The entrance to the Philadelphia Museum Of Art sits atop 72 of the most famous stone steps in the world. They were immortalized by director John G. Avildsen and writer-star Sylvester Stallone in the 1976 movie Rocky. In the film’s signature scene, Stallone’s eponymous hero, a club fighter preparing for an unlikely bout with the heavyweight champion of the world, finishes a grueling training regimen by leaping up the Art Museum stairs, raising his arms in triumph as Bill Conti’s memorable score crescendos.
It’s a beautiful, inspiring moment. But the steps didn’t become iconic simply because they were featured in Rocky. They became iconic because they were featured in the movie twice.
Everyone remembers Rocky’s oft-imitated training montage, with its freeze-frame finale on the so-called “Rocky Steps.” But no one talks about the first time through, when Rocky barely makes it to the top. He’s out of shape, and he’s gasping for breath when he reaches the summit. But he perseveres, and eventually, he runs the steps with ease. That’s why the Art Museum is the perfect symbol for Rocky’s ambitions in his fight with the champ. He knows he can’t beat him, so he just wants to “go the distance”—last all 15 rounds without getting knocked out. That’s why it’s also the perfect symbol for all six Rocky movies; time and again, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against him, Rocky just won’t quit. For him, survival is just as good a victory as a knockout.
The same goes for Stallone. When he appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman in October to promote his recent film Escape Plan, Sly was introduced with an astounding statistic: He’s the only man alive who’s had a No. 1 box-office hit in each of five consecutive decades. It hasn’t always been easy; after his remarkable early success and a long run as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, he bottomed out in the dregs of direct-to-video thrillers. But years after his action-hero peak, Stallone returned to his roots and sparked one of the most remarkable comebacks in movie history. When things looked their bleakest, he rallied for one more climb up the Art Museum steps. This is the story of how Sylvester Stallone went the distance.
|0.0||The Party At Kitty And Stud's (a.k.a. Italian Stallion)||1970|
|2.0||The Lords Of Flatbush||1974|
|3.5||Death Race 2000||1975|
|3.0||Farewell, My Lovely||1975|
Stallone needed to call on his reserves of endurance almost immediately upon entering the film business in a disastrous softcore porno called The Party At Kitty And Stud’s (later recut and retitled Italian Stallion in a blatant post-Rocky cash-grab by the movie’s rights holders). Stallone plays Stud, a man who walks around in the snow, punches mirrors, and makes frequent, scrotum-baring love to his girlfriend Kitty. Their bizarre, nightmarish embraces are the cinematic equivalent of an ice-cold shower; so grotesquely unsexy, they could drive a nymphomaniac to become a born-again Christian. Under any title, the movie should be avoided at all costs.
Appearing in something as horrifically terrible as The Party At Kitty And Stud’s might have crushed a weaker-willed young actor. Stallone pressed on. It wasn’t easy for a while; he went years between jobs, and the roles he did get were small and one-dimensional. Initially, Hollywood was only interested in him as a physical presence. Most of his pre-Rocky roles were cameos or one-scene supporting performances as thugs or hired muscle. In Farewell, My Lovely, he beats up Robert Mitchum, sleeps with a prostitute, and shoots her madam without a single meaningful line of dialogue. In The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, he plays a mugger who can’t outrun 50-year-old Jack Lemmon after stealing his wallet. For a fitness freak like Stallone, who had been obsessed with bodybuilding and exercise since he saw his first Steve Reeves Hercules movie as a child, that must have been almost as embarrassing as The Party At Kitty And Stud’s.
Even his meatier roles came in exploitation films. Roger Corman cast him as the cartoonish “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo in Death Race 2000, where he drove a car mounted with guns and knives. In 1975, Stallone was cast as Frank Nitti opposite Ben Gazzara in a tawdry biopic of Al Capone. When Capone gets reckless, Nitti swoops in and assumes command of his Chicago mob. It was the first of many movies in which Stallone enacted a twisted, unhealthy mentor-protégé relationship, although the rest came later with the roles reversed, after Stallone was established in Hollywood.
