“Creed III” (2023): A little rusty out of retirement

Both the beauty and simplicity of the boxing film is that much of its runtime concerns itself with a single question: How do we make the climactic boxing match feel like more than two bruised egos mercilessly punching each other? The answers to this question are many, though not equal in effect, and the success of the movie often hinges on its selection.

While its predecessor franchise, the “Rocky” sestet, bent over backwards to contrive a conflict that could coax an aging Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) out of retirement, the “Creed” franchise has always found a more finessed way to put Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) in the ring with gravity. And while “Creed III” signals that the franchise is beginning to test the flexibility of its spine, it manages to recapture enough of what has made the trilogy refreshing and engaging since its debut in 2015.

Michael B. Jordan returns both as the titular Creed and as director of his debut feature, and the work he does both on screen and behind the scenes is rock solid. The film picks up three years after Adonis Creed has retired as the undisputed heavyweight world champion, and, like Jordan, Creed has chosen to step into a more administrative role. Creed is both the face of boxing and runner of the iconic Delphi Boxing Gym, raising up the next generation of champion fighters. While retirement suits him and offers him more time to be with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), a pristine post-retirement picture is complicated when Damian (a deeply unsettling Jonathan Majors), an old friend of Creed’s, turns up after eighteen years in prison.

As interspersed flashbacks to a younger Adonis and Damian reveal the incident that landed Damian in prison, the intensity between their older counterparts ripens into a raw dynamic that carries the narrative and even compensates for its weaknesses. While sidequests about Creed training his deaf daughter, living through health and relational complications with Adonis’ mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) and experiencing a vague tension in his marriage do not bear themselves out with the sincerity and steadiness of the trilogy’s previous ventures, Damian’s palpable rage and Creed’s confused shame emotionally anchor the film.

This is in large part due to two impressive performances from Jordan and Majors — Majors especially — but the film crafted around them does its part, too. Tight editing and rich production design give the film a flow that the narrative cannot. And, of course, drastic times call for even more drastic training montages — Creed pulling a small plane down the runway serves as a fitting metaphor for the work Michael B. Jordan puts in for this film. While some third act special effects are entirely unwelcome and achieve the opposite of their intentions, the two leads and accompanying technical work are enough to bring “Creed III” to an intense and engaging close that at least satisfies, even if it does not nourish the way that the first two did.

Though it is easily the weakest of the three — showing both signs of the contrivance and melodrama that led to the retreat of the “Rocky” franchise in the first place — it is hard to be disappointed with “Creed III.” In many ways, the strength of the film is in how well it disguises its weaknesses until it is over. Though it dearly misses the gravity of Stallone’s presence in the previous two films and fails to be totally convincing about why Creed must step back into the ring, the film provides enough sincerity and heart to keep you engaged and entertained for its runtime.

Majors and Jordan prove once again why they are some of Hollywood’s top leading men, even as their conflict doesn’t get the tight, brutal ending it deserves. And though it can’t quite recapture all that made “Creed II” (2018) a delightful return to form and “Creed” (2015) a reinventing masterpiece, “Creed III” is compelling and well-crafted enough to hang up its gloves alongside them.