Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed and Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson in CREED III; a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film; © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved CREED is a trademark of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. Credit: Eli Ade

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The nine-film, 47-year Rocky/Creed cycle contains at least three heavyweight champs and another trio of contenders. But in the new Creed III, the series adds another punched-out palooka to its stable. That’s a disappointment, if not wholly a surprise, given how unsteady this saga has been. 

What is a surprise is that Michael B. Jordan—who, like Sylvester Stallone before him, graduates from star to director and star with this installment—skimps on the one magnificent element that makes even the middling entries in this series—2018’s Creed II for example—so compulsively watchable: Train. Ing. Mont. Age.

The “Gonna Fly Now” sequence up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art  from Rocky (and Rocky II and Rocky Balboa). The chicken-chasing drill from Rocky II. The sprints-with-Carl Weathers-in-short-shorts in the Santa Monica sea spray sequence from 1982’s Rocky III. The Rocky IV sequence when Mr. Balboa trains in a Russian barn with farm equipment while his younger, steroid-enhanced Soviet opponent sweats it out in a state-of-the-1985-art facility as members of the Politburo frown approvingly. The “Bridging the Gap” and “Waiting For My Moment” sequences from 2015’s Creed, the superb Ryan Coogler-directed entry that restarted these films with a vengeance. 

These sublime marriages of music and editing may or may not be art, but they sure as shit are cinema. Creed III has one measly training montage, and it doesn’t come until 90 minutes into a film that runs just short of two hours. What gives, Champ?

The notable addition to this glassjawed entry is Jonathan Majors, the suddenly everywhere-all-at-once Yale Drama School grad who first got noticed in the terrific 2019 indie The Last Black Man in San Francisco and quickly went on to appear in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Is it possible we’ve been just a little hasty in declaring this perfectly capable and interesting actor a genius? It isn’t his fault that the other big franchise three-quel that employs him as a heel, the dreary Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, came out only a week ago. But the timing is unfortunate.

Majors is, as always, an imposing presence as DamianDiamond DameAnderson, a vengeance-hungry ex-con who served 18 years of hard time following a misadventure that also sent young AdonisDonnyCreed to juvenile detention. (In real life, Majors is three years younger than Jordan; in the movie, he’s older.) Upon his release, Dame tracks down Donny at his gym and asks the champ—now retired from the ring and promoting younger fighters—to help him turn pro, though he’s only ever boxed in prison. Donny feels obligated to help his old friend, who, in turn, betrays him via the sort of convoluted plot twist these films rarely touch. Come to think of it, the screenplay, by Keenan Coogler (Ryan’s brother) and Zach Baylin, with Ryan sharing “story” credit, has two such twists, one of which makes no sense at all. 

But if Creed III is plottier than its forebears—something no fan of this series was asking for—it’s far less emotional. Certainly the frayed friendship between Dame and Donny, too much of it conveyed in flashback via younger actors Spence Moore II and Thaddeus J. Mixson, respectively, can’t fill the void at its center. I’m not saying Creed III needed to have Stallone in it—Jordan has more than earned the opportunity to carry the series forward on his own. But it needed some substitute for the goofball, gentle-giant energy that Stallone, a vain and self-conscious actor in so many films but never in these, always brought to the role as both writer and performer. The return of Phylicia Rashad as Mary-Anne, Donny’s adopted mother and Apollo Creed‘s widow, and Wood Harris as trainer TonyLittle DukeBurton, just isn’t enough, as marvelous as these actors are. 

What makes Creed III so dramatically inert is that Donny is just too comfortable. He doesn’t suffer from the sort of medical or financial crises Stallone was forever concocting to make sure Rocky was always on defense in the long game of life. Donny’s spouse Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson, always wonderful) music career is going great, though her progressive hearing loss has meant she’s had to cut back on concert performances. Their child, played by 10-year-old deaf actor Mila Davis-Kent, is precocious and adorable. Forget glass houses; their Southern California mansion literally has a glass floor. And nothing the film’s antagonist does can threaten any of it. Where are the stakes?

Creed III wants the warmth without the melancholy. It doesn’t even give us the gritty mise-en-scene of Philly-as-Philly from the two originals, or the gloss of Wyoming-as-Siberia from Rocky IV. Creed III was shot in Atlanta, the tax haven where the Marvel sausage gets made, standing in for Los Angeles. The climactic fight takes place at Dodger Stadium, though whether any of the actors ever set foot in the place with cameras rolling is not a question the film’s murky cinematography, by Creed II’s Kramer Morgenthau, persuasively answers.

Naturally, we get the usual parade of cameos by real boxers, referees, and announcers. In years since Creed II, HBO Boxing has gone out of business, and its best-in-the-game commentators, Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman, and Roy Jones, Jr., have all been replaced—in life and in Creed III—by the lesser lights of Showtime and DZN. It’s just one more way in which this tired follow-up can’t go the distance.

The Rocky sequels had to work up a sweat to keep finding semi-persuasive reasons to drag their aging, broken fighter back into hell. This is a test Creed III fails: Why would Donny, a prosperous family man with a great life, and a guy whose father died in the ring because he refused to stay quit once his time was up, agree to fight Damian, an angry-at-the-world, prison-hardened warrior with nothing to lose? The Donny Jordan has created is headstrong, but not stupid. For him to put the gloves back on, in a perfunctory and anticlimactic showdown that happens for no other reason than because the format demands it, actually negates the emotional growth the character showed over the prior two films. 

Yes, fighters want to fight, and athletes never want to accept when their bodies tell them that their inevitably brief season of physical excellence is over. That’s one of the universal truths that has made the shamelessly corny Rocky/Creed series so beloved by three generations of ticket buyers. These movies aren’t about boxing. They’re about births and deaths, proposals and breakups, the cruel comedy of age. 

They’re also about training montages. Most of them, anyway.

Creed III opens in theaters nationwide on March 3.

A special early access screening and fundraiser for Variety DC, a local nonprofit that support DMV children with disabilities, plays at 6 p.m. on Feb. 28 at Alamo Drafthouse Crystal City. $25.