About 20 years ago, I read a movie review in the Star-Telegram saying that actors tended to hit age 40 before making their debuts as directors. There were quite a few examples: Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Denzel Washington, George Clooney.
These days, actors aren’t waiting for that milestone to move behind the camera, and why should they? In the past few years, we’ve seen sparkling directing debuts by Romola Garai (38); Jordan Peele, Megan Park, and Michael Angelo Covino (36); Olivia Wilde, Jonah Hill, and Emerald Fennell (35); Greta Gerwig and Paul Dano (34); and Bo Burnham (28). Currently working on their first features are Taylor Swift (33) and Kristen Stewart (32). There’s no set age when a neophyte becomes ready to direct — don’t make me run out the factoid about Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane at 26, because I’ll do it — and the only way to tell if someone can direct is to watch the results.
This week, 36-year-old Michael B. Jordan officially becomes a director with Creed III, and if his direction is more workmanlike than inspired, he still produces a watchable installment in the series. He returns as Adonis Creed, who has hung up his boxing gloves as one of the sport’s legends and moved back to L.A. with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) to raise their deaf 4-year-old daughter (Mila Davis-Kent) and manage the next generation of fighters. His comfortable life is upended by “Diamond” Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a Gold Gloves-winning amateur boxer who grew up alongside young Adonis in a foster home and went to prison defending him in a street fight in 2002. The ex-con goes straight from prison to Adonis’ gym and not only wants to resume his boxing career despite his advanced age, he wants a title bout against Adonis’ heavyweight champion (José Benavidez Jr.). One comes about in improbable fashion, and everyone except Donnie can see Dame’s heel turn coming. Adonis never visited Dame during his decades in prison. He’s about to pay for that.
Actors who direct themselves sometimes give themselves all the emotional speeches and funny bits and dramatic close-ups. That’s not the case here, as Jordan willingly cedes the spotlight to Majors. The latter makes a better villain here than in the Ant-Man sequel, showing off the moves of a boxer who’s still dangerous even though his discipline has gone to hell, not least because he’s willing to fight dirty. Dame may be out of control, but he’s savvy enough to play Adonis’ guilt for all it’s worth, and when he learns that Bianca hasn’t been told about his and Adonis’ troubles growing up, Dame uses that to drive a wedge between them. It would be tempting to say that Majors steals this movie, were it not for the fact that the filmmakers have set up Dame to be the guy we watch.
(As for the director/star, he’s somewhat miscast as this version of Adonis, who’s emotionally closed up and doesn’t want his wife to know about his past. Jordan is a great movie star precisely because we know what’s going on with his characters.)
The director is occasionally let down by his script, and his one big swing — the climactic boxing match between Adonis and Dame, in which the crowd disappears and prison bars spring up around the ring — is a visual that we haven’t seen in a hundred other boxing movies, but it doesn’t resonate like it’s supposed to. Despite that, the pace doesn’t drag, the boxing matches are done up so you can follow the action, and a training montage pays tribute to the one from Rocky by having Adonis run up Mt. Lee to the Hollywood sign, because Jordan is as proud of his native SoCal as Sylvester Stallone is of Philly. Creed III doesn’t hit the heights of the first movie in the series, but it proves that Michael B. Jordan can be a director. That and Majors’ performance are what I take away.
Starring Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors. Directed by Michael B. Jordan. Written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin. Rated PG-13.