‘Creed III’: Old friend has a score to settle with Adonis in engrossing boxing drama

Michael B. Jordan returns to the title role and makes his directing debut in one of the franchise’s more grounded films.

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Damian (Jonathan Majors, left) has a tense reunion with old friend Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) in “Creed III.”

MGM

Strangely enough, maybe the least compelling element of director-star Michael B. Jordan’s well-paced and sure-to-be crowd-pleasing “Creed III” is the boxing.

Granted, the major fight sequences are well-staged, suitably brutal and creatively filmed bouts. But this is the third “Creed” movie and the ninth overall in the franchise, and we’ve seen more than 20 major fights altogether, making it nearly impossible for the boxing sequences to deliver anything new. (Though director Jordan certainly tries to do something different in the final bout, and we’ll touch more on that in a bit.)

What makes “Creed III” a consistently engrossing watch is the gritty and violent back story, and the present-day tension between two former best friends whose lives were forever changed by a single confrontation that went sideways and who now have been reunited after nearly 20 years, with one man on top of the world and the other about two degrees from reaching the boiling point as he simmers with rage and resentment. It makes for one of the more grounded and authentic out-of-the-ring storylines in the “Rocky/Creed” library.

‘Creed III’

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MGM presents a film directed by Michael B. Jordan and written by Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin. Rated PG-13 (for intense sports action, violence and some strong language). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

The main storyline of “Creed III” is set seven years after the events of the last film, with Jordan’s Adonis settling into a comfortable and posh retirement, complete with breathtaking mansion, a stylish casual wardrobe and a $325,000 Rolls-Royce. When Adonis isn’t at the Delphi gym, overseeing the career of current heavyweight champion Felix Chavez (José Benavidez) and a roster of young contenders, he’s spending lots of quality time at home with his wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who has taken a step back from recording and performing due to her increased hearing loss and is concentrating on writing and producing, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), a brilliant young girl who apparently has inherited her father’s pugilistic skills, given the blow she delivers to a taunting classmate at school.

It’s the life after the credits sequence, in which all is well and it’s time for the happily ever after — but that all changes when Adonis exits the gym one day and sees a hulking, rough-hewn figure leaning against his Rolls. Adonis figures the guy is looking for a handout or an autograph but then realizes this is one Damian “Dame” Anderson (Majors), who was something of a big brother figure to Adonis and was a highly touted and greatly feared Golden Gloves champion with a bright and shining career ahead of him, until an incident in front of a liquor store in 2002 ended with Dame in cuffs and Adonis literally running away and escaping, eventually landing on this beautiful and triumphant life he currently enjoys.

In a beautifully lit, perfectly paced and masterfully acted scene that plays like something out of a Scorsese or Michael Mann movie, Adonis and Damian catch up with one another at a neighborhood diner, and it’s all light pleasantries and great-to-see-you, but there’s an underlying tension you can cut with a butter knife. Damian isn’t looking for a handout — he pushes away the wad of cash Adonis proffers — but he makes it clear he intends to reclaim what was he feels was taken from him some 18 years ago. He wants a shot at the title.

This, of course, is ridiculous; Damian has been out of the ring for nearly two decades and has no professional boxing experience. Still, a guilt-ridden Adonis (who never once looked in on Damian all those years) invites him into his gym and to his home for dinner and into his life. On the surface, it’s all good, but there’s never a moment when we’re unaware of how much Damian resents every aspect of Adonis’ life. When a marquee matchup between Felix and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) falls apart due to a serious injury sustained by Viktor at a record label party, the path is cleared for a fight that mirrors the set-up in the original “Rocky,” with Damian, a complete unknown with brute strength and unstoppable will, squaring off against the charismatic and greatly skilled champion in Felix.

You know what happens next. Damian fights hard and he fights dirty, and just like that, he’s the heavyweight champion of the world, and he drops all pretense of being Adonis’ friend, calling him out as a coward who abandoned him and is too soft to accept his challenge to settle things once and for all, in the ring. Oh yeah? Let’s do this! Cue the moment when the Bianca tells Adonis if this is what he has to do, she supports him, and the workout montage, and tear-jerking subplot involving Adonis’ mother (the wonderful Phylicia Rashad) before we get to the championship bout at Dodger Stadium, which features some bone-crushing slow motion, and some initially intriguing but eventually over-stylized CGI in which the ring turns into one giant metaphor, and we’ll leave it at that.

Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and Mila Davis-Kent enjoy a warm and loving dynamic; they feel like a real family. Jonathan Majors continues his rise to major movie star and gives us one of the most intriguing and complex opponents in the history of the Rocky/Creed franchise. Rocky Balboa doesn’t appear in “Creed III” and he’s hardly mentioned, and yet we get the feeling Rocky is out there waiting for Adonis to join him in walking into the sunset and leaving the boxing ring behind forever. It’s time.

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