The last time I visited the Rockyverse was for my recent column analyzing 1982’s “Rocky III,” but it’s been a good five years since the last new addition to that franchise, “Creed II” (2018). Yes, I know I primarily write about sci-fi/fantasy/horror entertainment (and conventions) in this column, but I’ve always held a special place in my aging old heart for the Rockyverse movies, and I’ve enjoyed the “Creed” movies to date as well, which are worthy additions to the now nine-film saga, which dates back 47 years to the original Best Picture-winning “Rocky” (1976).
Much as Sylvester Stallone himself did when he directed “Rocky II,” star Michael B. Jordan (Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed) now takes the directorial reins from Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Steven Caple Jr. (“Creed II”) to helm “Creed III” (2023) which condenses the riches/retirement to redemption arcs of previous Rockyverse movies into one film, while adding a few new wrinkles as well. This is also the first of the series not to feature former star/writer/producer Sylvester Stallone on screen over reported ‘creative differences.’
Having just seen “Creed III” this week (bought a digital copy and screened it in HD on my home projector), I can’t imagine what Stallone’s reported ‘creative differences’ could be, since “Creed III” is a fresh and entertaining sequel, with an interesting new twist…
“Creed III” (2023)
The movie opens in 2002 Los Angeles, where 16-year old Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Thaddeus J. Mixson) is in a car with his idol, 18-year old Damien “Dame” Anderson (Spence Moore II). The two are on their way to Dame’s Golden Gloves Junior match. For luck, Donnie gives Dame a laminated ticket to the legendary 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” match in Zaire (nee: Congo) where Muhammad Ali famously fought George Foreman—a gift from Donnie’s father he never knew, Apollo Creed. Surviving the mean streets of L.A together, Donnie and Dame are virtual brothers, having been raised in the same abusive group home for boys, where they always had each others’ backs.
Note: The famous “Rumble in the Jungle” was the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman which took place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), back in 1974. For an excellent chronicling of this match, see “When We Were Kings” (1996), the best boxing documentary of all time. You’re welcome.
Shortly after arriving at the event, Dame effortlessly wins his Golden Gloves title, showing tremendous skill as a boxer. However, fate has different plans. On their way home, the boys stop for food at a local market, where Donnie recognizes one of the abusive foster parents from their group home. Without thinking, the impulsive Donnie pummels the old man within an inch of his life. Realizing Donnie’s in trouble, Dame pulls out his hidden gun and attempts to intervene. Police arrive, and all hell breaks loose…
Note: We get the full story of what happened later on, but the gist of it is that the cops only saw Dame with his gun drawn, since Donnie panicked and fled the scene. Dame took the fall and lost everything, including his Golden Gloves championship. Given how quickly Dame stood up for Donnie, one wonders how true his moral compass would’ve been been had he not gone to prison. I have to mention that Spence Moore II also costars as older brother (and Vietnam veteran) Bruce, in Disney+’s brilliant reboot of “The Wonder Years.”
Cut to 2018, South Africa. The adult Adonis Creed (star/director Michael B. Jordan) is in a high-stakes rematch with Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of former Soviet boxer, Ivan Dragon (see: “Rocky IV,”). Their previous fight in “Creed II” ended with Ivan throwing in the towel to save his son’s life, so their rematch will now determine the world heavyweight championship. With a bit less animosity (and blood) than their previous bout, Adonis wins the belt. With no hard feelings between them, Adonis Creed is now the heavyweight champion of the world. In the years that followed, no contender defeats Adonis before he decides to take retirement in his mid-30s. He now devotes his time shaping new talent at the gym he runs with Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris), the son of his father Apollo’s former trainer, Duke (and later Rocky Balboa’s corner man). Currently, Adonis and Little Duke are currently busy honing the talents of heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (real-life boxer, José Benavidez Jr.).
Note: “Creed II” basically humanized the superhuman (and silly) “Rocky IV”, reshaping a Cold War pro-America propaganda piece into a powerful and sincere story about fathers and sons. I was never a fan of “Rocky IV” (one of the worst of the Rocky canon, IMO) but I loved “Creed II.”
In present-day L.A, we see wealthy, happily-retired Adonis enjoying life in his beautiful luxurious mansion, with his adorable hearing-impaired daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) and fully supporting his wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) transition from music performer to music producer. After partaking in a promised tea party with his daughter, he checks in with his wife before heading to the gym to check on the progress of Felix, who is expected to fight Viktor Drago himself, in a much-anticipated title defense. In the parking lot of the gym, Adonis encounters a man who seems to know him. Adonis quickly realizes it’s his boyhood friend, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), out of jail, and seeking to reconnect with “Donnie”, who used to idolize him when they were kids. The two have lunch. Dame wrote to Adonis, but he never got the letters. Adonis then offers Dame some cash, which he refuses—he wants a shot at the title. Adonis tells Dame it doesn’t work like that, but Dame reminds him of what his own father Apollo did for Rocky Balboa—literally picking his name out of a boxing directory for a novelty matchup (“Rocky” 1976). Dame reminds him that he’s still a great boxer, and he wants to prove himself.
