This Thanksgiving, Sylvester Stallone returned in Ryan Cooger’s Creed to play the iconic palooka Rocky Balboa for the seventh time. Standing easily as one of the greatest performances of his career (it’s hard to top the original Rocky), the film beautifully bookends the man’s work up to this point. Even better, it opens up new, exciting possibilities. More specifically, the film, Stallone’s performance in it, and his personal and professional experiences up to this point, are catalysts that should push him to make his much-discussed yet never produced biopic of Edgar Allan Poe.
Creed is an Oscar contender; there’s no question about it. Cooger’s sensitive, intimate yet muscular directing and writing, paired with a trio of great performances, should put it into competition with other cinematic heavies of the year. Of course, this doesn’t mean it will necessarily be nominated for anything – much less win. The only point here is that Creed should be in the conversation, and already is if one looks at reviews and overall buzz.
What’s significant – at least in regards to this conversation – is what a serious critical and commercial success could do for the later stages of Sly Stallone’s career. Despite being catapulted to superstardom relatively early in his career, Stallone burned himself out by the early-2000s, appearing in the loathsome direct-to-video releases Avenging Angelo and Eye See You. Following these failures, he quickly regrouped with the respectful film Shade in a supporting role and new installments of his most famous creations: Rocky Balboa in 2006 and Rambo in 2008. The financial goodwill these generated was then augmented by the release of Stallone’s Expendables franchise and modestly lucrative action films like Escape Plan ($137 million gross against a $50 million budget).
Creed has the potential to go much further. It is already critically and commercially successful, poised to easily make $100 million (against a $35 million budget) and has been ranked as one of the year’s best films. Stallone has already even won a major critics award, Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review.
It’s difficult to truly say that one can film can reverse the course of Stallone’s 40 year career, which has been littered with bad decisions. Career resurgences are notoriously finite and often unsustainable, a fact immortalized in the trajectories of John Travolta, Eddie Murphy and Mickey Rourke. Of course, this doesn’t mean they are impossible. Just look at Robert Downey Jr., who has been mugging it up for nearly ten years following his 2005-2008 resurgence in films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Zodiac, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder.
This comparison doesn’t really work with the situation of Stallone, who is not Downey Jr. by any stretch of the imagination. Whether it be in terms of age, range or sheer ability, Downey Jr. was better equipped to capitalize on his career resurgence than Stallone. Basically, nobody is going to build a significant franchise around Stallone or entrust him with multi-billion dollar properties like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. Like his character states in one of the best scenes in Creed, he is a person from the past. For Stallone to be successful, he has to leverage this current goodwill strategically and follow the mold of someone like Clooney and Eastwood by redirecting his efforts behind the camera.
Stallone has never been better positioned to make this change. His performance in Creed is so strong, and has been so well received, that it has the capacity to partially wipe the slate clean. Similar to when he made the original Rocky – which disrupted the pattern of him being solely typecast as a heavy – Creed has the ability to at least partially reconfigure the culture’s response to him. It reminds audiences that he does possess gravitas and somewhat mollifies the dumb action star stigma he carries.
Stallone has also been preparing for a more steady career behind the camera for a long time now. Beginning with 1978’s little-seen Paradise Alley, and going forward with the Rocky sequels, 1983’s Staying Alive and the initial Expendables installment, Stallone has carefully been cultivating his own aesthetic. He has been maturing as a director, as noted in this IndieWire posting. From his beginnings, where he cribbed the naturalistic style of his 70s contemporaries, to Rocky Balboa where he charted his own vision with subjective lighting, intriguing framing and pairing film and HD video, there has been a consistent evolution to Stallone’s output.
This evolution also extends to his work’s themes. With each successive Rocky, Stallone was able to find additional thematic layering for his story and characters. Rocky II was an exploration of happiness’s finite quality, not to mention the economic marginalization that comes with relying on your body for employment. Rocky III parsed the relationship between efficacy and necessity, with Rocky losing his “Eye of the Tiger” after experiencing economic success and becoming a arrogant blowhard.
