One of Sylvester Stallone’s big acting challenges in Creed comes early on, when he has to pull off the kind of trite joke that could so easily land with a thud. As the aged Rocky Balboa, he scribbles down some simple training advice on a piece of paper for the young boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who promptly takes pictures of it and walks off. “What if you lose it?” Rocky asks. “It’s already in the cloud!” Adonis replies. Rocky gives him a confused look, and then casts his quizzical gaze to the sky. Aha—the Old Man Hasn’t Heard of the Cloud joke! And yet Rocky looks so genuinely befuddled, he defuses the groan-worthy moment entirely. Shouldn’t that scene alone win him an Academy Award?

Stallone, who’s been collecting a slew of prizes for Creed, is considered a strong contender to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor—the first time he’s gotten that kind of attention since the original Rocky came out 39 years ago. In the intervening years, he’s been nominated for 32 Golden Raspberry Awards, which named him “Worst Actor of the Century” in 2000. The contradiction might seem baffling, but Stallone’s remarkable performance in Creed in some ways feels like a response to the countless Rambo and Expendables sequels he suffered through to get to this point—which make his recent work look even better by comparison.

With the Oscars, you can never discount the impact of narrative. Frontrunners this year like Leonardo DiCaprio are being tipped not only for their work on screen, but also for the trials they endured on set, because they’re perceived as being “due” an award, or because they’re well-liked in the industry. With Creed, Stallone took his most beloved character and turned it over to a younger generation—the writer/director Ryan Coogler and Jordan—while himself taking on the supporting role of mentor in the film. The move, which blended Stallone’s humility with reverence for the old days, worked for critics, and the film was a huge box-office hit. So Stallone’s nomination was all but certain, though Creed was disappointingly passed over for other Oscar categories.

In Creed, Stallone’s Rocky is a sweet old coot who wears a porkpie hat and big glasses, and reads the newspaper to the graves of his dead wife and best friend. Rocky was always a likeable doof, but there’s a lot to be said for how Stallone pulls his punches (no pun intended, really) throughout the film. Rocky seems somewhat lost as it begins, going through the motions running an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, and his standoffishness lingers even as he trains young Adonis (spoilers for the film to follow). When he’s handed a cancer diagnosis, he accepts it as the end, but the emotional turning point of Creed is Rocky realizing there’s still reason for him to stick around. Stallone never overplays that—his monologues and kernels of wisdom are always mumbled half-thoughts, but there’s a slow energy to his performance that builds throughout.

Stallone’s success in the film owes something to audience goodwill, but even more to Coogler’s great work as a director and writer. Some actors can transform any mediocre script into gold, but Stallone has never been one of them. His best-remembered work—the first Rocky, the low-key horror of First Blood—perfectly tapped into Stallone’s onscreen presence but also gave him real material to work with. No one who’s seen these films can forget his monologue in Rocky about how he and Adrienne “fill gaps,” or his breakdown at the end of First Blood.

The same can’t be said for any of his other material: the interminable Rocky and Rambo sequels, ’80s crime nonsense like Cobra, creaky comedies like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. By the time the mid-’90s rolled around, Stallone’s nadir as a star came with films like Judge Dredd, where he proclaimed “I AM. THE LAW!” to the sky like some tinpot Mussolini. There were solid moments—the knowing sci-fi satire Demolition Man, the subdued crime drama Cop Land—but they were buried under decades of poor decisions.

Stallone has since carved out a new career with winking action comedies like The Expendables, which served up perfunctory explosions and bloody violence while knowingly trading on his image as a Hollywood fossil. With Creed, Coogler did the latter and yet conjured far greater work out of Stallone. There are a couple of nods to the audience’s nostalgia, but the film’s real success comes from remembering that Rocky is a character first, an icon second. The characters, rather than the cameras, treat him with reverence. Maybe all Stallone needed was for a director to tell him it was okay to act with restraint, but whatever Coogler did, it worked. While it’s impossible to discount the effect Stallone’s previous work has had on audience’s expectations, the bottom line is that his work in Creed stands up both in a vacuum and against the rest of his career. What more could a Hollywood veteran ask for?