Review: Michael B. Jordan is the one to fly now with ‘Creed III’

two boxers face each other with an announcer between them
Michael B. Jordan, left, and Jonathan Majors, right, in the movie “Creed III.”
(Eli Ade / MGM via AP)

For “Creed” star Michael B. Jordan, stepping behind the camera for his directorial debut in “Creed III” follows in the very famous footsteps of the original star of the franchise — Sylvester Stallone. After the critical success of “Rocky,” for which he wrote the screenplay, Stallone took over from John G. Avildsen, to direct “Rocky II,” which became a box office smash, cementing Stallone as an unlikely action star auteur. Hopefully, Jordan manages a similar trajectory with “Creed III,” a solid first feature with a knockout performance from Jonathan Majors.

There’s a meta element to Jordan’s move behind the camera that mimics Adonis Creed’s journey in the screenplay by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin. Adonis, a.k.a. Donnie (Jordan), has hung up the gloves and moved into a promoter role, supporting the championship aspirations of Felix Chavez (played by pro boxer José Benavidez), and spending time with his family, wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).

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The domestic challenges — finding his purpose outside of the ring, reckoning with the history of his relationship with his adopted mother (Phylicia Rashad) and learning to express himself with his wife — are fairly standard issue and not all that compelling beyond what the actors bring to the role. Where “Creed III” really starts to stir to life is in the introduction of Jonathan Majors as a figure from Donnie’s dark and violent childhood.


Damian, a.k.a. Dame (Majors), was a big brother type to Donnie, and a rising star in boxing, but when a fight at a convenience store got out of hand, Donnie ran and Dame went to prison. He’s turned up now, 18 years later, hooded and squirrelly after his years behind bars, but still chomping at the bit for his own chance at the belt. Donnie’s reluctant to back him but harbors guilt that his friend had his dream deferred, while his were fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams.

“Creed III” makes good use of the inherent qualities in each of its leading men: There’s something rather sweet, innocent and noble in Jordan’s persona, which is put to good use as Donnie struggles to do the right thing, while Majors always seems like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is something intrinsically sorrowful in Majors’ countenance, and as Dame, he emanates a kind of wounded anger that makes him want to hurt someone, not “box” with focus and control.

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If “Creed III” tells us anything, it is that Majors is the heir apparent to Marlon Brando; his angry, resentful Dame, a bruiser with a chip on his shoulder, is in direct lineage from Brando’s Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” Majors fully embodies the character, from his South-Central accent, his clipped cadence and hunched posture slowly unfurling as he becomes more confident and powerful, thanks to his own machinations and Donnie’s guilt-ridden enabling.

But while Dame is the far more fascinating character, Donnie is our hero, and the film proceeds as such, with dueling training montages and snowy white boxing shorts taking the symbolic place of a hero’s white cowboy hat. Coogler and Baylin’s screenplay isn’t all that innovative with the sports movie formula, and it unfortunately tends to rely on characters plainly spelling out their inner monologues, rather than leaving it to subtext.

But Jordan’s steady direction elevates the material, keeping a strong hand on the tone and emotional tenor. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (who also shot “Creed II,” directed by Steven Caple Jr.) brings fluid camera movements and an appealing use of practical lighting, imbuing the film with motion and texture. Jordan takes a big creative swing during a climactic title match, experimenting with a subjective fantasy sequence. It doesn’t entirely pay off, but it’s nice to see him color outside of the lines with the risky maneuver.

But what Jordan does best as star, director and producer is showcase Majors’ heavyweight performance, cementing him as one of our brightest stars. Taking over a behind-the-scenes role is a part of the “Rocky” legacy, and Jordan takes the reins with ease, championing Majors and heralding an exciting new chapter of his career, beyond “Creed.”


Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic

‘Creed III’

Rated: PG-13, for intense sports action, violence and some strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Starts March 3 in general release