If nothing else — and really, there’s not much else — Creed III is an impressively efficient sports drama, focused entirely on three brilliantly executed fight sequences at the expense of pretty much every other story element. Characters are introduced (and re-introduced), their futures telegraphed from the moment they appear and those outlines executed without much real tension. Gone are the deeper contemplations of legacy, anger and the complicated nature of boxing found in Creed and Creed II. Gone, too, is Sylvester Stallone as the wizened old Rocky Balboa, initially ported over from this franchise’s parent series. Ironically, this is the most like a Rocky film we’ve ever seen with Adonis Creed, and it’s lesser for it.

The story picks up after Creed II, opening with Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) retiring from his career as world heavyweight champion. His wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is a massively successful record producer, having given up her performing career to preserve what remains of her hearing. Creed’s retirement mirrors hers. A lifetime of physical injuries has made it difficult to continue fighting, so he goes into business with former trainer Duke (Wood Harris) to help train the next big boxing champion, Felix (played by real-life boxer José Benavidez Jr.). Sitting still is a tough fit for Adonis, but he’s managing it well enough before a friend from his past makes a surprise reappearance: Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh out of prison and gunning for his own shot at boxing stardom.

Creed is living his best life: a beautiful, supportive wife; a healthy relationship with his daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent); a tricked-out mansion in Los Angeles; and the respect of his peers. The biggest question from the start of the story is how he’ll eventually be maneuvered into the ring to face down Dame fist to fist, and the key to that is what kind of character has been crafted for Majors to play by screenwriters Zach Baylin (King Richard) and Keenan Coogler (brother to Ryan Coogler, director and co-writer of Creed who gets a story credit here). Will Dame be an imposing monster in the ring like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV? A violent up-and-comer like Clubber Lang in Rocky III? What about a combination of those with a healthy dose of Rocky himself — an over-the-hill contender who wants his shot as his own biological clock ticks towards irrelevance? Will this one flip the script on the underdog element?

Each of those traits are part of Dame’s character,  but unfortunately — and despite Majors’ best efforts — none of them settles in long enough to build up a thematic resonance before Dame and Creed start trading blows. Dame essentially serves whatever role the current scene requires of him. As the plot moves forward, events transpire that don’t really make sense even in the moment. In a story about the past returning to haunt Creed, his inability to face past mistakes and make nice with Dame costs him absolutely nothing and means nothing to Dame’s thin character. Adonis’s opponent is ultimately a cipher, which flattens the entire film.

That being said: This is Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut, and he does a great job, particularly with the combat sequences. He’s spoken openly about anime influencing his approach to action and what he means is immediately apparent. Older audiences will likely find his way of getting into Creed’s headspace a tad cartoonish to their tastes, but, well, that’s the point. 

Truthfully, the boxing is so exciting that Creed III is probably best understood on the level of past Rocky sequels — or even, in terms of structure and style, martial arts films, where the threadbare plots stitch together motivations for action showcases. There’s definitely a level of physical mastery on display for both Jordan and Majors, who move beautifully. It may not be gritty and realistic, but it’s cool as hell to watch. 

In a franchise where Creed and Creed II were not so exceptionally well done, Creed III might stand out more as a worthy, “better than the other sequels” Rocky picture. As it stands, it’s a bit of a letdown for the character and the franchise — not necessarily a blemish but a return to form for a series that had mostly become an ego outlet for its previous star. Jordan has already expressed interest in Creed IV, and I hope they take more time with the screenplay to return to the depth and thoughtfulness that made this line of films feel so vital.