One of the most talked-about stories heading into 2016’s Oscar season was Sylvester Stallone finally winning that elusive Oscar for his reprisal of his most iconic role, Rocky Balboa, in Creed. Despite writing and starring in the original 1977 Best Picture winner, Stallone never won an Oscar himself, and was never considered a serious enough actor to have another legitimate shot for the next 40-so years. 2016 gave us the real-life Rocky starring in a real-life Rocky story, finally getting Oscar gold to cement his legacy as one of Hollywood’s most notable stars.
But, in typical Rocky-esque fashion, Stallone lost. Mark Rylance won the award instead for his soft-spoken performance in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War-thriller Bridge of Spies, leaving Stallone’s future shots at an Oscar relatively slim. Who knows, he may write or direct or star in some Oscar baby in the next dace, or the academy may give him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award as his life’s Oscar, but that seems unlikely since Stallone’s career is known more for box office blockbusters than critically-acclaimed awards babies. But Stallone showed in 2016 that he is still the true winner because he went the distance with Creed.
In Creed, we meet Adonis, a troubled youth who picks fights in juvie before being adopted by the widow of his late-father, the legendary Apollo Creed. We watch the head-strong, arrogant Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan of Fruitvale Station and The Wire fame, travel from L.A. to Philly to train with the Italian Stallion himself. He’s wary of revealing his identity as his father’s bastard son, hoping to climb through the boxing world through his own merit instead. Adonis is initially enticed by fancier boxing institutions but Rocky is more keen of a grittier training method: running laps around Philly, punching bags in decrepit gyms and catching manic chickens in Balboa’s backyard. All of the training scenes keep our attention throughout as we see a title-worthy fighter crafted before our eyes.
The movie shines brightest in its beautifully choreographed fight sequences. In Adonis’ first bout, director Ryan Coogler shoots it all in one cut with his actors dancing around the camera like expert ballerinas, miraculously never hitting its lens since we’re so up close. The final bout is more reminiscent of earlier Rocky films, with moments of near-defeat and flashbacks to the past parading the screen in between punches thrown. Warn your roommates and neighbors before watching this fight, though, because you will be screaming when Adonis nails his final punch.
The movie is strong at its emotional core too, with Adonis’ blooming romance with a hard-of-hearing musician next door, and a cancer diagnosis for Balboa that makes both appreciate their relationship and time on earth. It’s these moments where Adonis finds his heart lurking behind all of that muscle. No fancy robot butlers or cheesy training montages that defined the Rocky sequels of the 80s are necessary. We just get a few Philly cheesesteaks with some tasty human pathos as condiments.
Creed succeeds, though, because it simultaneously feels exactly like a Rocky movie and nothing like one. Every Rocky movie is essentially the same formula with minor details changed every time: underdog fighter (Rocky, Adonis Creed, the weird guy from the fifth one) gets once-in-a-lifetime shot at legendary opponent (Apollo Creed, Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, the weird guy from the fifth one). Sometimes he wins, often times he loses, but he always goes the distance.
Creed the same Rocky DNA but different flesh that has been injected with new life, showing that this once lumbering franchise from the 80s that had become a parody of itself, might still have a few rounds left in its storytelling bones. 2006’s Rocky Balboa proved that audiences could take this franchise seriously again. Creed proves that it can be great again.