tears flow as freely as the blood in “Creed III,” the latest entry in the apparently indestructible “Rocky” saga. Once again, Adonis Creed — the tough but tender, gruff but gentle heavyweight boxer played by Michael B. Jordan — must be knocked down so that he can rise higher still. That storyline is a metaphor for life, no doubt. It’s also a perfect distillation of this franchise, which has had repeated ups and downs during its staggering 47-year run.
In 1976, the year that Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky sprinted up the long steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gerald Ford was president and most of the principal cast of “Creed III” wasn’t yet born. The 2015 release of “Creed,” seventh in the series, inaugurated a narrative shift that found Rocky taking on the role of the avuncular trainer, a part he also played three years later in the sequel. Stallone isn’t in this latest chapter. Although his absence has obvious resonance, if you were expecting some kind of Hamlet-style anguish or even a hint of misty melancholia about the now-absent symbolic father, forget it. This isn’t the Sly Stallone show; it’s Jordan’s, from first scene to last.
For this installment, Jordan has taken over as both the star and the director (it’s his feature debut), twinned roles that he has assumed with seamless assurance. As entertaining as it is predictable, “Creed III” does exactly what you expect, delivering nicely balanced helpings of intimacy and spectacle, grit and glamour. It’s enjoyably old-school Hollywood in how squarely it hits all the familiar genre beats — even as it pragmatically advances the series — yet it’s also very much of the moment in how it grapples with family, friendship and the complexities of contemporary masculinity, its pleasures and its burdens.
Every boxer needs a challenger, a hard body to spar with physically and otherwise. Here, that foe is Damian, a childhood friend of Adonis’ (Donnie to his pals), a walking wound played as an adult by Jonathan Majors. (In flashback, Spence Moore II and Thaddeus James Mixson Jr. play the characters as adolescents.) After the usual recap — now retired, Donnie is fabulously successful and settled down with his family — Damian appears in a hoodie one day outside Donnie’s gym while leaning on the champ’s Rolls-Royce. It’s an image that’s more biting than any line of dialogue, all the more so because an irritated Donnie doesn’t at first recognize Damian, a scene that Jordan invests with dramatic tension and visceral unease.
That sense of disquiet remains as an enigmatically wary Donnie and an unreadable Damian share a meal and guarded laughs, and the story’s (too) many pieces begin sharply clicking into place. The movie is a continuation of Creed’s story, and a further burnishing of a new big-screen myth — one that is now refracted through Damian and his desire to get back into the ring. A Golden Gloves fighter as a teen, Damian wants to reclaim his boxing glory and resume a trajectory cut short by prison. That’s exactly what happens, more or less, despite Donnie’s reservations, the strong objections of his business partner, Tony (Wood Harris), and some complications with Donnie’s mother, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad).
Like many actors-turned-directors, Jordan does very fine work with the performers, including in his scenes with Tessa Thompson, who again plays Bianca, his lover and now wife. Her character doesn’t have all that much to do (a musician, she has given up performing), but Thompson’s charisma ensures that the character never registers like an afterthought or an appendage to the male protagonist. There’s no question that Jordan is the star, as his ample screen time affirms — the man certainly knows his best camera angles and when to strip down — but what gives the movie interest and heft is how it insistently deploys other characters to complicate and recast the classic figure of the rugged American individual.
Like “Rocky” was for Stallone, the first “Creed” served as a breakthrough for Jordan and for its director, Ryan Coogler, who have become entertainment-world juggernauts. Stallone’s presence in the earlier “Creed” movies ensured that the franchise remained tethered to his legacy, with its sequels and fraught semiotics, even if the titles no longer carried the Rocky name. Instructively, the first “Creed” ends with Donnie and Rocky side by side; the second restlessly cuts between the two, as if asking for you to choose between them. The choice has now been made, and with the shift from Rocky to Creed, the franchise has moved to fertile new ground. (Coogler and Stallone remain attached to the series as producers; Coogler also shares the story credit with the screenwriters, his brother Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin.)
“Nobody owes nobody nothing,” Rocky says in the first film, a philosophical declaration from a white working-class striver who can seem alone even when he is with other people and whose self-reliance puts him on a continuum with other bootstrapping self-mythologizers. In “Creed III,” Donnie has his share of lonely moments, too, but the story continually puts him into play with other people, including in tender scenes of him caring for his and Bianca’s daughter (Mila Davis-Kent).
In contrast to, say, those dead-mom movies in which men take over for absent mothers, Donnie shares parenting duties. He is responsible for — and to — other people and deeply connected to a community that, however anxiously, includes Damian, who isn’t a combative stranger but an old friend, as well as a reminder of a fate escaped.
“Creed III” suffers from the customary franchise bloat, and the ending is rushed and underdeveloped. It’s also bogged down by a tragic subplot that feels expedient (you can sense the next movie being plotted out as it unfolds), but that also gives Donnie a narrative rationale to shed copious tears, which Jordan does with aching vulnerability. There’s art and craft in those tears. There is also, well, a creed. And as emotion floods this movie, Jordan lets loose a torrent of ideas about Black masculinity and community, about how the past haunts the present, the legacy of state violence, the chimera of self-reliance and the existential necessity of love. So, come for the boxing, yes — but bring plenty of hankies, too.
Rated PG-13 for gun and boxing-ring violence. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In theaters.