“Creed III” – Wobbly, but still standing at the end.
I was fully expecting Creed III to be another forgettable movie, especially when I learned Creed III is Michael B. Jordan’s directing debut. To this point in Jordan’s career, I do not understand the praise that he gets. His performances range from angry to why-is-he-still-angry. I kind of understand – I’m just as angry at how bad he was in Fantastic 4 as he likely is. But, he is one more bad/angry performance from joining my list of actors/directors whose movies I will actively avoid (Melissa McCarthy, Quentin Tarantino, and Will Ferrell, though Ferrell almost redeemed himself for me in Spirited). After watching Creed III, I can say that, surprisingly, Jordan did not join that list. In fact, he may have earned a couple points back.
Having not seen Creed II, I wondered if I needed to watch it prior to watching Creed III. Creed left so little impression on me that I barely remember anything about it. I do remember that Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) was not a sympathetic character. Oh…and boxing. I don’t remember the fights in the movie specifically, just that fights happened. To decide if I should watch Creed II, I went to the wiki page for the movie to read the plot summary, then remembered why I didn’t watch Creed II. I had no desire to see a remake of Rocky IV. It’s hard to think of a more contrived plot than the son of Apollo Creed fights the son of Ivan Drago. The wiki page confirmed that the movie follows the formula of Rocky IV almost to the letter. Maybe Adonis grows as a person or maybe he doesn’t, but after watching Creed III I can confirm that it doesn’t matter.
My biggest issue with Creed was Adonis’ motivation for becoming a professional boxer was really weak. There was no reason to care that a middle-class guy wanted to quit his job to be a boxer. Cut to Creed III, where Adonis retires from boxing after defending his title. He’s rich, famous, his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a successful music producer, has a beautiful and talented daughter – Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), is friends with the men he beat in the previous two movies, and is now a fight promoter and boxing gym owner. Still not sympathetic as a character.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead to talk plot. In a boxing movie sequel. Yeah, I hear it too).
Then, we get a flashback to Adonis’ teenage years, where he sneaks out of the house to join his friend Damian, acting as Damian’s corner-man at a boxing match. Following the match, they stop at a convenience store where Adonis attacks a man named Leon, end of flashback. We return to this flashback several times throughout the film, eventually learning how Damian ended up in prison for eighteen years and not Adonis, as well as the motivations behind everything Damian (Jonathan Majors) does after reconnecting with Adonis. Turns out, Damian felt abandoned by Adonis and has a bit of a grudge.
You can see the problem with the story here. Adonis is the titular hero we’re supposed to root for, but Damian is the one we feel sympathy for. Obviously, the story isn’t going to make Adonis the villain, so the movie becomes very predictable in the way it treats Damian. Character development is thrown out the window as Damian is frozen as a troublemaking ex-con that Adonis’ adopted mother (Phylicia Rashad) hated. Any more depth than that risks the audience siding with Damian in the climactic fight with Adonis.
The mediocre writing continues rearing its head in the form of subplots that go nowhere. An envelope of cash handed to a lady before young Damian’s match. Adonis doing nothing with the knowledge that Damian hired a guy to injure Viktor Drago. Damian appears to make moves on Bianca. Bianca admonishes Adonis for solving all problems with a punch to the face, then supporting him when he says the only way to stop Damian is to punch him in the face (rather than release the evidence that Damian Tonya Harding’d Drago). Perhaps the worst bit is Damian clearly cheating in his first match and exactly no sportswriters or fans dissecting the video to call it out. Instead, Damian immediately becomes a superstar with legions of fans. That’s not surprising in a trilogy that has taken no real creative chances, adhering to the Rocky formula so hard you can practically see Sylvester Stallone’s shadow on Jordan’s shoulder.
Jordan’s directing isn’t great either. We’ll cut him a lot of slack for this first attempt, but he clearly has a lot to learn. Watch the camerawork and you’ll notice shots that detract from their scenes. When Adonis and Damian are at a restaurant, the camera stays too close for too long, practically suffocating the scene. You can almost see the actors ducking their heads to stay in the shot. Then there are the slow-motion shots during the fights. These shots work in a movie like Sherlock Holmes because Holmes is thinking out his moves, the shot showing us how quickly he’s analyzing the situation compared to his opponents’ movements. This is what Jordan is going for in Creed, but it’s undermined by the story going out of its way to tell us Adonis doesn’t think things through. It’s a stylized visual for no reason other than to be visual. Something similar happens during the climactic fight when the two start seeing child versions of each other, then duke it out for a few of the middle rounds in an empty arena. Again, it’s easy to see what Jordan is going for, but it doesn’t work because he didn’t do any prior work in the film to build to that visual.
Despite those flaws, I found myself enjoying the film far more than expected. The boxing scenes are solid and I was happy that the climactic fight happened for reasons with believable motivations. I also really enjoyed the performances from Thompson, Jordan, and Majors. Thompson grounds the film, providing the cool, collected counter to the testosterone-filled boxers. Jordan surprised the heck out me, mostly late in the film when Adonis finally opens up with Bianca about his past. Jordan finally showed that he is capable of conveying emotions outside of anger and I’m glad I hadn’t given up on him yet. And Majors is just awesome. As he was in Devotion, he is the gem of this film, managing to add the much-needed depth to Damian that the screenplay did not. Majors’ eyes alone provide more character than the casts of some entire franchises. I could have done without the cameo from the insipid human bullhorn known as Stephen A. Smith, but that was just another mistake from a rookie director. Jordan can keep those points he earned back. For now.
Rating: Ask for four dollars back. Jordan has a long way to go before he earns all of your money.