Saturday, June 22, 2024

‘Creed III’ is a Knock-Out

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Creed 3 feels as fresh and invigorating as the first Creed or even the first Rocky movie. With the third installment, we finally leave behind the legacy and callbacks to the Rocky films and focus on Creed’s past and future without any relation to Stallone’s infamous character. In other words, the franchise is growing and becoming more interesting.

Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut is a gorgeous character study about two damaged men coming to terms with their past and having hope for their future. The screenplay by Zach Baylin and Keenan Coogler stuffed Creed III with betrayal, revelations, and a truckload of emotional baggage. Furthermore, Jordan’s deft handling of the material shows a talent for staying aware of the melodrama and trusting his actors to carry the scene.

Dame (Jonathan Majors) and Adonis (Michael B. Jordan)

And what actors he has. Tessa Thompson returns as the hard-of-hearing devoted wife Bianca and Mila Davis-Kent as their daughter Amara. Phylicia Rashad is back as the wisened matriarch of the Creed family. But the real contender is Jonathan Majors as Dame, Adonis’s childhood friend, who was recently released from prison and looking for a fresh start.

Majors, always a compelling presence, is the fuel of Creed III. His Dame enters the movie like a dark cloud that grows until it threatens to wash away everything Adonis has built. If this sounds a little overwrought, understand that the undercurrent of Creed 3 is no less so.

Director Michael B. Jordan and DP Kramer Morgenthau understand how the camera helps make a movie star

Jordan’s Creed III is a tightly paced and gently crafted tale of two brothers by any other name, torn apart only to clash with the fate of their friendship and honor at stake. Baylin and Coogler’s script never gets too soapy, preferring to let the actors find the emotions rather than the other way around. 

I mentioned in my review of Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania that it would have been nice if someone had understood part of making a movie star is how to frame them. With Creed III, Jordan, and his cameraman Kramer Morgenthau, show us the difference between merely filming someone like Majors or Thompson, and framing them. 

Majors is a lightning rod of a presence. He compels you to look at him, demands your attention, and in the wrong hands, he can overwhelm a movie or, worse, feel as if he is left to drift alone with no direction. Jordan, however, understands perfectly how best to utilize Majors and his presence for maxim effect.

He allows the anger, love, and betrayal to flicker across the expressive canvas of Majors’ face. His soft voice hardened with vitriol and hurt as he attempts to overcome the demons of his past. Jordan and Morgenthau use the camera to elevate Majors and capture his presence and intimidating physique. Being big is one thing but appearing threatening merely by standing is hard, and it’s what Majors does with such ease, as he eyes Adonis like a brother but also as Brutus eyes Cesar.

Morgenthau and Jordan also understand how to tell a story and how best to use montages visually. For example, in one scene to show us a flashback, Morgenthau and Jordan give us brief glimpses but also utilize tinting the frame to emphasize emotion.

Jordan has spoken about how Anime has influenced his directing style. I understand where he is coming from and can see elements of Creed 3 of what some might call anime-style—the final fight between Dame and Adonis in particular. But as much as some would consider the style inspired by Anime misunderstands that film is a visual medium and shows how desperate both artists and audiences are craving for something other than films where the camera merely records.

Morgenthau and Jordan allow the camera to be a voyeur, yes, but also as a portal into the characters’ interior lives. The final fight is a prime example. Set in Dodger’s stadium, the crowd vanishes, leaving Dame and Adonis alone with each other. Jordan uses the last fight as a brutal therapy session. Creed 3 is a screed against toxic masculinity, a plea for emotional intelligence and maturity. 

Adonis (Jordan) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) have a heart to heart

Intermingled in all this is how trauma can be ignored for only so long before it begins to erupt and disrupt. There has yet to be a Creed movie that did not reduce me to tears at some point. Creed 3, however, did it to me twice.

Jordan weaves a rich emotional undertone of regret, love, and fear into a movie with Adonis Creed pulling an airplane as part of his training montage. This is also due to Tyler Nelson and Jessica Baclesse’s editing, which makes Creed III fly by quickly. The editing, Morgenthau’s lens, and Jordan’s direction make Creed III easily one of the year’s best films at the moment.

All the while, there is Jordan, the movie star, the anchor, the maestro. He ensures every actor, from Rashad to Thompson, gets their moment-not just a moment, but an earned moment. It’s not that they each get a scene, but that this is a movie made up of scenes in which actors beside Majors and Jordan get entrances, emotional reveals, and moments to shine. 

I appreciate how different characters have different levels of comfort with sign language as they speak to the deaf Amara. Adonis and Bianca are more fluent and at ease, while Mary-Anne is more halting in her delivery. But refreshingly, Jordan has ensured that the actors still act as they sign. This may sound obvious until one realizes how difficult it is to act in another language, which sign language is, and speak it as though it is natural. Thompson and Jordan sign with emotion as they converse with Amara.

Though I would have liked not to have subtitles to tell the audience what they are saying, I understand the knee-jerk fear of alienating a mainly hearing audience. Still, Jordan and Davis-Kent’s Amara have a sweet relationship, with Amara being an obvious Daddy’s girl. But I also appreciated how Creed III took the time to explore Bianca’s frustration with her hearing loss and how it’s affected her dreams while also having her feel comfortable discussing it with Dame merely because he asked.

Creed III understands that the Rocky and Creed movies work best as human dramas that happen to have fighting in them. Boxing is the mode of expression, the canvas for the drama, on which the story and catharsis are painted.

Images courtesy of United Artists Releasing

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