Note: Jonathan Majors also stars in the Marvel movies as “Kang the Conqueror,” and his career has been on an upward trajectory until his recent arrest for battery at the time of this movie’s theatrical release. Despite the arrest, Majors is both believable and sympathetic in the role of Damian “Dame” Anderson (a name that brings to mind the late actress, Dame Judith Anderson (1897-1992), from “Rebecca” and “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”).
Trying to make amends for not keeping in touch after Dame went to prison, Adonis invites him over to meet his family, and they all seem to hit it off. Dame is impressed with the lavishness of Adonis’s new digs, hoping to have a home like it for himself soon. Speaking frankly, Adonis tells him that the current heavyweight champion has a title defense against Viktor Drago that can’t be changed. Dame seems to take the news in stride, as Adonis then invites him to a music industry party for Bianca’s newest release as producer. Dame accepts. Later at the party, Bianca talks with Dame alone and gets the sense with his passive-aggressiveness that he’s more covetous of Adonis’s success than he lets on. Meanwhile, Viktor Drago—now a friend of the Creed family—has also arrived at the party, where he is attacked by a seemingly random assailant. Captured on video, the assailant’s face is quickly identified as an ex-convict with a troubled history.
Note: In case you’re wondering, this attack is not a case of deus ex machina convenience. While the plot twist of Dame engineering the attack on Drago is as predictable as a Swiss watch, it’s very easy to see how the trusting Adonis would not be willing to make that connection, given the debt of gratitude he owes to Dame.
Unfortunately, the attack on Drago has left broken bones in the Russian boxer’s hand, leaving him unable to make his bout with heavyweight champ Chavez. No other ranked contenders will be ready in time, either. Stuck in a situation nearly identical to the one his father Apollo faced in the original “Rocky,” a reluctant Adonis decides to give his old ex-con friend a novelty shot at the title. The night of Chavez’s title defense, at the former Staples Center (I refuse to acknowledge its Bitcoin moniker), we see the lovely Creed family, all sitting immaculately dressed at ringside. Adonis himself is experiencing a conflict of interest, since he officially supports the current champion Chavez (who trains at Creed’s gym) but is also there to offer support to his old friend Dame, as well.
Note: While Tessa Thompson doesn’t have a lot to do in this movie (as she did in the previous two), she has given magnificent performances in HBO sci-fi series “Westworld” (2016-2022). Unfortunately, that once promising sci-fi series (based loosely on the 1973 Michael Crichton film) lost both steam and coherency in its latter seasons, and has since been mercifully cancelled after its fourth season.
The fight begins. Dame comes out swinging against Felix, even slipping in a few illegal, prison-rule moves, to the ire of the crowd and particularly the corner men, who call out the referee’s lack of observance. Soon, the fight degrades into an ugly street brawl and quickly gets bloody. Chavez is knocked out. Dame is given the belt, having just become the world heavyweight champion. Having witnessed Dame’s poor sportsmanship and ugly fighting style, it’s difficult for Adonis to feel good about his friend’s victory.
Note: Dame’s half-savage fighting style and brutal knockdown of Felix reminded me of Clubber Lang’s third round knockout of Rocky Balboa in “Rocky III,” yet it’s distinct and interestingly choreographed enough to feel fresh.
After the fight, Adonis angrily asks to see if his mother, Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad) withheld Dame’s alleged correspondence from prison. She admits that she withheld them, because she didn’t want her son running with a criminal—not realizing that Dame actually took the rap for Donnie. Rummaging through the box of saved letters and photos, Adonis comes across a familiar face in a photograph taken in the prison yard—a photo of Dame and another inmate locked in a handshake. The inmate is the man who assaulted Viktor Drago at his wife’s party. That ‘lucky break’ for Damian was engineered by Damian himself.
Note: Granted, this revelation is hardly a surprise, especially since we saw the ex-con’s face (actor’s name unknown) so prominently plastered on TVs in the film after the attack. My bigger question is, who takes photos in prison? Who had the camera, and how did the photo get out of prison? I admit I’m not up on California prison protocols, but I’m reasonably sure that inmates don’t have access to smartphones. A minor nit, but a nit all the same…too convenient.
Adonis then arrives at an evening beach party celebrating Damian’s victory. Sensing that Adonis is onto him, Damian and his former ‘brother’ have a tense confrontation, where he angrily accuses Adonis of abandoning him when he needed him most. However, Adonis—who welcomed Damian into his home and family life—is more concerned about Damian engineering the attack on Viktor Drago. Lashing out, Damian punches Adonis, leaving him with a bloody shiner. Whatever remnants of friendship these two still had between them are gone.