At 28, Sly was already way too old to play the role of high-school troublemaker, but his ear for authentic working-class conversations was an asset to 1974’s The Lords Of Flatbush, a Brooklyn-centric variation on the nostalgic teen dramedy that became a subgenre in the wake of 1973’s American Graffiti. Stallone played Stanley Rosiello, a member of a crew of greasers, and even convinced the film’s directors to let him write his own dialogue. True to early-career form, Stallone is the meathead of the group, but he also has several scenes with his girlfriend Frannie (Maria Smith), who demands he marry her after she gets pregnant. Stanley looks and sounds like Rocky Balboa, but he’s missing one key ingredient: his sweetness. He’s a tragic figure in some ways, but not a likable guy. When it was time to write a part for himself, Stallone made that one key change. Left to his own devices, he didn’t play a heavy. He played a heavy with heart.
|4.5||Rocky (also writer)||1976|
|3.0||F.I.S.T. (also co-writer)||1978|
|3.5||Paradise Alley (also writer, dir.)||1978|
|3.5||Rocky II (also writer, dir.)||1979|
The first draft of Stallone’s Rocky screenplay, written in a three-day, caffeine-fueled marathon, grafted Stallone’s own anxieties and frustrations about his career—he, like Rocky, was underestimated and pigeonholed as a brainless goon—onto the real story of boxer Chuck Wepner, who was plucked from obscurity to fight Muhammad Ali in 1975. Physically outmatched but blessed with an iron jaw and fierce determination, Wepner managed to knock Ali down, and survived until the final seconds of the 15th and final round, when Ali finally scored a technical knockout.
As the legend goes, the finished screenplay for Rocky was one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood, but Stallone refused to sell it to anyone who wouldn’t let him play the lead role. When Robert Redford wanted to star in the film, producers offered Stallone $360,000 for his screenplay, the equivalent of almost $1.5 million today. He wouldn’t budge. At the time, he had $106 in his bank account. Later in his career, Sly happily took big paydays to make bad movies, but when it mattered most, he held on to his artistic integrity.
What Rocky became after five increasingly outlandish sequels has largely overshadowed what Rocky originally was. The later movies were formulaic sports films about an underdog American hero; the first Rocky is more like an Italian neorealist character study with a brief boxing match at the end. Stallone’s screenplay and Avildsen’s direction focus much more on the bleak realities of day-to-day-life in dead-end Philadelphia: collecting debts for a low-level mob boss (Joe Spinell), fighting to keep a locker at the local gym, trying to coax the shy Adrian (Talia Shire) out of her shell. We forget how the film underplays all its “biggest” moments; you can barely hear the judges’ decision after the match because Rocky and Adrian are professing their love for each other.
“True to form, the king still refuses to give up his throne. It simply isn’t in his nature.”
More than an hour of the film passes before the champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), sets the fight with Rocky. Before that, Rocky’s battle, like Stallone’s, is for respect. The film’s first line, spoken by Rocky’s corner man, is “You’re waltzing. Give the sucker some action. You’re fighting like a bum.” Even after emerging victorious in that opening fight (which nets him a pathetic $40.55), a lady in the crowd still calls him a bum. After Rocky goes home, he takes a long hard look at himself in the mirror, focusing intensely on a photo hanging nearby of himself as a child, as if he’s trying to convince himself that she’s wrong. Going the distance would prove he’s somebody.
Rocky went the distance, too, winning Best Picture and Best Director at the 1977 Academy Awards. Stallone lost the Best Actor prize to Network’s Howard Beale, but he gave a fantastic performance. He became famous for “Yo Adrian!” but he shines in the subtleties as well; his wry smile at his own corny jokes, and his constant sniffling in the harsh Philadelphia weather. Looking only at Stallone’s recent work, it’s easy to dismiss him as a one-dimensional cartoon giving the suckers some action. Looking back at the original Rocky, it’s easy to see why it made him a star.
