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film review

A scene from Creed.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

A young boxer with something to prove teams up with a veteran trainer and signs on for the fight of his life against a reigning world champ who looks all set to destroy our spunky hero. You've heard this tale often, most obviously in the original Rocky movie, the inspiring underdog tale that launched many less-inspired sequels. Now Creed, the seventh in the series, replays the original plot, but this time Sylvester Stallone has finally handed over the gloves to the next generation.

His long-delayed transformation into a trainer is believable enough, as is the movie that surrounds him – but no more than that. For the first time in the series, Stallone did not write the script, yet director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington aren't exactly brimming over with fresh ideas: Worn thin with repetition, the sentimental old premise muffles suspense and dampens emotion.

After a bit of back story, the movie begins as the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed comes looking for Rocky Balboa, hoping his dead father's old brother-in-arms will train him. Rocky, who has lost his wife and his fortune in previous movies, is now running the family restaurant and living alone in the same working-class neighbourhood in north Philadelphia from which he sprang. After some requisite foot-dragging, he quickly returns to the gym to help Adonis (a.k.a. Don) Johnson (soon to be known as Creed) prepare for a quick-knock down of a local tough. Soon, they've agreed to a bigger fight against "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, a British world champ who needs the publicity after a brush with the law.

Stallone looks like a wreck, but more in the manner of a man who has gone 12 rounds with his plastic surgeon than one who has battled Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago. Still, the casting works well enough, he's old and lumbering and he owns the character of the good-hearted, marble-mouthed boxer, now plausibly diminished as he lives out a lonely retirement without the sense of purpose that raised him above the streets in the first place.

Meanwhile, Michael B. Jordan is a pleasant presence as the striving new Creed, but the title character is both confused and confusing. In the film's opening scenes, we get a bracing glimpse of a juvenile detention centre indistinguishable from a prison and are told Apollo Creed's offspring from an affair has spent the years after his mother's death here or in foster homes. Then he's rescued by Creed's magnanimous widow who lives in a Los Angeles mansion where we meet up with him a decade later. Supposedly this boy is the bastard son striving to prove his legitimacy, but he looks like he's spent the second half of his young life cuddling in the family's very luxurious lap.

Neither the director nor Jordan himself can figure out if the new Creed has any street cred, and the notion that this buff young gentleman is going to beat anyone in the ring evaporates the minute the actor appears beside real-life boxers, in particular the Liverpool heavyweight Tony Bellew, who plays "Pretty" Ricky – very effectively – as an intensely focused Merseyside thug.

A compelling Tessa Thompson plays Don's neighbour and love interest, a club singer with progressive hearing loss, and their frank, contemporary scenes along with the love-worn Philly setting add a certain much-needed naturalism to the equation. Cooger adds a few visual flourishes – a fire eater appears in a darkened arena; Philly youth pull wheelies on their motor bikes – that give Creed a bit of new style, but mainly the movie is same old same old.

It ends as the trainer and his protege climb those famous steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – very, very slowly. Both Rocky and Stallone know better than to embarrass themselves here; the rush of the original ascent is a thing of the past.

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