1 of 5 | Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) considers his past. Photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- As the third Creed and the ninth film in the Rocky franchise, Creed III, in theaters March 3, takes a respectable perspective on its spinoff character. It provides the rousing thrills of the franchise, though wobbles a bit without its driving force, Sylvester Stallone.
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) retires in 2015 after his final fight. Given Creed came out in 2015, that's an odd choice, but so is ending the title character's career in his third movie.
Adonis is managing his gym in Los Angeles and training the current champ, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), for a fight against Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), a nice connection to Creed II since Rocky himself is out of the picture.
Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) shows up at the gym, just released from prison after 18 years. Damian is a childhood friend of Adonis', shown in a flashback, and Damian wants a title shot, since he doesn't exactly have time to work his way through the ranks before he's past his prime.
Adonis explains why the boxing industry doesn't just give newcomers title shots, no matter how promising. But an emergency setback with Drago leaves an opening.
This is an interesting thematic callback to the original Rocky. Adonis knows his late father gave amateur Rocky Balboa a title shot and that's what started this whole thing.
Adonis has to learn a lesson Rocky himself learned in later entries, that not every boxer can be Rocky. Rocky had a kind heart. Damian is angry and that doesn't make for an everyman hero.
The Apollo/Rocky bout was also a once in a lifetime event that can't be contrived again. That's also a meta way to acknowledge that the original Rocky is a once in a lifetime success story, so Jordan, who also makes his directorial debut, isn't trying to duplicate it.
It's Creed III, so it's not a spoiler that Adonis eventually steps back into the ring. It makes sense that Damian is his mess so he's the only one that can clean it up, and both parties happen to be athletes in an industry that provides just such a forum.
The film does give Adonis' management life its due. It's mentioned that Adonis has been retired for three years, which would set the film in 2018. That might have been a deliberate choice to set it before the COVID-19 pandemic and avoid dealing with those complications.
Majors is scary as Damian because he's got nothing to lose. Jordan finds Adonis's vulnerability because he feels so guilty that he had success and Damian did time for their past.
Without Stallone in the mix, the melodrama of Creed III is less natural. Stallone had a way of making melodrama organic, but Adonis and Bianca's (Tessa Thompson) marital issues, and Adonis' issues with his mother (Phylicia Rashad) are on the nose and predictable.
It is noble to suggest that Adonis is trying to find a way to solve his problems without physically fighting, but also a tad disingenuous. Nobody believes Creed III is going to end with Adonis and Damian talking out their differences.
The subject of young Adonis' and Damian's crime is a man named Leon and the film inordinately drags out the mystery of who Leon was.
When Stallone made his directorial debut with Rocky II, he evoked the style John G. Avildsen gave the original movie. Jordan evokes Ryan Coogler's first Creed and peppers in his own touches.
Jordan gives the boxing matches intensity, building up the drama of each confrontation with the fighters' entrances, and closeups on their trunks and gloves, which are adorned with personal style. In the ring, Jordan highlights specific moves and combos, but gives the climax a surreal aesthetic never before seen in the franchise.
The film rushes through Adonis' return to training at a certain age and still sporting injuries from his boxing career. That is the area where fans would want the film to spend more time.
At least Jordan knows enough to explore that aspect via training montage, the very cinematic language of the Rocky franchise. Adonis and Damian practice inventive new training methods contrasting their styles.
Creed III offers a healthy mix of remixing franchise formula and charging its own path. It can be a tad blunt, but it has something worthwhile to say.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.