Riding high on critical accolades and commercial success, Stallone chose to follow Rocky with a pair of ambitious movies: F.I.S.T., the decades-long saga of a Cleveland labor union, and Paradise Alley, the story of three brothers in Depression-era Hell’s Kitchen who get into the wrestling business. Stallone co-wrote the former (from an original screenplay by Joe Eszterhas) and wrote and directed the latter; both films are about poor underdog strivers in the Rocky mold, but both films go further than Rocky, which ended precisely at the moment of the character’s triumph, to consider the hazardous ramifications of success. In F.I.S.T., after Stallone’s idealistic labor leader Johnny Kovak rises through the ranks of the Federation of Interstate Truckers, the film leaps forward 20 years, to show the character as older man of compromised morals. In Paradise Alley, a pair of brothers, Cosmo (Stallone) and Lenny (Armand Assante), convince a third brother to become a wrestler at a club called Paradise Alley. He’s a great grappler, but the dirty, violent racket threatens to tear the family apart.
In both films, Stallone showcases an easy charisma worthy of his nickname—Sly—but neither movie came close to replicating Rocky’s astronomical success with critics and audiences. It quickly became clear that Stallone was so identified with Rocky that many viewers didn’t want to see him as anything else. In a feature written during this period, Roger Ebert describes crowds of fans following Stallone around Philadelphia and chanting his name—“Rocky!” not “Stallone!” So Stallone gave the fans what they wanted and wrote, directed, and starred in Rocky II, but he incorporated themes from F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley, about his uneasiness with winning while he did.
Rocky II picks up its hero’s story minutes after the first film’s conclusion and quickly chips away at its happy ending. Rocky wants to retire (just as Stallone wanted to make other kinds of movies), but he fails at a career as a television pitchman and is forced to step back into the ring for a rematch with Apollo (just as Stallone was forced to step back into the role). The film introduces a lot of the weird obsessions that would work their way through much of Stallone’s career—tigers, headbands—and reworks the original movie on a bigger, glossier scale. There are two training montages instead of one, and the final fight ends in wildly dramatic fashion, with a double knockdown at the end of the 15th round and both fighters racing to get back to their feet before the bell.
But for all its bluster, like its predecessor, Rocky II’s—and Stallone’s—best moments remain quiet ones, like Sly’s moving breakdown at Adrian’s bedside after complications during childbirth. The sequel was another massive hit, the third highest-grossing movie of 1979 behind Kramer Vs. Kramer and The Amityville Horror. Stallone had overcome the first true test of his stardom. Rocky II’s last line was prescient: “Yo Adrian! I did it!”
|4.0||Rocky III (also writer, dir.)||1982|
|3.5||First Blood (also co-writer)||1982|
|2.5||Staying Alive (also co-writer, dir.)||1983|
This is the tragedy of Sylvester Stallone: Success ruined his career. His greatest gift was his knack for gritty gutter stories heavy with autobiographical content. With every hit, he moved further from the world where he was most comfortable and insightful.
Audiences loved him as the tough-but-kindhearted underdog. But as the 1980s began, Stallone started focusing more and more intensely on action, and his own body. As he grew into a bigger star, he literally grew as well, working out even more obsessively, growing even more muscular. His chiseled physique was impressive—and completely contradictory to his initial appeal. Fans loved him as Rocky. More and more, he looked and acted like Apollo. Deliberately or not, he seemed to completely misunderstand his talents.
An emotional hardness began to creep into Stallone’s movies, to match his physical hardness. 1981’s Nighthawks is an effectively bleak thriller about New York City cops chasing an international terrorist named Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer). There’s a funny introduction where Stallone dresses in drag to catch some muggers, but mostly it’s a lean, straightforward picture with an emphasis on big stunts (Stallone hangs on a cable hundreds of feet above the East River) and brutal action. (Wulfgar blows up a department store by hitting on a clerk while he plants a bomb under her feet.) The same year, Stallone expanded from combat sports to soccer with Victory, playing the lone American member of an international team of POWs assembled to play a team of Nazis in the waning days of World War II. His character has a brief romantic subplot with a member of the French Resistance, but otherwise, the film features few women and dwells entirely on the action on and off the pitch.
The difference physically and emotionally between Stallone circa 1976 and Stallone circa 1982 was brought to the foreground by the third Rocky, which had the unenviable task of trying to turn one of the biggest movie stars on the planet back into an underdog. In short order, the movie kills off Rocky’s beloved trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and introduces a ferocious new challenger, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who defeats the unprepared champ. Back at square one, Rocky needs to overcome his guilt about Mickey’s death and his fear that he’s never been a true champion in order to secure yet another improbable victory.
