Michael B. Jordan knocks out critics in his directorial debut
On a stereotypically-bright Los Angeles day, a retired Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is cruising alone in his Rolls Royce. He passes his own building-sized Ralph Lauren ad on the Sunset Strip on the way to an unlikely destination: an empty liquor store parking lot in Crenshaw. He’s there to confront his past in preparation of perhaps the most difficult fight of his life.
After a gritty rise-to-the-top saga in the first two installments, Creed III begins with an indulgent display of the champ’s success: a stunning cliffside mansion, a full and fulfilling family life, lucrative contracts, and a boxing academy with hungry newcomers. But the comforts of retirement are short lived when Creed’s childhood friend, Damian “Diamond Dame” Anderson (Johnathan Majors), enters his life for the first time since 2002—when the pair snuck out for a Golden Gloves match in Crenshaw. Then, Dame was the one to watch; he wins the fight. But a cataclysmic altercation separates Dame and Adonis’s lives—one later propelled into stardom and the other to 18 years in prison.
Survivor’s guilt, brotherhood, and acceptance take center stage as Dame and Adonis, once bound by their love of boxing, come head-to-head with each other and their shared childhood experiences of poverty and trauma. A spoiler: we learn that a young Adonis lived in a group home where he and Dame were badly beaten by their foster guardian, Leon. Enraged when he runs into Leon the night of the Golden Gloves fight, young Adonis attacks Leon; the fight escalates, young Dame draws a gun to defend Adonis, and police arrive. Adonis escapes by running but Dame is apprehended and receives a lengthy sentence due to a record of prior offenses.
Dame’s insistence on avenging the life he thinks Creed has stolen forces the protagonist to examine a core question unearthed by Adonis’s wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson): why fight? The two men’s differing answers ultimately inform how they perform both inside and outside of the ring.
While the primary characters assume their expected “good guy” vs. “bad guy” roles—they even wear white and black in some scenes—Dame’s character is developed well-enough for antihero fans to understand, if not root for at times. Jonathan Majors is the real-life champ in this latest installment in the ‘Rocky’ spinoff, delivering a striking, slow burn performance. We don’t see Dame actually inside of a prison, yet Majors quietly—then forcefully—conveys the rage and regret of unfulfilled dreams in the context of the carceral system. “With Damian Anderson, I get the opportunity to write a love letter to my stepdad,” Majors said in an interview with Ayesha Rascoe of NPR. “He was incarcerated for 15 years … I watched him be misunderstood and judged, you know, and his aspirations, his deep, deep aspirations of something greater, that were put on pause because he was incarcerated.”
In focusing on Adonis’s navigation through his own feelings of guilt, shame, and emotional distress, Jordan sets the ideal stage for Major’s character to shine and to showcase his directorial chops. In addition to traditional (and spot-on) flashbacks to 2002, the final showdown features an intriguing visualization of just the two men fighting one-on-one: CGI, slow motion, symbolism, and more grunts than words. In many ways, the scene captures the unspeakable—the fraught and complex emotions of two Black men’s inner worlds colliding with the restrictions and expectations of the external world.
Along the way to self-forgiveness and reconciliation, Adonis receives help from the women in his life including his mother (Phylicia Rashad) and daughter Amara (Mila Davis Kent) who also aspires to fight. Adonis’s wife Bianca—who deals with her own disappointments in her music career—provides an affecting-yet-firm prescription for dealing with “feelings:” try like your life depends on it.
Creed III sticks to the franchise’s signature arc. But it offers enough guesses, compelling acting, and, yes, fight scenes to keep viewers engaged and potentially talking about mental health well after the movie ends.
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