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Defector At The Movies

‘Creed III’ Fails To Land Its Biggest Punch

Adonis and Dame face off in Creed III
Image: Warner Brothers

Over the years, Creed has proven itself to be as formidable, fun, and successful as the Rocky franchise. As with Rocky, the star at the center of the franchise is taking more of a central role in its development. Michael B. Jordan has grown up with the role of Adonis Creed, going from a young actor with movie-star potential to the central figure and now, as this third installment’s director, the creative force behind a blockbuster film series. Jordan has been the constant, but the first two Creed films partially belonged to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. The third movie is fully a Creed story, though, and a chance for Jordan to demonstrate his opening power.

Jordan makes a valiant effort as Creed III's star and director. As a director, he has very clear ideas and is willing to make bold choices, particularly in the big fight set pieces. Jordan has noted in interviews that these sequences were inspired by his favorite anime. If you have even an elementary understanding of anime then you can certainly see what Jordan is talking about. During the last fight sequence especially, Jordan makes a lot of bold, idiosyncratic choices in the design and structure of the fight. At one point, the entire backdrop of the stadium and fans falls away, and we see the two boxers fighting in an empty cage, imprisoned (sometimes literally) by their conflict. It doesn’t totally work, but it is inventive and surprising. More importantly, it presents a clear, unique vision from a human being, which we tend not to get in these sorts of big productions.

As an actor, Jordan does the movie-star thing. He does everything big—the emotions, the line reads, even the subtlety. Everything is earnest and melodramatic, but all the right notes are hit with the right amount of thunder. When a movie really commits to the bit and takes itself this seriously, it's hard not to get wrapped up in it as a viewer. Much like Rocky, the Creed movies are only as good as their villains, and thankfully the inclusion of Jonathan Majors keeps this entry from tilting off its axis. 

Majors plays Damian, aka Diamond Dame, a boxer and Adonis’s childhood best friend who spent 18 years in prison after pulling a gun during a fight the two had gotten themselves into. Dame gets out of prison and reconnects with Adonis in order to get back on the heavyweight boxing track. As an older fighter, Dame makes up for his loss in agility by fighting dirty, and soon it becomes evident that he’s willing to torch Adonis’s career in order to reclaim what he felt he’s lost.

As an actor, Majors brings a gravity to every scene. He channels Dame's rage into a controlled performance that is always on the edge of tipping over into madness. This is at times a detriment to the film's star, as Majors's authenticity of character can be jarring when juxtaposed with Jordan's more paint-by-numbers approach, but Majors is a benevolent partner and always seems to be trying to meet Jordan wherever he's at. The chemistry between the two stars keeps you glued, and when Majors disappears from the action for some time in the middle portion, you feel the absence.

It's this chemistry that makes up for a lot of the film's flaws, particularly its writing. The class politics at play are muddy, and at times outright ugly. Dame is a sympathetic character, and not just because he's played by Majors. He goes to prison defending Adonis, his younger best friend, and yet throughout the movie he is treated like a problem child who various people in Adonis's circle want excised without a second thought. They are technically right in their assessment—Dame is the villain of the movie, after all—but at no point does anyone want to acknowledge his own mistreatment or his own feelings. Both Adonis's trainer Duke and his mother tell him that he doesn't owe Dame anything, which could certainly be quibbled with considering what happened between them. The only person who actually tries to learn anything about Dame is Adonis's wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who mostly does it to really learn more about who Adonis was before being adopted.

For a movie so concerned with capital-T trauma, it seems there should be at least some consideration for Dame's. It's Adonis who abandoned him when they got in trouble; it's Adonis who didn't reach out to him throughout his prison stay; its Adonis's adopted mother (the rich wife of a successful boxer) who hides away Dame's prison letters. Dame's anger is blinding but not unearned. At times, the movie manages to acknowledge this, but for the most part it ignores the role Adonis plays in this tragedy in favor of dismissing Dame as a cancer, or a "bad seed." It's a shame to see a character imbued with so much depth by Majors in some scenes be reduced in others to just another foil, no different than Clubber Lang.

Perhaps this is where the movie could have used Rocky, even if just for a moment. For as much as the movie is about Adonis finding his own station as a man and learning to make peace with the past so as to better move forward, it lacks a character properly equipped to help him on that journey. Stallone had his reasons for not wanting to be involved, and in some ways Creed II was a fitting goodbye for the character (at least for now), but there is a gravitas missing from this movie that even a pivotal scene between Creed and his mother (played by Phylicia Rashad) can't quite capture. It's a missing ingredient and a glaring one. So much of the movie is about the pain and lack of control that defines your life when you grow up poor, and the trauma we carry from the past into the future. And yet it never successfully reckons with the cultural and political nuances that define the relationship between Adonis and Dame. Rocky would have been on Adonis's side, of course, but he probably also would have understood Dame in a way that no other character in this movie could.

If there is one thing I can give the movie some credit for, it's this: In a moment where entertainment that champions mental health and therapy is de rigueur, Creed III understands that, sometimes, when you and your best friend suddenly hate each other, the best thing is to just beat each other up.

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