Can crowd-pleasing 'Creed' find favor with academy?
Thirty-nine years ago, "Rocky," the rags-to-riches boxing movie that star Sylvester Stallone boasted he wrote in just half a week, won the best picture Oscar, beating "Taxi Driver," "All the Presidents Men," "Network" and "Bound for Glory."
"It's a refreshing change after things like 'Taxi Driver' and 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' -- brilliant pictures, perhaps, but not rooting pictures," "Rocky" supporting actor nominee Burgess Meredith said at the time. "It's the difference between watching a sunset and a snake."
Landing after Vietnam and Watergate, the populist "Rocky" embodied a simpler movie era, when men were men and films typically built toward straightforward, happy, cathartic endings.
Which brings us to "Creed," Ryan Coogler's "Rocky" spinoff that manages both to adhere to the formula of "Rocky" and its long line of diminished sequels and to turn those well-worn grooves into something fresh and exciting.
That "Creed" succeeds so well is a minor miracle, which is why this movie, arriving in theaters on Wednesday, absolutely belongs in the best picture conversation.
Now, for millennials who equate the "Rocky" franchise with ancient times when Neanderthals stumbled around the Earth without the aid of Google Maps, the idea of any "Rocky"-related movie being Oscar-relevant seems ridiculous. And those old enough to remember how the series decayed into a cash grab have reason to be skeptical, too.
That may be why Warner Bros. didn't schedule a Los Angeles academy screening for "Creed," though there is one in New York on Tuesday night.
The guilds, meanwhile, are going crazy for the movie, which follows the late Apollo Creed's son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), as he tries to make a name for himself, on his own terms, as a boxer. To do so, he hires his father's rival and, later, friend, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) to train and mentor him.
It's a familiar story, but in the hands of Coogler ("Fruitvale Station"), who cowrote "Creed" with Aaron Covington, it's thrillingly contemporary, too. It's also a studio-funded movie about a young black man, a young black hero, searching for identity and connection and dignity in a movie that doesn't call attention to race. These days, that's positively radical.
Coogler's use of long takes gives the film an exhilirating energy and the movie, shot by Maryse Alberti and featuring a remarkable sound design, engages as an immersive sensory experience. Audiences around town have been cheering and applauding during the closing credits.
Will it engage enough academy members to become an Oscar contender? That's probably as much a long shot as young Rocky Balboa winning the heavyweight championship. Stallone, tired, tender, should find votes for his supporting work. (Who doesn't love a comeback?) And Jordan absolutely belongs in the lead actor discussion for his empathetic portrait of the troubled title character. It's a star-making turn.
Three years ago, "Skyfall," a superbly crafted entry in an even longer-running franchise, managed to win a Producers Guild picture nomination on its way to five Oscar nominations. Can "Creed" go the extra round? The bell's about to ring.
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