Star Michael B. Jordan directs his first film, the feisty but flawed 'Creed III'

“Creed III” - ★ ★ ½

Already a champion movie star and A-list actor, Michael B. Jordan demonstrates great promise as a director with “Creed III,” his feisty but flawed freshman effort behind the camera.

This ninth feature in the popular and critically acclaimed “Rocky” boxing series packs moments of energetic sincerity, plus a stunning knockout performance by Jordan's formidable co-star Jonathan Majors.

But narrative shortcuts pull the punches (OK, no more boxing metaphors) on “Creed III,” one resulting in a major character's total change of heart so quick that it feels arbitrary, forced and false.

Painting the luxurious lifestyle of boxing's retired heavyweight champion of the world - Adonis Creed (Jordan) - as a perfect-picture postcard of wealth and domestic bliss runs contrary to the grittier, previous “Rocky” entries, but that's how “III” begins.

Adonis lives in Los Angeles in a hilltop mansion where he seems to be an ideal father for his adoring, hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent); a super supportive, yet emotionally guarded husband for his musical wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson); and a figurative son to his dad's no-bull widow (Phylicia Rashad).

Adonis Creed (director Michael B. Jordan), his hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), and his wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson) check out a world heavyweight boxing match in "Creed III." Courtesy of MGM

He wears finely tailored suits (absolutely love that double-breasted gray one with the wide peak lapels and double-vented back!) and drives a super-duper sports car designed to make hybrid owners drool with envy. He often visits his state-of-the-sport gym, where he supports up-and-coming fighters.

Just when you think you might be watching a cloying episode of “The Ultra-Rich and Handsomely Famous,” Adonis' past returns to haunt him in the form of his childhood bestie, “Dame” Damian (Majors), who has just been released from a long slog in the big house.

Adonis barely recognizes Damian when he confronts him on the street.

Damian seems cordial and ingratiates himself to Adonis. But Damian quickly leverages guilt to manipulate his friend - guilt stemming from a pivotal incident from their youth, recapped in flashbacks.

What Damian really wants is a shot at the heavyweight championship title, which he feels entitled to demand from his pal, even though he's been long retired.

Here, the screenplay - written by Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin - goes a little wonky. By not devoting sufficient time to Damian's presumed training behind bars, his surprising performance during his title shot (you knew that was coming, right?) feels utterly improbable and far-fetched.

Gym trainer and voice-of-reason Duke (Wood Harris) warns Adonis about his buddy. “He likes to hurt people.”

“Creed III” actually reverses a dominant premise of the “Rocky” movies created by and starring Sylvester Stallone (absent here for the first time).

"Dame" Damian (Jonathan Majors), who has just been released from prison, demands a shot at the world heavyweight championship in "Creed III." Courtesy of MGM

Instead of rooting for the true underdog - here the downtrodden Damian - we feel compelled to side with the wealthy, established, ego-driven champ. Oh, no! It's like cheering for Adonis' father Apollo from the original “Rocky.”

Director of cinematography Kramer Morgenthau uses IMAX-certified digital cameras to capture the action in and out of the boxing ring, resulting in images so crisp, clean and popping that they seem too pretty for a tough boxing drama.

Even the obligatory s-l-o-w-m-o-t-i-o-n shots of distorted faces spewing spittle and blood seem oddly attractive, in stark contrast to Michael Chapman's incomparably brutal black-and-white images in “Raging Bull.”

As the director, Jordan has a tendency to underscore, italicize and boldface the emotional high points, but it's still a more fulfilling approach than Steven Caple Jr.'s blunt, melodramatic “Creed II,” but not quite as fresh and endearing as Ryan Coogler's first “Creed” spinoff.

Majors reigns as the de facto champ of this movie with a gravitas and world-weariness that comes across in his wounded gorilla-like gait and his eyes aglow with dark mystery and pain.

Jordan should beware. His next directing job might be on a movie titled “Dame.”

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jonathan Majors, Tessa Thompson, Mila Davis-Kent

Directed by: Michael B. Jordan

Other: An MGM release in theaters. Rated PG-13 for language and violence. 116 minutes

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