Although this Rocky is barely recognizable as the guy from the first movie (even his thick accent seems to have mostly vanished), Stallone at least maintains the series’ autobiographical bent. Young Rocky’s desire for success has now been replaced by Old Rocky’s pathological fear of losing it. Young Stallone was so intent on starring in the first Rocky that he preferred destitution to wealthy anonymity. Old Stallone was so wracked by insecurity that he wrote himself the soul-baring speech that serves as Rocky III’s emotional climax. “The truth is,” he tells Adrian, “I don’t want to lose what I got. In the beginning I didn’t care about what I had. I’d go in the ring, I’d get busted up, I didn’t care! But now there’s you, there’s the kid. I don’t want to lose what I got!”
Of course, Rocky didn’t lose; Rocky III was another popular hit. Stallone’s transformation from underdog to ubermensch was cemented by his next film, First Blood. Based on a novel by David Morrell, it follows a combat-shocked Vietnam vet who wages a private war against a small-town sheriff who mistreats him. The vet was named John Rambo.
Rambo is an underdog insofar as he’s alone against an entire police force, but that’s where the similarities between Stallone’s two signature characters end. Rocky is a nurturer with a large support group of loved ones. He fills the spaces in conversations with dopey jokes and stream-of-consciousness musings about life. Rambo is a cold-blooded killer who almost never speaks; he has no family or friends. Although he acts in self-defense, he terminates with extreme prejudice.
The desensitization of Stallone would continue in First Blood’s even more violent, even less emotional sequels. But before he got there, Stallone indulged his softer side one last time—with disastrous consequences. Stallone had evidenced a passion for music before, even warbling the theme song to Paradise Alley, so it wasn’t completely unprecedented that he might try to make a musical like Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever he co-wrote and directed. Its hero, Tony Manero (John Travolta), had a lot in common with Rocky, another working-class city dweller with big dreams. On paper, the combination made sense.
On screen, the combination was a disaster. Travolta, buffed out to Stallonian levels, looks lost in this hilariously clueless backstage drama about Tony’s attempt to make it in the high-pressure, heavily Spandexed world of Broadway musicals. In its final moments, when Tony gets his Rocky-esque shot at the big time in a new musical called Satan’s Alley (located, presumably, just down the block from Paradise Alley), the film achieves something like the Platonic ideal of camp. Wearing just a loincloth, boots, and a headband, Travolta karate kicks and hip-swivels his way through a “musical” that involves no singing and no story, but does involve guys dressed like leather daddies whipping him while scantily clad women writhe in the background. Had Stallone ever even seen a Broadway show before he made the movie? It doesn’t look like it.
If Stallone seemed clueless about Broadway, he was clueless about and terrible at country music in 1984’s Rhinestone, which pairs him with Dolly Parton for a woeful farce about a country singer (Parton) who bets her boss (Ron Leibman) that she can turn anyone into a musician. If she wins, he tears up her contract. If he wins, she has to sleep with him.
To his credit, Stallone gave it his all, and evinced an impressive willingness to humiliate himself in the name of entertainment. But the entire plot hinged on Parton turning him into a credible country star, a notion that is even more absurd than the idea of basing a romantic comedy around the looming threat of rape. Parton and Stallone actually have some chemistry together, but Stallone’s comedic talents, like his dramatic ones, are suited to small observations rather than broad physical humor, and the songs, like the ode to alcohol abuse “Drinkenstein,” are thoroughly terrible. It couldn’t get any worse than this (until about 15 years later when it somehow did).
|3.0||Rambo: First Blood Part II (also co-writer)||1985|
|3.0||Rocky IV (also co-writer, dir.)||1985|
|2.5||Cobra (also writer)||1986|
|2.0||Over The Top (also co-writer)||1987|
|2.5||Rambo III (also co-writer)||1988|
|3.0||Tango & Cash||1989|
|2.5||Rocky V (also writer)||1990|
Stallone’s continuing fascination with underdogs and his continuing expansion of his musculature began to produce some truly bizarre films. The only way to maintain this he-man’s status as a scrappy David was to cast him opposite increasingly imposing Goliaths. In 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo returned to Southeast Asia to rescue prisoners of war, his mental trauma conveniently healed after a few years on a chain gang. But his superiors deliberately abandon him behind enemy lines, which means he has to rescue the men and fight his way back to safety, killing hundreds of men all by himself.
