A Rocky sequel? For Best Picture? Believe it.BY KATEY RICHYou’ve heard the story a thousand times. A contender nobody saw coming—a newcomer, an underdog, an oddball nobody knew what to do with—enters the ring in the 11th hour, and blows them all away. It’s the story of Rocky Balboa that won a best-picture Oscar in 1976. And now it’s the story of Creed, as critics begin to weigh in on what might be the next emotional boxing drama to win over the public and the Academy alike.
A reunion between Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, Creed is aRocky . . . spin-off? Sequel? Somewhere in-between, maybe; Sylvester Stallone is there, bringing remarkable depth to yet another turn as the Italian Stallion, and Jordan is playing Adonis Johnson, illegitimate son of Rocky’s old nemesis and eventual friend Apollo Creed. But Stallone is here strictly as support for the younger class, settling into the Burgess Meredith trainer role and allowing the remarkable Jordan to carry the film.
The fact that he carries it so nimbly, and with such a startling combination of ferocity and tenderness, isn’t a surprise for anyone who saw Fruitvale Station or even Jordan’s turn on Friday Night Lights. But it’s still an enormous boon to Creed, a brawny and fairly traditional sports movie that excels with every surprisingly emotional punch. In a year when it had looked very possible, once again, that every single acting Oscar nominee would be white (cue #oscarssowhite), Jordan represents an opportunity for the Academy to look toward a more diverse, younger, better future. At 28, he’s still young for a best-actor winner (Adrien Brody was the youngest-ever winner at 29), but don’t rule him out, either; in a best-actor race that’s still fairly open until we see Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant, a push for Jordan could go far.
As a sport drama opening Thanksgiving weekend, in between The Hunger Games and Star Wars, Creedseemed to have potential (Fruitvale Station made a promising but ultimately unrealized run for the awards in 2013), but with a high risk factor: tampering with Rocky is no small thing, and did anyone really ask for another Rocky movie anyway? But the film is so successful that nearly anything now seems possible, and wouldn’t it be perfectly in the spirit of Rocky for Creed to surprise everybody in other categories, too? Our critic Richard Lawson will weigh in shortly with a full review, but in the meantime, let us turn our focus back to Oscar. A few other places where Creed oughta be a contender:
Best Picture. The legacy of Rocky remains strong, even four sequels later, and Creed does an excellent job of connecting itself to its best-picture-winning history (and maybe less to its Ivan Drago years). Boxing movies are weirdly sticky with the Academy—remember how Million Dollar Baby came out of nowhere to surprise everyone in 2005?—and with the fizzling of the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Southpaw, there’s not much competition in that arena. Maybe most important, only The Martian can match Creed for its populist, crowd-pleasing joys matched with quality—and with as many as 10 best-picture nominees possible, there’s more than enough room for both.
Best Director. We could refer you back to the #oscarssowhite problem, but Ryan Coogler’s direction stands alone by any measure. As he did with Fruitvale Station, he brings the camera inside the mind and spirit of a main character who is not always emotionally forthcoming, and in scenes of intimacy—especially when Adonis and girlfriend Bianca (a very good if underused Tessa Thompson) are getting to know each other—he brings the audience in even closer. That works in the ring, too; one fight in the middle of the film happens in a single take, or at least appears to, so seamlessly that it feels like watching a magic trick. Youth may work against Coogler as well—the director category is even less traditionally friendly to young upstarts—but the Academy ought to seize the opportunity to recognize this emerging talent early.
Best Supporting Actor. Creed plays with the notion of Rocky Balboa as a real person in our world so effectively that you start to believe it—there’s a real Rocky statue in Philadelphia that we see seemingly real tourists snapping selfies in front of, and everybody in town recognizes Rocky probably as much as they would know the real Stallone. The role is written as a victory lap, but Stallone brings much more to it; it’s clear how much this character still means to him, but also how generous he is as a performer in support of Jordan. Sylvester Stallone hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since the original Rocky, and who doesn’t love a veteran’s comeback narrative?
Best Original Score. This may not even be possible, given the way that Creed plays with and ultimately revives the original, iconic Rocky score (Academy rules about “original” in this and the song categories are notoriously brutal). But who cares! The way composer Ludwig Göransson plays with, sets up, teases, then finally brings in those blaring trumpets is nearly as satisfying as a triumph in the ring itself. You can’t get through Creed without wanting to hear “Ba BUM ba da DUM ba da DUM da da DUM” and raise your fists in the air, so if bringing back “Gonna Fly Now” costs them Oscar eligibility, it will have been worth it.