Producers: Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Elizabeth Raposo, Jonathan Glickman and Sylvester Stallone   Director: Michael B. Jordan    Screenplay: Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin   Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Jonathan Majors, Wood Harris, Mila Davis-Kent, José Benavidez, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Thaddeus James Mixson Jr. and Spence Moore II   Distributor: United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Grade: C

Perhaps the best thing you can say about “Creed III” is that at least they don’t use the old tagline “This time it’s personal!”—though that’s what the movie is, even more so than many of its predecessors in the “Rocky+” franchise.  Because in this installment Adonis must face off against an old friend who has turned into a fearsome opponent out to even the score.  And in the process he must confront his own feeling of guilt while renewing his sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

As the film begins, Creed (Michael B. Jordan, who also directs) is finishing up his boxing career with one last victory.  He then moves into a managerial role, shepherding fighters like the new champion, Felix Chavez (José Benavidez).  On the docket is a bout between Chavez and Creed’s former opponent Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu).  But before that can happen, an old buddy of Donnie’s shows up—Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), who’s spent some eighteen years in prison and has just been released.

At eighteen, Dame (played as a young man by Spence Moore II) was a Golden Gloves champion, and young Donnie (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.), was his devoted gofer, even eluding the watchful gaze of his adoptive mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) to sneak out of the house and tag along to Dame’s matches.  When the two get into an altercation with a man during a visit to a convenience store after Dame’s victory, Dame is arrested and sent to prison; the specifics are doled out in fragmentary flashbacks as the film progresses.  Now he approaches Donnie for his help in getting back into the fight game, hoping to realize his childhood dream of becoming world champion.

Against the advice of astute trainer Duke (Wood Harris), who sees the guy as trouble, Donnie arranges for Dame to be taken on at their gym and spar with Felix.  And when Drago is injured in an attack at a posh party, Donnie argues that Dame should replace him in the title bout—which would set up a Rocky-like scenario of underdog against champion that would attract a huge audience.  Dame proves more than equal to the challenge, but his methods convince Donnie feels to come out of retirement and settle things in the ring.

The pugilistic action is, of course, complemented by domestic turmoil involving Mary Anne, who’s in delicate health after suffering a stroke and has been harboring secrets, and Creed’s wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose hearing problems are seriously impacting her singing career.  There’s also the Creeds’ deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), whose training by her father causes a crisis when she uses what he’s taught her to settle a score with a bully at school.

This punch-from-the-past scenario concocted by Keegan Coogler {“Space Jam: A New Legacy”) and Zach Baylin (“King Richard”), from a story by Keegan’s brother Ryan, is meant to deepen the character of Adonis by conjuring up demons from his past, but its hokey and familiar quality comes off as formulaic.  Nor does it, or the casting, deal gracefully with plot weaknesses.  Is it at all plausible that an assault on Drago would occur without anybody but Creed figuring out—and then only much later—who the assailant was?  Or that Chavez, a welterweight at best, would be matched against a giant like Viktor, or a behemoth like Dame?  One can dismiss such queries by pointing to the suspension of disbelief, but disbelief can be dismissed only to a degree. 

Both Jordan and Majors are nonetheless fine in their roles (though again, Jordan seems on the small side), but their prominence in the story leaves meager room for others in the cast to impress, with Thompson and Rashad left little to do but look worried.  A good deal of the domestic running-time is devoted to Davis-Kent; she’s cute, to be sure, but the emphasis on her love of boxing makes one wonder whether a “Miss Creed” installment might be lurking somewhere down the line. 

As director, first-timer Jordan does a workmanlike job, though some viewers will question his decision to focus on the drama rather than the boxing; there are the usual training montages, of course, but the actual matches go by fairly quickly, and the culminating battle between Donnie and Dame is curiously bloodless by the standards of the previous franchise films.  The decision, moreover, to switch from a packed-stadium perspective to one that isolates the two men in a kind of nebulous dream ring undermines the effect rather than enhancing it.  It may italicize how single-minded each must be in doing battle, shutting out distractions to concentrate on his foe; but it comes across as an artsy attempt to turn the match into sort of an Essence of Boxing moment, not without a pretentious spin. 

Even that sequence, though, is well crafted by the technical crew.  Jahmin Assa’s production design is excellent even if one might question how that convenience store remains utterly unchanged from the flashbacks to the present day when Creed revisits it, and Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography is fine, if murky at times.  The editing by Jessica Baclesse and Tyler Nelson is adequate without being exceptional, and Joseph Shirley’s score hits the right beats without being memorable.

This is, of course, the first film in the franchise in which Sylvester Stallone doesn’t appear, and frankly he’s missed—something one might not have expected.  It’s hard to say whether “Creed III” would have been improved by his presence, but what’s clear is that while the movie isn’t an embarrassment, it’s far from a knockout.