Halfway through his first professional fight — a title fight, no less — “Diamond” Dame Anderson (Jonathan Majors) uses a break between rounds to get rid of a tooth that his fierce competitor, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), has knocked loose during their bruising battle. If that sounds painful, it looks even worse, but the former Golden Gloves champ simply spits it out, gets back in the ring, and wins big. He will not be deterred. Nothing will stop him. What could be scarier in a competitor than that?
In Michael B. Jordan’s “Creed III,” the franchise star adds “director” to his resume with an ambitious, if cluttered feature debut. And while the basic idea that fuels the central battle of the film is thrilling enough — who would want to go up against Jonathan Majors, let alone a Jonathan Majors driven by righteous anger? — an overcooked script from Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, full of other diversions and potential disasters, keeps “Creed III” from landing every punch it throws. Overall, though, it does prove victorious: Jordan clearly has directorial skill (it’s his bigger swings that are most energizing), and he and Majors make for a formidable onscreen duo.
But there’s a lot of heavy lifting that has to get us there, starting with an exposition-laden opening that soon feels like a portent of more information dumps to come. Opening in early aughts Los Angeles, we see young Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) sneaking out to join his older pal Dame (Spence Moore II) at a local Golden Gloves bout, where Dame proves victorious. He’s a driven young man with a major plan: to be the heavyweight champion of the world, and more. Fast-forward to the end of Adonis’ own heavyweight career, capped off by a major fight in South Africa (which he wins, of course), and then again forward to the present day, where Adonis and his family are enjoying his post-retirement life.
What, you may wonder, happened to Dame? When he appears outside Adonis’ sprawling gym, where he and longtime coach Duke (Wood Harris) are training up the next generation of fighters, the champ is right to be trepidatious. Dame has spent the last 18 years in prison — we’ll soon find out why — without a word from Adonis, and now that’s he out, he’s intent on getting back on track with his big dream. And while Adonis, who has learned the hard way over the course of the two previous films the value of assisting others, offers to help, it seems like a crazy dream that couldn’t possibly come true.
But he’s underestimated Dame.
It’s a compelling concept for a film — the old buddies pitted against each other for a battle that goes beyond belts — but other concerns soon pile up: Adonis’ young daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) wants to learn how to box, his mother Mary-Anne (Phylicia Rashad) is unwell, and his wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) pain over no longer being able to perform onstage is becoming harder to ignore. While each subplot will add to the tension that eventually forces Adonis to boil over (and take major action), they all detract from what should be the main event: Adonis vs. Dame, in and outside the ring.
But introducing Dame as a major part of Adonis’ life, at least at one point, requires the kind of backfilling and retconning this franchise still struggles with: Suddenly, we all need to learn about Adonis’ time in a group home, the way he found his way to boxing, the crime that Dame committed that sent him to jail, the worries Mary-Anne harbored over Dame for seeming decades, cracks in his relationship with Bianca, and concerns about Amara’s scholastic life. It’s a lot to process, and much of it is delivered too quickly and too messily to stick.
Bring it back to Adonis and Dame. That’s where this thing hits. Their philosophies are different — the script, of course, continues to hammer those differences home throughout the film, even when we’ve well learned them — and that impacts their approach to everything. Adonis values control. Dame is about brute force. Both Jordan and Majors offer energy, charisma, and presence — these are two actors who are thrilling to watch — but in “Creed III,” they are too often forced to dance around each other in talk-heavy, overlong sequences.
Only in the film’s final half-hour, which (unsurprisingly) sets the pair on a path to duke it out in the ring, do they — and this film — really spring to life. That’s when both Jordan and Majors are allowed to turn their fury and sadness and confusion into action (and, yes, fantastic training montages, a heart-stopping final match, and enough thrown punches to make the audience feel them), and when “Creed III” really gets cooking. It’s the best testament to Jordan’s directing skill (the way he imagines that final bout will likely divide some audiences, but this is clearly a man with a vision), and the genius in pitting Jordan against Majors. Get them in the ring sooner. Keep them there longer. This is the only battle that matters. This is the one that hits.
MGM will release “Creed III” in theaters on Friday, March 3.
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