It must be a daunting prospect to pick up a franchise on the third movie. Add in the pressure of following filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Steven Caple Jr. in your directorial debut that you’re also starring in and it’s enough to make you wonder what on earth Michael B. Jordan was thinking.
But “ Creed III,” in theaters nationwide Friday, is a new start for Adonis Creed. He’s finally out of the shadow of his father Apollo and Rocky Balboa, whose legacy loomed large over the first two films (Sylvester Stallone decided “Creed II” would be his last). With Rocky out of the way, and the younger Creed solidly in place as the best in the world, the franchise can breathe a little and grow.
Enter the Dame (not that kind of dame).
This one is in the form of Jonathan Majors, an old buddy from their teenage years in a group home in the early 2000s. Dame, or Damian Anderson, is a bit older than Creed. He’s the one who’s boxing in the underground matches at night. The young Creed (Thaddeus J. Mixon), a little awkward, a little too eager to please and a little too ready for trouble, is the one carrying water (and bags and gloves) and helping him strategize. There is a palpable menace established early on with these two — an unequal power and age dynamic, sure, but also the implication that Dame (Spence Moore II) is more than willing to play dirty. He carries a gun. He fixes games. And he has a hold on young Adonis. The flashback ends with a violent altercation outside a convenience store. Dame goes away. Creed becomes Creed.
This flashback is important but does get the film off to a bit of a slow start, jumping forward chronologically to Creed’s last fight and then to his present-day retirement life — a luxurious and tranquil existence in the Hollywood Hills in a modernist mansion with his daughter Amara (Mila Davis Kent) and wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who has given up singing mostly to produce hit records. Life is nice for the obscenely rich in LA: The clothes are expensive, the cars are price upon request, the house always spotless and the staff unseen (save for a chef in one scene). At the gym run by Duke (Wood Harris), he’s trying to mentor the next generation of champions.
Then Dame re-appears and the movies gets its urgency back. His old pal was locked up for 18 years after that incident and is freshly out of prison, wanting to pick up his life and his boxing aspirations where he left off. Creed is pleasant but guarded — for much of the film he acts like an aloof celebrity, hyper conscious of not letting anyone in too close and compartmentalizing the uglier aspects of his past. Still, he takes him out to lunch and offers to help him in any way he can. This is both the right thing to do and also a huge mistake.
“Creed III” is, among other things, about what happens when men don’t talk about their feelings (and ignore Duke’s advice).
At times, it also feels more like a thriller than a sports film as you watch Dame infiltrate Creed’s world. It’s always Creed’s idea, there’s always an invitation, but Dame’s sudden omnipresence starts to feel unavoidable and ominous. Dame has a bit of Eve Harrington in him, but also a very real, very relatable chip on his shoulder for the time he lost. In another movie, he could very well be the underdog we’re rooting for — some of the audience may be rooting for him even so.
Lurking behind everything is the madness that comes from not being able to do what you were born to do. It’s something athletes grapple with earlier than most other professionals. An injury at 23 could take you out when you’re just getting started and in this film Creed, Dame and Bianca are having similar existential crises — though Dame’s desperation is the driving force behind everything that happens.
Jordan and his filmmaking team craft two particularly stunning matches full of suspense, drama and slow motion sweat beads flying through the air. These are only lessened by the cheesy, unhelpful announcers spouting cliches and no actually helpful exposition or explanation outside the ring. And ultimately, it’s a promising debut for the 36-year-old, who shows here that he’ll never let his own star ego get in the way of a film: Majors steals the show, and Jordan is there to capture it.
There’s a comforting but predictable rhythm to a boxing franchise like Rocky and now Creed. The movies must keep justifying themselves, inventing new challenges that make them all feel different enough. But most essentially boil down to the same framework: You have to knock the champion down to a believable underdog again. While there is a case to be made for the final fight to, let’s just say, go a different way than it does, “Creed III” is still a knockout.
“Creed III,” an MGM release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for, “Violence, some strong language and intense sports action.” Running Time: 116 minutes. Three stars out of four. —- MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. —- Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.