Adonis “Donny” Creed is back in “Creed III,” the latest entry in the “Creed” franchise. It opens in theaters Friday.
Once again, the son of Apollo Creed from the “Rocky” movies is played by Michael B. Jordan, who also takes on directing duties. The screenplay, by Keenan Coogler and “King Richard” scribe Zach Baylin (who share a story credit with series co-creator Ryan Coogler), is interested in more than just ringside drama; it also deals with childhood trauma and the guilt one can feel after rising from hard times to success.
The result is a film that, despite being underwritten at crucial points, is better than any third entry in a franchise has a right to be. Jordan flexes his dramatic muscles as often as he flashes his physical ones — after all, his name is Adonis — and the addition of the too-diesel-for-words Jonathan Majors contributes to the preternaturally sculptured eye candy. Bringing his acting A-game, Majors threatens to steal the movie from its star.
After seeing “Creed II,” I demanded that, if a “Creed III” were made, it should continue to mirror the “Rocky” series. “Creed II” brought back boxer Ivan Drago, whom fans will remember killed Apollo in “Rocky IV,” and pitted his son against Donny. It was only fair that, for this installment, Donny should fight Clubber Lang’s son. Mr. T, who played Clubber, is very much alive, so my dreams of a tie-in with my favorite Rocky film, “Rocky III,” could have been realized.
Alas, this is not the plotline we are presented here, though Majors’s character, Damian “Dame” Anderson, has several characteristics of Clubber: He’s tough and violent, looks unbeatable, and talks a scary amount of trash. I’d wager his prediction for the boxing match that ends this film would have been the same as Clubber’s in “Rocky III”: “pain!”
Pain is a major theme in “Creed III,” and not just the punishing physical kind that accompanies every punch in the ring. Jordan and his screenwriters give equal time to the emotional and psychological tolls, the pain that haunts a person when alone with one’s demons. Any good boxer knows how to dodge a punch; it’s much harder when the blows are coming from the psyche.
Donny’s wife, Bianca, played once again by Tessa Thompson, pleads with him to seek therapy for what ails him, as it is apparently exacerbated by the return of Dame Anderson. He is a fixture from Donny’s adolescence, back when the two of them ran the streets in Los Angeles while living together in a group home. Dame was the one with the boxing dreams, and he was a major contender. Intermittent flashbacks fill in the backstory, which is easily predictable but no less effective.
For reasons I’ll not spoil, Dame’s boxing career was derailed by an 18-year bid in prison. After his release, he returns to seek the help of his now-retired friend. The two old friends reestablish their bond before Dame suddenly asks for a shot at the title, despite having no boxing record since adolescence. Dame equates an underdog getting the title shot with Apollo offering the then-unknown Rocky Balboa his shot at the title in the original “Rocky.”
Instead of putting him in the professional ring, Donny allows Dame to spar with Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez), the fighter he manages, as he’s the only one unafraid of Felix’s prowess. But thanks to a last-minute injury to Felix’s competitor, and an unusual move by Donny, Dame gets his chance at the title. Things rapidly go downhill from there.
Dame’s transformation into a villain is sloppily written, as is the contrived way “Creed III” gets Donny out of retirement to fight him. But I have to give the screenplay credit for its willingness to delve into issues of poverty and abuse. It also asks whether someone whose success took him out of a rough neighborhood should reach back to help elevate others.
The backstory between Donny and Dame is too heavy and complex for a movie that aims to be a crowd-pleaser, but Majors and Jordan do their best to balance the material.
The camaraderie between Black male friends, and the love stories of Black couples, are staples of Ryan Coogler movies like “Black Panther” and “Fruitvale Station.” “Creed III” treats these relationships with sincerity and depth. The film features several scenes between Donny with Bianca and their deaf daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), who wants to fight like her father. Phylicia Rashad also returns as Donny’s funny, no-nonsense mother, Mary-Anne, whose fading health concerns her son.
These moments are pleasant diversions, but “Creed III” eventually has to give viewers what they paid to see. The boxing matches are staged well, with Jordan’s camera slowing down to capitalize on the extreme brutality of a hit and the cruelty of dirty, illegal punches.
The film’s ultimate message is that the violence in the ring is nowhere near as painful as confronting one’s past. We’re more likely to take corrective action to heal external wounds. It’s the internal ones we tend to leave untreated until they fester beyond our control. “Creed III” acknowledges this struggle, albeit superficially; that it does so at all is commendable.
Directed by Michael B. Jordan. Written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jonathan Majors, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Mila Davis-Kent, Jose Benavidez. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. 116 minutes. PG-13 (tough punches, rough language)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.