For the actor or artist, there’s a big difference between being famous and being iconic. Harrison Ford is both, but his celebrity is clearly built on being involved in two of the biggest film franchises in the history of the artform. Even with excellent work elsewhere, he will always be Han Solo from Star Wars and Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The same can be said for the new superhero class, or individuals stars (Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler) building careers based on type.
Then there’s Sylvester Stallone. From the beginning of his days in front of the lens, he turned a broken down boxer named Rocky into Oscar and box office gold. He did the same with a damaged Vietnam vet, and Rambo is still going strong. It’s safe to say that, without either role, the major league multi-tasker (writing, directing, starring) wouldn’t be the international draw he is today. As the reboot of his famed pugilist, Creed, asserts, he didn’t get there by accident.
No, in a weird year when anything goes as far as awards, Stallone may be involved in the conversation like never before. He had very little to do with the movie on the backend (he helped co-writer/director Ryan Coogler refine the script), but as an aging Rocky Balboa, a former fighter on his last legs, he has a legitimate shot at a Supporting Actor nomination. His work here is good, and when surrounded by equally excellent turns for everyone else involved, Creed goes from curiosity to an end of the year delight.
By now, you’ve probably heard the set-up: the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, shown in archival footage), Adonis (an amazing Michael B. Jordan) finds himself at a career crossroads, and looking for enlightenment, he seeks out his father’s one time rival and long standing best friend Rocky for guidance and a bit of training. Naturally, there are burned bridges to mend and a big fight that everything is riding on, but it’s the bits in between, the interaction between the old man and the young man where Creed finds its truths. It may not be perfect, but when it gets things right, it truly is exhilarating.
In fact, Creed proves that old formulas and tired clichés can be given new life as long as everyone involved is sincere in making these movie tropes work. That’s the reason Rocky won Best Picture almost 40 years ago. The tale of a down on his luck boxer looking for redemption in the ring has been around since Jackie Cooper unleashed a torrent of tears for Wallace Beery in 1931’s The Champ. We wrap out selves in the comfort of the familiar, finding ourselves smiling when Stallone channels the lovable oaf who started this.
Make no mistake about it, though, Creed is not some elegy to a fallen superstar. As he did with Fruitvale State, Coogler wants to tell a story about characters, using one we know and one we remember as part of the process. This is very much Adonis’ journey, an attempt by a troubled boy to find the kind of salvation and self-definition his father did. It’s interesting that when we first meet this young man, he’s heading up in the world. He’s doing well at his financial firm, and has been taken in by Creed’s widow (a good Phylicia Rashad) even though he was the product of an affair.
Something is simmering inside Adonis, however. There’s a need that only regular trips to the underground boxing matches of Tijuana can fulfill. When he goes off to Philadelphia to make a name for himself, he runs into Rocky, and before you know it, it’s back to the days of training montages and hard fought life lessons. It’s all in the name of defeating a viable villain named “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) whose getting one last fight before heading off to prison. Sure, it sounds like every Rocky installment that came before, but Coogler knows how to spin it and make it his own.
As for Stallone, he has an entire franchise of baggage to work with and he does so with such grace and aplomb that you wonder where his career would have gone had he simply dropped the hero histrionics and found more ways to channel that endearing Everyman quality this character has into other roles. He also counts on the audience for a bit of the heavy lifting, especially their memories of wife Adrian, brother-in-law Paulie, and former trainer Mickey. Rocky here is a man alone, and Adonis helps fill a void left by the man’s MIA son (in Canada, and not in dad’s current frame of reference).
If someone had told you that a new Rocky movie, made without Stallone’s ham-fisted approach to cinema, would end up being one of the better films of the year, you’d think they were punch drunk. However, it’s exactly because new eyes brought Creed to the screen that we can understand how powerful the original film was, and how iconic Stallone and the character have become.