While Rocky IV was more of a fantasy film than anything else, Rocky Balboa showcased Stallone working at the peak of his powers in terms of character-driven thematic content. The film is nowhere near as memorable as the original, and it is far too reliant on nostalgia. And yet, Rocky Balboa is a movie about big themes, such as mortality, regret and the horror of the aging body. It should be noted that these aren’t always grappled with in a truly genuine way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his decision to depict Rocky, at nearly 60 years old, attempting to head back into the ring for one more round. While Stallone admirably attempts to connect this desire to the losses Rocky experienced between Rocky V and Rocky Balboa, it never feels fully credible. Stallone’s infatuation with the portentous myth of the character is all too evident, attempting to turn what should have been a dark look at self-destruction into something admirable and inspiring.
Although he didn’t direct or write Creed, the film signals more changes to Stallone the artist and Stallone the man. A better film than Rocky Balboa, Creed presents a wizened Rocky with more realism. It tackles head on that the old pug considers his life essentially over and devoid of purpose, and that he is compelled towards self-destructive oblivion. Stallone should be commended for finally letting go of his ego in Creed. His most famous character has rarely appeared more vulnerable, and the schism between the decaying body and the resilient spirit has never felt more authentic.
These late-period shifts in Stallone’s output are what would lend credibility to him moving into dramatic directing work. This specifically applies to his proposed biopic of Edgar Allan Poe, which the star has been postponing for over ten years. According to Stallone himself, he has experienced enormous difficulty in finding those willing to stake him in this labor-of-love. Being clearly a self-aware individual, he is cognizant of the stigma he carries and the inability for some to take him seriously. While its impossible to know for sure, there is evidence that he himself has adopted these perspectives. When he has talked about Poe there is a noticeable level of self-deprecation, as if he is desperate to manage expectations. In a 2010 statement about the project he even remarked by saying, “No matter what I do it’s going to bomb, totally. Totally!”
The unequivocal pessimism of Stallone’s outlook is unwarranted, simply because the themes and parameters of the Poe project are congruent with his past experience and current capabilities. Stallone has already proven adept at portraying fluid character progression, at showing a character in different stages yet maintaining their core ethos. This is essential for any biopic. It is also easy to understand why the character of Poe appeals to Stallone, and why he is well-suited to evoke the man’s complicated essence. Many of the most successful Stallone characters – such as Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, Freddy Heflin, Gabe Walker and Johnny D. Kovak – feel congruent with the iconoclastic writer. Core Stallone themes and qualities – like alienation, self-doubt, economic desperation and raw ability – unite those characters; all would be essential to Poe’s story.
Yet, Poe should be made now not only because that film would appeal to the unique artistic, intellectual and emotional interests Stallone has cultivated over his long career. It is because this is the moment when Stallone’s professional and economic clout is poised to be stronger than it has in a long time, and where his craft has perhaps never been better (these two qualities have never really been in sync for the filmmaker). Additionally, Stallone hasn’t had the chance to be taken seriously like this in a long time. His work in Creed is a fully-realized dramatic turn, where elements like Stallone’s typical body egotism are not present. Basically, his shirt stays on in Creed. His body is not utilized in a positive or heroic fashion, barring one glorious scene where he takes to the speed bag with Michael B. Jordan.
Despite these conducive factors and encouraging signs, it remains to be seen if Stallone can convince himself to move into the uncharted waters that Poe represents. Always a man of intense contradiction, Stallone has spoken throughout his life of moving his career into new arenas, yet has been unable to truly commit. This was evident in 1979 when Stallone said in an interview with the late Roger Ebert that following the third Rocky film (which would eventually be made in 1982) he was going to retire the character and focus on “movies about love relationships.” He followed this by remarking that he desired to “explore the female psyche” where some “interesting discoveries” would be made.
Stallone’s desire to diversify is also clearly seen in his filmography, where he attempted to branch out with comedies like Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and more straight dramas like 1987’s Over the Top and 2001’s Driven. Perhaps the colossal failure of these efforts are what fueled his current reticence. But, to quote his most famous character, life is all about “how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Now is the best time for Stallone to make that move. He may not get another one. He has to finally go for it, because “That’s how winning is done!”