Note: Yeah, we know where this is going. Much like his father Apollo’s death triggered Rocky to come out of retirement (“Rocky IV”), Damian’s duplicitous and dirty win will eventually prompt Adonis to get back into the win. Get out the popcorn, folks…
Returning home, Adonis is greeted with even worse news; his mother, with whom he just had a dustup, has suffered a stroke—her second. She’s in a bad way; massive organ failure, dementia. It’s only a matter of time. Adonis rushes to be at her side, as her cognition breaks down. She thinks Adonis is his father, Apollo, who she still loves. Through tears, Adonis tries to tell her he’s her son, but she only sees her old lover, Apollo. She dies…
Note: This scene hit me harder than expected for a several reasons, the prime of which is Phylicia Rashad’s brilliant and accurate portrayal of post-stroke dementia, which I’ve seen play out similarly, nearly 20 years ago (I’d prefer to keep further family details private).
Following his mother’s death, and the revelation of Damian’s plot, Adonis comes clean to Bianca about his past with Damian; how he felt he owed Damian for going to prison for the his own assault on their abusive foster parent in front of the grocery store. Adonis still feels guilty for running away, 20 years later. With Bianca’s encouragement, he decides to work out his past demons with Damian in the ring. Interviewed by real-life sportscaster Steven A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take, Adonis announces his plan to get back into the ring. During the live show, a taunting Damian calls in and begins a trash-talking campaign against Adonis. A flustered Adonis walks off the show when Smith fails to cut off Damian’s call. It’s on.
Note: You can bet any sportscaster who cares anything about their show’s ratings would certainly permit that call to go on, by the way…
In the long history of Rockyverse movies, there are few rituals more sacrosanct than the workout montage, and this movie delivers. Having been retired for awhile, Adonis has an almost-literal uphill battle, running through the Hollywood hills, not simply to get back in fighting shape, but to prepare for an opponent who’s known him since they were kids. We also cut to Damian training vigorously, watching countless videos of Adonis’s fights and carefully shadowboxing his moves. Adonis’s corner team includes his partner Little Duke, and his ‘cut-man’ (corner medic), Jacob Duran.
Note: Adonis’s crew is a diverse combination of both legacy-connected characters and new people, including a woman trainer with whom we see Adonis sparring, played by real-life boxing coach Ann Najjar. Adonis’s own daughter seems to share her dad’s love of boxing, too.
Soon, it’s the night of the big fight at Dodger’s Stadium (complete with fireworks, no less…). The intense training and the tension are about to collide. Donnie, wearing heroic white trunks and gloves, kisses his family before entering the ring. His challenger Damian is wearing a green, Roman-gladiatorial style pteruge over his trunks—making a statement that this is war. The fight begins. Damian finds Adonis aggressively taking the lead, but the older Damian’s well-practiced defense strategy allow his fluid arm movements to create an almost-impenetrable shield, preventing serious harm from his challenger.
Note: I grew up watching some of the big fights with Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, et al with my dad on TV as a kid (well, the clips of them, anyway, on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”). Boxing was huge in those days—it made front page headlines when Ali won. These days, boxing has become almost cultish, to be honest. As much as I appreciate the movie trying to relive—and perhaps revive—the heyday of the sport, I can’t see a modern heavyweight title defense garnering a massive, sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium (I have a friend who works at Dodger Stadium, as a matter of fact; she’d likely concur). Then again, as the late Nichelle Nichols said in “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”; “This isn’t reality… this is fantasy.”
Damian then lands a hard right to Adonis’s ribs that knocks the wind out of him—Adonis is knocked down. Beating the count, a determined Adonis gets back on his feet. Round after punishing round goes by, and we see the Adonis and Damien each taking their share of punishment. The evenly-matched opponents are toe-to-toe, going into the twelfth and final round, where all the stops are pulled out, and where Adonis finally—decisively—knocks Damien out. Coming out of retirement, Adonis Creed regains the heavyweight belt. The better man won, but more importantly, the past bad karma between the two former friends is lifted.
Note: Not that there was any possible doubt of the outcome, of course—this is a Rockyverse movie, after all. Predictable, of course, but very enjoyable. And unlike previous fights in the Rocky and Creed films, this one has a stronger edge to it with the two combatants having grown up together as de facto brothers in a group home. As the tagline for the otherwise execrable “JAWS: The Revenge” says, “This time it’s personal.”
The penultimate scene of the movie is a rare one for the Rockyverse; it takes place in the locker room where the two combatants sit, side by side, and talk about what just happened—the violent, brutal exorcism of their past demons. Their future is uncertain, but Damian finally had his long-coveted shot, however shadily it was engineered. The past is now behind them, and these two can move on with their respective futures.
