Dramatics suffer in favor of action and style in Michael B. Jordan’s stylish directorial debut, Creed III, which is basically a pay-per-view title match with the best (and longest) narrative pre-show ever conceived. But make no mistake: you’re here for the match, not the backstory-loaded pre-show.
It’s been long decided that boxing is the most cinematic sport: the prerequisite lighting from above and darker backdrop carries natural climatic weight, the one-on-one match-ups allow for closer camera proximity, the dancing referee adds an uneasy sense of danger, the small controlled rings create an environment practically meant to be manipulated through expert action choreography. Put all together, especially when handled by the likes of cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (Thor: The Dark World, which I actually find to be well composed; Chef; and Creed II) and ambitious directorial newcomer Jordan. Creed III is the first film in the history of the sports genre shot with IMAX cameras—and every second of the IMAX finale is felt. Boxing might be the most cinematic sport, and this might be the best boxing has ever looked.
Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Jordan), the undisputed heavyweight champion, has retired in glory—more Wayne Gretzky, less Tom Brady. (Gretzky’s father, Walter, taught him to retire when you think you have one more great year left…Creed appears to have retired with two or three to spare.) Now he runs the gym where he honed his game, training the best fighters in the world until a ghost from his childhood returns to haunt his glorious and peaceful retirement. The ghost? Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), an old friend and failed boxing legend who spent the better half of two decades behind bars on Adonis’s behalf—at least, that’s the way it seems. “I want to be champ,” Majors’ Damian snarls to his former best friend, parroting virtually every young boy’s dream to play professional sports.
Majors is fabulous as the hulking and intimidating Dame, even if it’s a tough ask of the viewer to believe that he’s the same weight class as the series’ main protagonist. With his tremendous physicality and weathered deliveries, he’s almost unrecognizable from his much weaker role as Kang the Conqueror in the newest Ant-Man—though, he isn’t really the problem with that character. Despite Majors’s excellence, some viewers may be displeased at how the script (by Zach Baylin & Keenan Coogler) has thoroughly depoliticized the character’s experience of incarceration. With a prior record and living in a poverty-ridden group home, local boxing legend Damian (the younger version played by Spence Moore II) draws a gun on the crew of a former bully wailing on Adonis (Alex Henderson) after the latter beat the shit of the original bully. The police come, Adonis runs, and Damian gets caught. When he’s finished his sentence, shortly before the film’s start, his childhood dreams live strong, making room for politically interesting themes in the stunting of maturity or soul-crushing that happens through imprisonment. But that’s not what we get in Creed III. Personal transgressions, rather than society-wide inequities, are ultimately what each of us has the most power to provide recourse. Instead, Damian comes out with a vendetta against Adonis—giving viewers a thoroughly de-politicized and hyper-focused feud rather than a commentary of any sort.
And that’s okay! Not every story by or about Black male ex-convicts needs to spell out the racialized criminal justice and policing systems for the sake of white performativity. By humanizing political reality, incidentally and ironically, Jordan and the screenwriters create something truly political. The sociological reality of race in America isn’t denied—it’s presented on the same terms in which it’s actually encountered: by real humans trying to live their dreams—the same dreams they didn’t even have the right to fail at.
Damian’s not the only person with interrupted or incomplete dreams. Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson), Adonis’s frequently sidelined partner and a musician who is going deaf, adjusts her personal artistic ambition to save her hearing. Now she’s an uber-successful multi-gold record producer. The script, like the two prior films, pushes her to the film’s peripherals, which makes the parallel with Damian somewhat flimsy, even with its somewhat noble intentions. The truth of the matter is that it’s difficult to feel that bad for Bianca: she still managed to come closer to her “vocational” dream than just about any of us. How many people even get to live their slightly adjusted Plan B? Try again, big-shot filmmakers.
One thing the filmmakers do get right is the optimism of inclusion. A female trainer is included on Adonis’s training team—a bit I don’t recall from the former movies and one that is more or less all but unseen in the contemporary sports genre. In a similar vein, the deaf child of Bianca and Adonis, Amara (Mila Davis-Ken), is played by an actually deaf child actor (which, of course, should be a non-starter but unfortunately isn’t in the faraway land of Hollywood). I should be clear: I don’t know ASL, nor do I experience hearing loss. So, maybe I’m wrong about this, but I was impressed with Creed III’s exceptional commitment at ensuring that the signs are mostly clear, centered, and unobscured. Oftentimes movies not about deafness are edited to a crapshoot, basically eroding any inclusive goodwill. The captions, open with speaker identification and uniquely colored to go with the specific frame, earn even more favor.
dir. Michael B. Jordan
Opens Friday, 3/3 in theaters everywhere (though, as always, the Hassle recommends the Capitol Theatre or your local independently-owned multiplex)