There are no surprises in Creed, 2015's reboot of the Rocky series. I suppose that this criticism is unfair -- if you are interested in attending this iteration of the venerable series of boxing movies, then, my guess is that you aren't looking for something new or cunning. The underdog formula that motivates these films is always emotionally moving and Creed is no exception. When you see this movie, you will probably shed a half-dozen nostalgic tears and, then, feel slightly ashamed of yourself. But you will respond, probably in spite of yourself, and there is something to be said for a movie as blatantly and unashamedly manipulative as this film.
Creed's ingenuity is exhausted in its first ten minutes. A young man named Johnson is an effective brawler in Tijuana bars -- he has won 15 fights by knock-outs. But Johnson isn't yet ready to relinquish his day-job. He works as an investment banker in an LA skyscraper and lives on a palatial estate -- this is the home of his mother, the widow of the great boxer, Apollo Creed. The young man, named Adonis, is Creed's son by another mother and his pugilistic genetics have driven him to scrapping in hole-in-the-wall Tijuana bars. After winning a bout, he quits his day-job on the eve of a big promotion, travels to Philly and seeks out Rocky Balboa, his pop's old nemesis. At first, Balboa doesn't want to coach the up-and-comer, but, then, he agrees. Large-cell Hodgkin's lymphoma ensues for Rocky Balboa and both the pug and his coach have to fight the biggest battle of their lives while preparing for a 12-round heavyweight match with a Liverpool boxer, Prettyboy Conlon. Conlon is a feral thug, sentenced to prison for a gun violation, and he needs to make one last score before going to the Big House. Meanwhile, Creed, who has now adopted his father's moniker, gets into a fistfight at his girlfriend's concert -- she's an edgy new-wave rap-soul singer, a little like Minneapolis' favorite daughter, Dessa. The course of true love does not run true for a reel and a half (if film's still had reels) and poor Rocky, greatly debilitated by chemotherapy, struggles to rehabilitate his doubting protégée in time for the big fight. Everything in the story follows the formula in tried-and-true fashion. The mean streets of Philly look appropriately gritty, the adversary Conlon is reasonably scary (although not nearly as horrifying as the Russian brute that Rocky fought in one of his films), and there are good shots of the steps leading to the Olympian heights of the Art Museum overlooking the City of Brotherly Love. The soundtrack is inspiring, a combination of heavy concussive dance-beat numbers, strings vibrating among fanfares, and rap music. Everything occurs exactly as you expect that it must. The final fight is grueling and brutal, although, of course, the ending is never in doubt. Stallone mutters inspirational speeches and the youthful boxer is, indeed, inspired by his words -- the film is really a love story between the older mentor and his youthful, rebellious student and the romantic scenes between Creed and his girlfriend feel rushed, perfunctory, and, more or less, uninhabited. The movie is a wee bit ponderous, top-heavy with huge, portentous close-ups and, even, a bit slow-paced and dull. But there is one remarkable sequence -- the hero's first match as a professional in Philadelphia is shot in one continuous take, a sequence of about 9 minutes that is uninterrupted by any cuts. This scene is extraordinarily exciting and has an edge of danger -- the punches look real, the blows land with actual impact, and the film celebrates the athletic beauty of its protagonist, an actor named Michael Jordan. This sequence establishes the movie's credibility -- clearly, the lead actor actually knows how to box, can land a punch and absorb one as well. By contrast, the climactic gladiatorial combat is conventionally staged, the action divided into innumerable cuts and rife with manipulative and obvious reaction shots -- this is effective but doesn't pack the punch of the long take of three rounds boxing action in the middle of the film.