Much like the original Rocky films, there was a peculiar yet specific set of ingredients that made the first two Creed films work so well - in the case of the latter, the visceral performance of Michael B. Jordan and the powerful yet subdued one by Sylvester Stallone, strong directorial efforts by Ryan Coogler (Creed) and Steven Caple, Jr. (Creed 2), notable antagonists (particularly the Dragos in the second film), and a couple of truly excellent screenplays. So it’s on a couple of particularly strong backs that Creed 3 must stand in its efforts to continue to tale of boxer Adonis Creed. Notably absent from the film is Stallone, though he and Coogler serve as producers.
This time around, Creed has finally retired, and he goes out on top after one last fight. He retreats to running his own gym, training the next generation of champs with his former trainer Tony Evers (the always-reliable Wood Harris). At the same time, his personal life continues to have its share of highs and lows when it comes to wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), and mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). All of this is quickly thrown into chaos with the return of childhood friend and recently paroled Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a fighter of great promise before he and a young Adonis got into trouble — trouble for which Damian went to prison. Damian returns and wants a shot at the heavyweight title, and Adonis — struggling with his own guilt over his imprisonment as well as the challenges of retirement — sets about helping him.
Up until that point, Creed 3 is so good. Jordan continues his streak of playing a physically imposing but emotionally challenged character who shines in the ring and struggles outside of it. Majors has been skyrocketing to stardom, most recently as Kang the Conqueror in the MCU, but he made his bones long before in terrific films ranging from The Last Black Man in San Francisco to Da 5 Bloods to the western The Harder They Fall. His performance is no less gripping here — a quiet, seemingly broken man who sees the title as the only way to fix himself. He joins Creed’s world, marveling at the family and wealth and love he’s accumulated, but not — at least at first glance — necessarily coveting it. He wants his own version, and he wants to get it his own way. Majors’ Damian is troubled, sad, and quietly angry, traits that he displays flawlessly onscreen.
Somewhere around the third act though, the script takes a turn and the film starts to crack at the seams. At the risk of spoiling, there’s a drastic change in character and motivation for Damian, and it hurts the film. Suddenly, he switches gears, revealing himself to be a rageful, jealous, bitter man who hid behind the earlier façade. It diminishes the work that Majors put in and it reduces the story from a complex character study — something that has made the franchise so good — to a puerile, unpleasant, and frankly rather derivative revenge tale. Majors is still great, but it never feels good to watch. It feels so unnatural, like such a betrayal to the story, that it’s hard for the film to get back on track.
This inevitably leads to a match between the two leads as well as the unavoidable training montage. Which is … fine. But the final third of the film loses all of the momentum and heart of the first two-thirds in favor of a tired, almost paint-by-numbers ending. It’s not helped by the direction — Michael B. Jordan himself directs this entry and there are moments where it feels very amateurish. From needless flashbacks to looking at someone only to see their younger self, to a mystifyingly unnecessary dreamlike sequence during the final fight, it quickly becomes flash and melodrama at the sacrifice of good storytelling. Even the dialogue starts to suffer, and when Tessa Thompson’s Bianca tearfully asks “why won’t you let me in”, I wanted to crawl into a hole.
Creed 3 could have been — and should have been — so much more than it is. For an hour or so, it is — it feels like a continuation of the greatness of the first two films. But the storytelling choices cannot be overlooked and the goofy directorial decisions just make them that much more glaring. There’s no blame to be placed on its actors — everyone goes all-in and their performances are terrific, especially Majors, who truly elevates himself to greatness here. It’s just a shame that the story doesn’t give those performances the arcs that they deserve. Whatever the reasons were, it took something great and made it into something mediocre, an unfortunate end to this powerful trilogy. Ultimately, we’re left with a film that isn’t bad so much as it’s just … disappointing.