Sylvester Stallone wanted no part of this one. So don't expect a "Rocky" fix from "Creed III," now punching its way through theaters without a single mention of Rocky Balboa, the heavyweight champ who spawned this series of spinoffs.
Michael B. Jordan, a genuine star in a world of wannabes, returns in fighting form to the role of boxing champ Adonis "Donnie" Creed in "Creed III." Sequels are nothing new these days. But Jordan uses this one to make his debut as a director. And, no surprise, he's a winner.
After six "Rocky" films, the first in 1976 took the Best Picture Oscar, and two "Creed" follow-ups, the first in 2015 was directed by "Black Panther" wiz Ryan Coogler and brought back an Oscar-nominated Stallone to his signature role as Rocky, a mentor and trainer to Donnie, the bastard son of late champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the father he never knew.
OK, enough with playing catch-up. As star and director, Jordan may be treading old ground, but he knows how to keep you in the game. With Rocky MIA, we pick up with Donnie enjoying a posh retirement in L.A. with his rock-star wife Bianca (an excellent Tessa Thompson). Both use sign language to communicate with their deaf daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).
Donnie hasn't completely given up on boxing. He's mentoring the hot-tempered new champ, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). But life is never easy for the star of a fight movie. Before you can say who's the villain, a bruising blast from Donnie's past shows up,
He's Damian "Dame" Anderson, a childhood buddy who's been in prison for nearly two decades for a robbery. Donnie skated away free while Dame—a former Golden Gloves contender— took the rap. This means a favor is owed and Dame is determined to collect.
Jordan needed a live wire to play Dame and he found him in sizzling newcomer Jonathan Majors, an Emmy nominee for "Lovecraft Country" who is currently killing it as the evil Kang the Conqueror in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."
Dame keeps his anger on a low flame. But Majors lets you feel him simmering inside as he re-enters the life of Donnie like a stalker, showing up at his gym, sparring with the new champ, and demanding his own shot at the title, first with Chavez and then Creed himself.
Working from a script by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, Jordan builds suspense that tightens until the tension is unbearable. And that's even before the big fight, which Jordan stages with a close-up ferocity that will leave you ducking uppercuts in your seat.
Jordan lets himself get distracted with extraneous family drama about Bianca's hearing loss and his daughter's insistence to learn how to throw a punch at school bullies.
But the real relationship in "Creed III" is between two brothers, not related by blood, who fight out their resentments in the ring. And what a fight it is, filmed with IMAX cameras and with a ferocious intimacy.
Even when the plot stumbles, Jordan and Majors turn "Creed III" in a clash of two acting titans who are in it to win it. Now that's something to cheer about,