Later that same year in Rocky IV, the champ’s new opponent was steroid-enhanced Russian super-boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), whose punches are so strong they kill Apollo Creed. Rocky swears revenge, but his climactic bout with Drago does more than avenge his friend’s death: His stirring refusal to lose actually inspires the hometown Soviet crowd to root for the American. After his victory, Rocky delivers a speech commending the Soviets for their hospitality and encouraging an end to hostilities between the U.S. and Russia; the audience (and Mikhail Gorbachev!) applaud in agreement. In other words, in the span of two films and six months, Sylvester Stallone effectively won and ended both the Vietnam and Cold Wars singlehandedly. (A few years later, he’d give Afghan freedom fighters—including, unavoidably, future Taliban members—a well-toned leg up in their fight with the Soviets in 1988’s Rambo III.)
Through the 1980s, Stallone’s characters grew less nuanced and more focused on violence and death. When they have loved ones at all, they often exist only to die and fuel Stallone’s quests for vengeance—like Apollo in Rocky IV or Rambo’s Vietnamese guide and love interest Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) in First Blood Part II, who sacrifices herself so that Rambo can make a headband out of her dress and get pumped up to kill the Vietnamese. These men are less human beings than living weapons—like Marion Cobretti from 1986’s Cobra, who’s apparently the only cop in the LAPD tough enough to take down a cult of ax murderers.
“Left to his own devices, he would not play a heavy. He would play a heavy with heart.”
Then again, it’s difficult to blame Stallone for his narrowing focus on action; audiences loved those movies and hated the ones where he tried something different. Amid some of the most violent films of his career, he made 1987’s Over The Top, the allegedly heartwarming story of a truck driver fighting for custody of his son while competing in an arm-wrestling tournament. Stallone’s hard-driving, soft-spoken Lincoln Hawk is clearly Rocky-esque, but the awkward mix of domestic drama and sports movie clichés sank the film.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Sylvester Stallone entered his mid-40s, too old to play a world-champion boxer. So he decided to retire his signature franchise with 1990’s Rocky V, the first since the 1976 original directed by Avildsen. Almost instantly, the returning director deflated Rocky’s image of invincibility. In the aftermath of his fight with Drago, Rocky is diagnosed with brain damage, loses his fortune, and is forced to retire to his old neighborhood in Philadelphia, where he reopens Mickey’s gym and starts training young boxers like Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison).
Throughout the film, Rocky weighs the pros and cons of one last fight, spurred out of retirement by a sleazy promoter named George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), who tells Rocky he represents “the dreams of the long shots, the little people, the never-wills that identify with you” and suggests he “sell it while there’s still buyers! It ain’t gonna last forever. You say you’re a fighter? Then fight!” Duke, the villain of the film, actually seems to understand Stallone’s appeal better than Stallone himself during this period.
Rocky dispenses some inspirational slogans—“The only difference between a hero and a coward is the hero is willing to go for it”—and delivers a performance that’s truest, out of any of the sequels, to the lovable but flawed original Rocky. But even with some notable flops, Stallone himself was still riding high as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and the franchise always was best at its most autobiographical; Rocky V is, in some ways, its least personal entry. Its ending might have been poignant had Stallone actually retired. But quitters don’t go the distance.
|0.5||Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot||1992|
|3.0||Cliffhanger (also co-writer)||1993|
With Rocky put out to pasture, Stallone entered the 1990s looking for his next franchise. He spent much of the decade trying out different genres and sub-genres. He experimented with screwball comedy (1991’s Oscar), science fiction (1993’s Demolition Man), erotic thrillers (1994’s The Specialist), comic-book (1995’s Judge Dredd) and disaster movies (1996’s Daylight). But his biggest hit of the period was his most traditional action film, a rock-climbing adventure called Cliffhanger about another typically Stallonian loner searching for redemption after the untimely death of a friend. The plot is totally by-the-numbers, but the high-altitude cinematography is spectacular, and Stallone’s stoic physicality is a good match for the film’s frenetic villain, played by John Lithgow.
