Is it really possible that Creed, the SEVENTH film in the Rocky franchise, could actually be that good? Seriously? For real?
I love the Rocky movies. I love every minute of each and every one, no matter how gloriously awful they've become. I believe the greatest montage in the history of film occurs at the beginning of Rocky III right after Rocky Balboa defeats Apollo Creed in the rematch of the century to become the Heavyweight Champion of the world. The music swells with that familiar piece that climaxes every Rocky fight. Just as Balboa raises the belt and proclaims, "Yo Adrian, I did it!", the uplifting horns of Bill Conti's "Going the Distance" fade into the iconic dead string guitar riff of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger". Drums blast. Fireworks explode. Goodbye 70s, hello 80s!
What we see in the next three minutes is not only a plot device to further the narrative, but also an insight into the star's psyche.
We see Rocky Balboa defending his title numerous times; but being the champion also means living the good life, doing endorsements, making appearances and getting comfortable. Contrast that with Clubber Lang (Mr. T) training obsessively and mauling over the competition to be the number one contender.
That montage is so important not just as a turning point in the story of Rocky and Adrian, but also in the real life story of Stallone himself. To say Stallone changed his look a little in the three years between II and III would be an understatement. Who the hell is the fashion plate that appears now? Is that even the same actor? Gone is the thick, pasty brute we saw in the first two films. All of a sudden, this perfectly carved specimen appears. Chiseled, tanned, blow dried.
Just like the fictional Balboa evolved from underdog to champion, Stallone himself went from being struggling actor to the biggest movie star in the world by this point. What we see in the montage: Balboa being seduced by all the fame and fortune is really paralleling what was going on in Stallone's life. Money didn't just go to his head, but showed up on his face and physique.
Three years later was his financial zenith. Has a single actor ever had a bigger year than Stallone did in 1985? His Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV were the second and third highest grossing movies of the year behind only Back to the Future.
However, the Rocky III montage still remains the turning point in both the film franchise and in Stallone's career. American films in general were going through an evolution. Gone was the raw minimalism and character-driven realism of the seventies as seen in the first two Rockys. Screw that, the Reagan era eighties were about kicking ass! A new capitalist regime was in town and those who made movies weren't interested in making art films about real life anymore. They were interested in making popcorn blockbusters. And this is exactly the point where the Rocky franchise took a turn from original human dramas, to formulaic cartoony action pics.
The montage was the crossroads. The point where art met commerce. Unfortunately, commerce kicked art in the balls and went on its way.
The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies has a theory: "Back around 1975, a young Sylvester Stallone made a deal with the Devil. Sly would get to write and star in one of cinema's masterworks (Rocky of course) and in return, would have to spend the rest of eternity humiliating himself with the likes of Judge Dredd and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot."
The point I'm trying to make is that Stallone drove his franchise into the ground himself. He wrote all six films and directed four of them.
That is until Creed.
Yes, this is the first film in the entire franchise that is not written by Stallone.
And the first time since the original Rocky nearly forty years ago, a film from the franchise is receiving huge accolades, showing up on Year End "10 Best" lists and garnering... gulp, Oscar talk!
Okay that's a jab at Sly, but seriously, I think expectations had a little something to do with it. Six months ago if I told you yet another boxing movie would be getting Oscar buzz this year, most would have expected Southpaw to be that one. But that movie seemed tired and familiar where Creed felt fresh and exhilarating.
After making us laugh unintentionally with the universally panned Rocky V (1990), Stallone put his saga to bed. Sixteen years later, he resurrected it with Rocky Balboa (2006), which under-performed; so we all thought, okay, he's done now, right? What could he possibly have left to say? Everyone's basically dead now. So hearing word that he was going to that well once again with Creed, all I could think was, REALLY?
You can imagine my surprise to find out that this movie is actually good! But, exceeding expectations doesn't necessarily mean the movie's one of the best of the year.
The success of writer/director Ryan Coogler's Creed is the ability to pay homage to the franchise without leaning too heavily on it. The material is strong enough as its own film and not just in the context of the franchise, but does connect the dots just enough. You don't need to see the other films to understand what's going on, but it will make you want to see them. And that's a sign of a great film. It's hard to make a film that feels both familiar and fresh in just the right way. Creed's greatest triumph is elevating the franchise to a place where it hasn't been in quite some time.
Yet the biggest surprise for me was the performance from Sly himself. Stallone's mannerisms have been so familiar for so long, it's almost impossible for him to act without sounding like he's doing an impersonation... of himself!
Which makes his performance in Creed a revelation. It's quiet and understated, and with the guidance of director Ryan Coogler he's able to remain restrained during the big emotional scenes. It's real, raw, and beautifully touching. Kudos to Stallone for having the maturity and sense of security to surrender himself to someone else's vision. It may be his best performance ever, and could very well win him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He's got my vote in his corner.
It's not quite at the same level, but it's very similar to Jack Nicholson's performance in About Schmidt (2002) -- another actor who had been phoning in performances for years relying on cheap tricks like grinning and eyebrow raising. Then, all of a sudden we get a vulnerable, mature performance that comes right out of left field and is a total departure for the actor.
Creed is shaping up to be this year's "crowd pleaser" Best Picture nominee a la The Blind Side (2009). It's not a perfect film. There are some familiar plot points that are difficult to avoid like a female love interest, and the old "will he or won't he train me" story line. It may lack the creative ingenuity of other possible Best Picture contenders like Inside Out or Mad Max: Fury Road. Nor does it have the social relevance of something like Straight Outta Compton. But what it does have are characters you really care about, compelling drama that doesn't seem forced, and a huge dose of heart.
Which sounds an awful lot like the 1976 original.
It's both a throwback to an earlier time and a look to the future. It's another crossroads for the franchise.