Awesome ‘Rocky’ movie — without Rocky

“Rocky” is one of the only decades-old film franchises out there to which I say: Keep making more, please.

The pulse-pounding “Creed III” is the ninth movie in the series. And although there is nary a mention of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in this one, the indomitable spirit, grit and heart that made the 1976 original a surprise hit is still alive — 47 years later.

movie review

Running time: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense sports action, violence and some strong language). In theaters.

How remarkable that these stories continue to be so gripping.

The audience knows exactly what’s going to happen every minute, and yet we are under its spell right until the end, like a favorite childhood bedtime story — in which two angry dudes knock each others’ teeth out.

Brilliant star Michael B. Jordan does double-duty in “III,” returning to play Adonis Creed and directing a film for the first time — the man is a champ at both athletics and aesthetics.

These days Adonis, who heroically became World Heavyweight Champion, is retired and famous, like a Tom Brady or Roger Federer, and mostly enjoying the quiet life as a dad and supportive husband of music producer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in Los Angeles. 

Michael B. Jordan acts as both director and Adonis Creed in "Creed III."
Michael B. Jordan acts as both director and Adonis Creed in “Creed III.”
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Our-guy-taking-a-breather is a challenging moment for any “Rocky” movie.

The hero has not only conquered the metaphorical stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — he’s sitting at the top of them in a La-Z-Boy.

How, then, this time around, can the jaded top dog convincingly return to being the inspiring underdog? 

Enter Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors). At the start of “III,” during a flashback to 2002, teen Adonis is the right-hand man of rising-star fighter “Diamond Dame,” and the two get caught up in a violent tussle outside a liquor store.

Back in the present day, Dame has just gotten out of prison and shows up unannounced at Adonis’ boxing gym to say he wants to fight again professionally.

Wracked with guilt about that awful night from their past, Adonis lets him in — inadvertently throwing his own life into chaos.

Dame (Jonathan Majors) and Adonis (Jordan) have a complicated reunion.
Dame (Jonathan Majors) and Adonis (Jordan) have a complicated reunion.
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s only March, and Majors is already the year’s hardest-working villain. His Kang the Conquerer was by far the best part of the otherwise nauseating “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” two weeks ago.

It’s a major relief to watch Majors snarl and connive as an old friend with an ax to grind in an actually good movie. 

His unnerving, frayed-wire presence lights a fire under Thompson, too.

Worried Bianca senses that Adonis is keeping a dangerous secret about Dame from her as the two work to parent their young daughter, who is deaf.

Their marriage is strained and much more poignant and sensitively written here than it was in the overcomplicated second Creed film.

Majors is already the year's best villain, playing both dangerous Dame and Kang the Conquerer in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."
Majors is already the year’s best villain, playing both dangerous Dame and Kang the Conquerer in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Both struggle with newfound domesticity since they were both at their peak of popularity only a few years earlier when she was still a pop star, and Jordan and Thompson play their household tensions relatably — even from a luxury mansion in Los Angeles.

“Creed” is not suddenly some hushed-tones living-room drama, however.

Adonis gets his training montage and eventually does go back in the ring.

And Jordan — donning the director gloves — has a nifty trick for filming his character’s climatic bout.

It’s a shrewd sequence that eschews loud flashy thrills for breathless psychological intensity.

While “III” is a fairly straightforward movie on its face, its simplicity is of the powerful, biblical sort.

Of course, the “Rocky” franchise has always winked to David and Goliath, but this time, in Donnie and Dame, we get a modern-day Cain and Abel.

Which is which? You be the judge.