Cinema has long had a fascination with the pugilistic poetry of boxing and the legacy of its fighters from On The Waterfront to Raging Bull to the Rocky franchise.

While filmmakers have often used the sport to craft their own unique dramas, the genre of boxing movie laid relatively dormant until Ryan Coogler brought back the thrills and chills of cinematic sports with 2018’s Oscar nominated Creed.

After taking over the mantle in the first two installments as the titular character, Michael B. Jordan seeks to further forge his own legacy by doubling as both star and director for Creed III, which opened to box office success this past weekend.

With no mention of the “Italian Stallion,” the third installment in the story of Adonis Creed finds the boxer at the height of his stardom when a close friend from his past reemerges after a long prison sentence looking for his own piece of glory.

Jordan is solid in his return to the ring as Adonis, though it seems as if his mind is split between the character work in front of him as Creed steps into the roles of father, husband and businessman against the creative vision he must bring behind the camera.

His chemistry built with Tessa Thompson as Bianca helps carry the familial drama well as Thompson holds most of the emotional burden that Jordan isn’t required to do beyond facial emoting.

But for all that Jordan brings to the role, it’s often felt like his Adonis is a secondary character in the overall world of the Rocky franchise and its spinoff series, which saw Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa mentor Adonis and overshadow his protégé.

Creed III suffers from a similar problem, but it isn’t that Stallone isn’t in the film rather it’s a different supporting performance completely engulfing whatever character work Jordan is doing here.

A newcomer to the franchise as antagonist “Diamond” Dame Anderson, Jonathan Majors is astonishing in every scene he’s in, even ones where his character motivations are flimsy and underwritten.

Majors expertly maneuvers his way between being soft and reserved to a brash bravado to an almost psychotic menacing violent caricature. At times, his Dame is an emotionless Mike Tyson hell bent on revenge and destruction, but Majors layers that with a brittle, fragile wounded heart that perfectly balances outward rage with inner turmoil.

The film is significantly less interesting when Majors isn’t on screen – although this isn’t to say that moments of Adonis’s family drama aren’t compelling or engaging – but rather that they matter less because of how much Majors elevates the overall narrative of Dame’s story.

Part of the issue is Jordan’s inexperience in the director’s chair, not being able to balance out the film’s multiple storylines effectively and keep audiences engaged with all aspects of the film.

For baffling reasons, the Adonis/Dame relationship is almost entirely set aside for a half-hour in the second act and cripples the promise and momentum that early scenes have.

Jordan’s best work behind the camera comes in the opening moments of Creed III where a flashback to Dame and Adonis growing up on the streets of Los Angeles perfectly sets a tone for a new, more dynamic take on the boxing film. There’s a fluid, free flowing nature to the camerawork that often takes on the style of a boxer in constant motion that extends out of the opening sequence into the first fight that announces Jordan’s potential as a dynamic filmmaker.

Unfortunately, the chances he takes don’t always land as flush as Jordan might like.

After the opening moments, it seems that Jordan’s major interest as a director is to create unique and original takes on traditional boxing fight choreography and cinematography.

As the first sports film to use IMAX cameras for its action set pieces, Creed III has some dynamic energy that puts viewers in the ring more intimately than in most films in the genre and the second major bout focusing on Dame is especially engaging from a storytelling perspective as audiences learn more about who Dame is as a person by the way he fights.

Jordan takes a major risk in the film’s final act that will click with some audiences but leave more traditional boxing fans disappointed with the lack of sports pageantry. There’s a clear influence from Japanese anime in how personal and close-up the camera gets on the fighters and it’s a distinctive signature on the film that doesn’t quite land as much as Jordan might want.

While it doesn’t quite rise to the level of the original spinoff, Creed III is significantly better than its immediate predecessor in large part due to Majors breathing new life into the franchise and something ardent cinephiles may want to see on the biggest screen possible during a slow start to moviegoing in 2023.

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