Michael B. Jordan and screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin are tasked with mounting a Rocky without Rocky in Creed III. We could feel a slight tectonic shift in the franchise when Donnie (Jordan) had more story on his plate than Sylvester Stallone in part II. This completes the movement and it’s a mostly competent entry that tops its predecessor while certainly not matching the 2015 original. It also proves Jordan, directing for the first time, is capable of admirable stylistic flourishes.
There’s some symmetry in how Creed III starts compared to Rocky III forty years before it. Adonis, like his former trainer, is living large and content. Unlike Mr. Balboa in his third go-round, Creed is retired and a happy hubby to music producer wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and girl dad to Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). We’re left to assume Rocky is also good to go and reunited with his son in Canada.
A prologue from 2002 informs us of Donnie’s childhood friend Damian Anderson. A Golden Gloves phenom with a bright ring future, the ropes close after a run-in the law. 20 years later, he’s out of prison with Jonathan Majors as the grown-up “Diamond Dame”. Reconnecting with Donnie, the true history of their friendship and fallout is shared slowly. We know it will culminate in a squared circle face-off.
Where Creed III shines is the casting of Majors and the continued potent work from Jordan. If Creed II‘s foe (Ivan Drago’s son from Rocky IV) felt gimmicky (and it basically did), the screenplay assists Dame’s character in having more dimension. It’s the intense performance from Majors that sells it. As an aside, Florian Munteanu pops up rather unnecessarily as Viktor Drago once again.
Some of the family drama involving Phylicia Rashad as Donnie’s beloved adoptive mom and her healthy problems and Bianca’s melodic issues are filler. The pace is a little off as it takes about 40 minutes to get warmed up and then feels rushed when we hit the third act.
In that last act, thankfully, Jordan’s skills behind the camera come into focus. The final bout looks and sounds different than what we’ve paid for in the eight previous pics when Rocky, Creed, and his dad (and Uncle Paulie and that robot) were sparring. The hype for Donnie and Dame pays off and that’s where the admission feels earned. So while this eighth round isn’t always smooth, it’s less rocky than some others in the series.
*** (out of four)