Note: This post-fight cooldown reminded me of the brief scene at the beginning of “Rocky II” (1979), where Rocky visits Apollo in his room at the hospital where they’re both laid up following their fight in the first film. Swollen, bruised and bloodied, Rocky quietly asks Apollo, “Did you give me your best?” To which Apollo humbly replies, “Yeah.” We almost never see the immediate aftermath between champion and challenger in these films, and I found this scene between Adonis and Damian both unexpected and refreshing.
The final scene sees Adonis return to where Bianca and Amara were sitting, ringside. Little Amara is nursing her own dream of being a fighter someday, and her dad steps into the ring where he pretends to fight with her. Despite his own exhaustion, Adonis realizes that, at the end of the day, this is what he’s fighting for—his family and his own peace of mind. The past can’t hurt them now, because he’s owned it and defeated it.
Note: Note: After Adonis’s win, we hear a resurgence of Bill Conti’s track “Rocky’s Reward,” aka the victory theme, for the original “Rocky,” which was reused in several of the sequels as well. Conti’s score for the original “Rocky” is iconic, and it’s nice to hear composer Ludwig Göransson pay tribute. Göransson himself riffs on Conti’s “Rocky” music for his main title theme of Disney+’s “The Mandalorian.”
Summing It Up
Written by Ryan Coogler (“Creed” “Black Panther”), Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, “Creed III” offers a new idea for a franchise that has often resorted to repeating the same tricks (rags to riches, redemption, et al). Imagine if Rocky were forced to fight a much stronger, deadlier version of his best friend Paulie in one of the “Rocky” movies, and you get the idea. Adonis “Donnie” Creed and Damien “Dame” Anderson grew up together. They shared the same dream of using boxing to get out of their lives in a group home (much as Rocky and Paulie grew up in the rough streets of Philly). A life-changing encounter with police shatters Dame’s dream of a boxing career, just after winning a Junior Golden Gloves match. Upon release, Dame tries to mask his bitterness towards Adonis for enjoying the life he should’ve had. Dame has the same jealousy as Rocky III’s Clubber Lang, but with a more personal edge, since he and Donnie grew up as brothers.
The actors are excellent all around, though Tessa Thompson’s role of Bianca Creed is a bit underwritten in this film, as her character assumes the role of producer; allowing others to perform her music (making her own statement on ‘stepping down’). Some of that slack is taken up by adorable Mila Davis-Kent as the Creed’s hearing-impaired daughter Amara, who is Bianca and Donnie’s daily motivation, and it’s easy to see why. A morally questionable light is cast upon the ailing Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who deliberately withheld Dame’s prison correspondence to her son. If not for Mary Anne’s manipulations, Adonis’s replies might’ve diluted some of Dame’s seething resentment, though sadly, Mary-Anne pays her own horrific price.
The movie’s ‘villain’, Damian “Dame” Anderson—played by actor Jonathan Majors—is not unsympathetic (much like Clubber Lang, whom I explored in-depth in my earlier “Rocky III” analysis). Dame’s bitterness against his ‘brother’ Donnie, fueled by Mary-Ann’s manipulation, is easy to empathize with. One can see how Dame’s long years in prison would lead to his use of dishonorable tactics in order to get his title shot. Even as a teenager, Dame (and Donnie) had one foot in gang life (as we see with the guns, money and racketeering), but that was less about choice and more about survival—Dame’s time in prison made that more of an imperative. Upon his release, Dame has nothing, so he has to recreate that opportunity that was arguably stolen from him, by whatever means necessary. It’s a damn shame actor Jonathan Majors’ own real-life scandal of battery and arrest (which happened around the time of the movie’s release two months ago) has tainted what is an admirable performance.
I also appreciated the visual touches star/director Michael B. Jordan brings to the film, particularly the sometimes-surreal final bout, which makes a packed Dodger Stadium audience disappear—giving the personal conflict between Creed and Dame stronger focus. Cage bars sometimes appear around the ring, providing visual commentary on the years Dame lost in prison, and from which young Donnie ran. Such flourishes set this entry apart from the previous two “Creed” movies, and help establish Michael B. Jordan’s promising directing career. Kudos as well to returning “Creed II” cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.
“Creed III” is another strong entry in this long-running franchise, giving a fresh perspective to a movie series that has kept boxing alive, even if the sport itself is long past its headline-making glory days. “Creed III” may not be on a par with, say, Martin Scorsese’s brilliant “Raging Bull” (few films are), but as an enjoyable crowd pleaser, it wins by a knockout.
Where To Watch
“Creed III” is still in cinemas, and is also available for rental/purchase (prices vary) on Prime Video, Apple TV and YouTube (where I bought my digital copy). While it’s not yet official, the movie will most likely be streaming to HBOMax in the near-future.