Adonis Creed, like Rocky Balboa before him, is a fighter who faces down his demons and finds his triumph-of-the-human-spirit mojo, all leading up to his inevitable delivery of that knockout punch (well, okay, Rocky actually lost the fight in “Rocky”). The first two “Creed” films, like the six “Rocky” films, were rah-rah crowd-pleasers, with the hero taking on an adversary who represents the forces of darkness. The boxing foes in these movies are a little like comic-book supervillains: Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, Drago’s vengeful son, and so on. They’ve been catchy and, at times, memorable characters, but it’s part of their appeal that they’re two-dimensional raging-bull enemies you would hardly rank as layered human beings.
But “Creed III,” directed with impressive first-time flair by its star, Michael B. Jordan, is infused with a different flavor. Adonis, having settled into retirement in his sleek L.A. mansion, appears to be sitting on top of the world. He has a tender and playful relationship with his pop-star wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is looking at a quasi-retirement of her own (due to hearing loss, she’s segueing into the role of producer), and also with their deaf daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), to whom he speaks in fluid sign language. At the gym, he’s mentor to the new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), a hothead with a habit of pummeling his sparring partners. But all is good, until an old friend of Adonis’s shows up.
His name is Damian Anderson (nickname: Dame), and Jonathan Majors, the actor who is currently burning up the screen as Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” plays him as the blast from the past that you don’t want to see. Dame has just been released from prison after serving 18 years. He’s free, but he has nothing — no money or connections, no family to help him out. But he’s got Adonis, his old chum from the hood. In the opening scene, we see the two in flashback, when Adonis (played with innocent-eyed fervor by Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) was a teenager and Dame (Spence Moore II) an up-and-coming Golden Gloves contender of raw talent. But it all fell apart outside a liquor store, when Adonis attacked an old nemesis and Dame, pulling out a gun, took the fall for it.
From the moment he appears, leaning with louche entitlement against Adonis’s vehicle, Majors plays Dame with a surface amiability cut with a passive-aggressive prickliness that’s there in everything he says. He wants help and support — a leg up and a powerful friend to give it to him. And Adonis is onboard with that; he wants to help. But already we can see the sign of something — that “Creed III” isn’t just going to be a boxing movie. It’s going to be a hostile-tormenter movie, like “Cul-de-Sac” or “The Gift” or the granddaddy of them all, the original 1962 “Cape Fear.”
Dame, like Robert Mitchum in that movie (or Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s 1991 remake), is a convict who feels he was wronged, and he has returned to toy with the man he thinks was responsible. Why, he wants to know, did Adonis not return his letters from prison? (Because, Adonis says, he didn’t receive them.) Oh, and by the way, Dame mentions that he’d like a shot at the title. Is this a dream or a threat, or both?
In “Creed III,” Majors has an imperious squint and a rapid way of talking, as if Dame were throwing away his words to brood on their hidden meaning. His most casual sentence stings like a tiny punch. When he sits opposite Adonis in a diner, relishing his first restaurant meal in years, he’s having a “friendly” chat but he’s also saying, “This conversation isn’t real.” Majors exudes a danger that electrifies the air around him, and his Dame is a master of manipulation. He guilt-trips Adonis into letting him train at the gym, and once he’s got his foot in the door, he becomes the sparring partner of Felix. The film then turns ominous at a record-release party where the sudden return of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) opens the door to Dame getting his title shot, in a champ-vs.-a-nobody bout that echoes the one in “Rocky.” And who do you think he’s going to want to fight next?
Jordan, working from a script by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (the story is by Ryan Coogler, who also serves as a producer), shows dramatic finesse in his staging of the Adonis/Dame relationship, showcasing it as a broken brotherhood that speaks to larger disruptions — the tug between loyalty and violence in dispossessed childhoods. “Creed III” is a sports drama that feels like a thriller with an urgent conscience. It’s a far more dynamic movie than the proficient but formulaic “Creed II,” even if it can’t match the soulful filmmaking bravura of the first “Creed.”
Jordan, however, gives what may be his fullest performance yet as Adonis: now proud, now anxious, now valiant, now tearful, now at the end of his rope. As a director, he paces the movie well and stages the boxing matches with a brutal imaginative precision. Dame may be old for a fighter, but what he lacks in youth he makes up for in vengeful killer instinct. His body is chiseled, his soul hardened. He’s a wrecking machine, all right, though more than that he’s the return of the repressed, the side of Adonis that Adonis is running away from. If “Creed III” turns out to be the last “Creed” movie, it will prove to be a satisfying finale. But if not, it keeps the bar high.