Although he’d retired Rocky (at least temporarily), Stallone pushed hard to maintain his credibility as an action hero—and a sex symbol. He started baring his butt onscreen almost as often as his chest and arms. (Curious parties can examine it in 1989’s Tango & Cash, 1992’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and particularly The Specialist, which features a long sex scene with co-star Sharon Stone.) Pushing 50, Stallone was still reluctant to ease himself into more mature roles.
It would be inaccurate to say Sly was mellowing during the early and mid-1990s, but his action movies definitely got less graphic, and began commenting on their own relatively low body counts. 1993’s Demolition Man is about a brutal, Cobra-esque cop from the 1990s who’s cryogenically frozen and thawed out in a sanitized future, where his penchant for mayhem is the only thing that can stop the evil Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). In The Specialist, Stallone plays a bomb expert who quits the CIA after he inadvertently kills an innocent girl, in order to become a mercenary hitman who makes bombs that leave no collateral damage. In 1995’s Assassins, Stallone’s a principled sniper who wants to get out of the contract-killer business.
These movies are still consistently (and sometimes brutally) violent, but they exhibit more effort to contextualize or mitigate that violence, or to argue on a thematic level for its necessity. Stallone is a heroic killer who does the dirty jobs needed to maintain an orderly society. Maybe that’s how he saw himself as he made one bad movie after another: a martyr on the altar of crappy action films, sating our collective bloodlust so that others didn’t have to.
Even as Stallone tested out new genres, he stayed away from the thing that made him a star in the first place: low-budget movies about down-and-out characters looking for their one chance to make good. He finally returned to his roots and showed off his rarely utilized range in 1997’s Cop Land, written and directed by James Mangold. Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, a small-town sheriff in a Northern New Jersey town that’s just over the river from Manhattan, and home to some of New York’s City’s least-finest cops. Meek, lonely, and chubby, Freddy is a Rocky figure who never got his title shot; after losing most of his hearing as a young man, he was deemed unfit for the NYPD and settled down as a Garden State lawman instead. But when his town’s dirtiest residents cover up a crime, Freddy gets his chance at redemption.
Gaining or dropping weight is one of the oldest tricks in the book for movie stars looking to prove their “seriousness.” For a fitness nut like Stallone, putting on 40 pounds of flab to play Freddy was an even larger gesture. But Sly still delivers more than a dramatically bloated waistline. Going toe-to-toe with some of the most respected actors of his generation—including Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro—he not only matches them, but exceeds them. His is the most nuanced and believable performance in a movie full of cop-movie stereotypes and caricatures. It’s arguably his best work since the first Rocky.
Cop Land was the sort of movie designed to win awards—or at least a little credibility, something important for the man who was once so desperate to prove he was no bum. But despite decent reviews and an okay box-office take, it never really broke away from the pack of Quentin Tarantino-inspired mid-’90s Miramax crime thrillers. According to its IMDb page, the film won a single award; a Best Actor trophy for Stallone at the 1997 Stockholm Film Festival. Stung by the film’s failure, Stallone returned to action and genre movies. He hasn’t made another bid for respectability.
|0.5||An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn||1997|
|1.0||Driven (also co-writer)||2001|
|2.5||Eye See You||2002|
|2.0||Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over||2003|
When Stallone hosted the 1997 season première of Saturday Night Live, his reputation for stinkers had grown so large the writers built an entire sketch around it. Sly plays himself as a bystander who comes to the rescue of a man (Norm MacDonald) who’s been in a car accident. He tries to free the victim from the wreckage, but Norm can’t stop complaining about his crappy films. “Stop! Stop!” he moans. “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot sucked!” Even Stallone had to admit: His career had seen better days.
