The boxing ring has long represented the perfect liminal space in cinema. Every type of human story can be told inside this squared-off canvas surrounded by rope lengths. As an expression of visual poetry, what happens inside the boxing ring tells us everything about the people inside it. When combatants square off in the ring, the whole history of human conflict plays in front of us. It is the most classic Herculean story of all, with a naturally high potential of a risk/reward story, an excellent space for underdogs and aging heroes, and most of all, it is a frankly cinematic space spiritually and factually. Boxing belongs to the screen more than it belongs to anything. The formula for all of this is almost academic. The way boxing is shot, in real life and on film, was dramatically transformed by the cinematography of Raging Bull (1980), which found the just-right framing for the natural rhythm of the sport, making it perfect and close to God on the screen. To shoot it any other way is experimental, risky, and possibly prone to failure.
Now we enter Michael B. Jordan’s Creed III, which cites popular anime ahead of cinematic boxing masterpieces, as the inspiration for the action. This means that the action moves a certain way. Heightened visual cues take greater precedence than the natural sweet science of boxing as we have known it on the screen. This is not inherently wrong. It is a choice that is made, however, which shapes the film in another way. It means that so much of the action gives way to slow-motion videogame sequences, wherein obvious target areas are highlighted and time is slippery. The whole background of the arena can fall away, in Jordan’s rings, and instead, his characters can fight metaphorically, within the squared-off concrete jungles they were raised in, fighting a history of systemic oppressors and visages of their torn-up pasts, just as much as they are boxing. This weightlessness, accomplished by a flurry of time-bending cuts and jabbing insular focus shots, lends itself to a more manipulated, massaged outcome to the action.
Where it becomes sloppy is in trying to fit this framing back into the understanding of Rocky and Creed films. Because there are so many of these to go by, there is a wider understanding of how to make these kinds of movies. The shame in its want for a new invention is that Creed III also follows every single understood beat of these kinds of stories. When it wants to experiment in the ring, ultimately, it is still beholden to a franchise history and expectation of what these stories do and what it means for the characters in these stories to fight.
The way Jordan tries to spin the story out into its own individual thing is thinly-layered but effortful. There is a beating heart to the drama behind boxing. Because the film’s boxing itself chooses over-stylization, perhaps what is most understood and taken at face value, are the events transpiring outside the ring. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) grew up together and shared one life-altering tragic moment, in which one escaped and became a world-class boxer and the other covered for them and went to prison for a long time. The bulk of Creed III is focused on this shared history, as Anderson returns home and brings Creed out of retirement. They’ll have one last fight together that embodies their split histories wherein they can solve something about how their paths diverged and the choices they made separate from each other. It is a workable backbone to the story which sometimes feels too obviously routed and without a truly crucial outcome for the in-ring endgame: an audience doesn’t get a clean hero here, so whoever wins, it’s almost immaterial to the story, unlike the classic Rocky hero-villain constructions of old.
The last two Creed movies are largely successful action movie propositions. They stay basically true to the Rocky ethos and evolve Creed into a formidable character worthy of repositioning as the central character of these stories. This third entry seems to move forward with this understanding. It’s just a Creed story now. Rocky exists in this universe but not at all in this story. What is leftover, however, is a limiting structure for the narrative, which seems to want to push outward with new angles and new ways of framing the action. It’s not quite able to solve for how to improve on the agreed-upon cinematic grammar of boxing but that’s not the film’s first task, anyway, as it presents a redemption story about two old friends having a grudge match that’s more about them than the sport. What this lends itself to is a smaller-feeling film that is more insularly focused on its two brawlers and wants to explore further dimensions about them but remains beholden to a general formula.
There are many workable moments here. Michael B. Jordan remains just right as Creed, as we have come to understand him over the course of the last three movies, and through the heritage of the character in the Rocky movies. Likewise, Jonathan Majors is a prominent on-screen presence and feels so authentically right in a boxing ring. Majors brings immediate gravitas, shows complex emotion through subtle gestures, and gets the most out of his time on-screen. Between the two men, a whole complex history with deeper sociological contexts expands and is fought against by both sides. The most interesting thing Creed III does is in its ultimate showdown, it pits the heroes of the story not against each other, but against their histories. What the film understands is that it is not actually about boxing at all. It’s very much about the characters. This will not lend it the same hyperfocused sports movie reverence as the other films of Rocky and Creed series’ but it does stand out as its own one-off approach at something a little different developed along the same lines. Sometimes there is no triumphant moment and no hero. Just two men and some old problems that need to get solved the hard way.