It was going to get worse before it got better. His movies of the late 1990s and early 2000s were, at best, unmemorable, like the 1998 animated comedy Antz, in which his voice co-starred with Woody Allen’s, and 2000’s Get Carter, a gloomy Seattle-set remake of the classic British crime film about a man who returns to his hometown to investigate his brother’s death. The character’s catchphrase—“I’m Jack Carter and you really don’t want to know me”—pretty much says it all.
Now well into his 50s, Stallone seemed to acknowledge that he was getting, in the parlance of the genre he’d come to define, too old for this shit. But he also refused to yield the spotlight to younger actors. Increasingly, his films were filled with unworthy protégés, men who look to learn from Stallone but are ultimately deemed unworthy of his knowledge and experience. Call it massive ego or impressive honesty, but his movies of this period reflect the anxieties of a man who realized his time was running short but refused to go down quietly. (There’s that iron jaw again.) Stories that should be about one generation passing its skills on to the next become opportunities for Stallone to upstage his youthful co-stars.
“This is the tragedy of Sylvester Stallone: Success ruined his career.”
Unworthy pretenders to Stallone started to appear in his movies as early as Rocky V—where Tommy Gunn utilizes Rocky’s teaching to become champ, then turns his back on him—and pop up again in Assassins, about an upstart hitman, played by Antonio Banderas, who has studied Stallone’s techniques but refuses to live by his moral code. Stallone educates these men, then schools them when they get out of line and start to believe they can actually replace him. No one in a Sylvester Stallone movie can replace Sylvester Stallone.
The most interesting of these “no-tégés” is Kip Pardue’s Jimmy Bly from 2001’s open-wheel racing movie Driven, which is both deeply autobiographical and intensely terrible. Stallone plays Joe Tanto, a disgraced driver coaxed out of retirement by his old boss (Burt Reynolds) to help instruct and guide Bly, his old team’s new young star. Tanto may be there to make Bly look good, but Pardue and his complete absence of charisma are there to do the exact opposite; to show just how appealing Stallone can still be in the right vehicle.
The movie oscillates between painfully silly race/chase scenes and moments of surprising candor. After Tanto follows Bly through the streets of Chicago in an experimental F1 car, he gives him an inspirational speech to rival the greatest hits of Burgess Meredith: “I don’t have your gift,” Tanto tells Bly, “but I do have a couple things you don’t have: I got will and I got faith. I believe you can will yourself into anything. And faith, that’s like believing in something, man that’s like having a good disease, it’s contagious. If you hang around with people who have it, you’re gonna catch it. And that’s gonna change your attitude. And winning, it’s an attitude.”
The meta-narrative around Tanto recalls Stallone’s own career arc from greatness to the butt of SNL sketches; Tanto’s return to glory by believing in himself is meant to mirror Stallone’s own return to greatness with Driven. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t quite the comeback Stallone had in mind; overly long and often laughably absurd (as in the scene where several drivers leave a race to help a fellow driver out of a car that’s simultaneously submerged under water and on fire) it failed to connect with audiences and critics and was another expensive flop. Apparently you can’t will yourself into anything.
Somehow, Stallone still hadn’t reached bottom. Driven’s meager box-office finally drove Stallone into the world of direct-to-video. 2002’s terribly titled Eye See You (also known by the almost-as-terrible title D-Tox) offers some clear reasons why Stallone’s star had fallen so far. The film is actually set in an interesting locale with the potential for compelling themes: a rehab facility for police officers who’ve suffered life-shattering trauma. But rather that focusing on Stallone’s broken FBI agent character (and his convincingly melancholy performance), the film quickly devolves into an Agatha Christie-style slasher. What could be an unusual, emotional movie becomes a very rote, sterile experience.
At his lowest ebb, Stallone appeared in a supporting role in a tiny indie called Shade, a con-man picture about a bunch of grifters all trying to hustle each other out of a score at a high-stakes poker game. Stallone plays “The Dean,” the greatest card mechanic on the planet, on the verge of retirement. In one scene, he tells an old flame (Melanie Griffith) he’s growing weary with his lifestyle. “I used to love it, everybody wanting a piece of me,” he says. “But these last couple of years, I’m just going through the motions. Getting lazy, not caring, losing my edge. So I say to myself, maybe I ought to retire, go out gracefully before some kid comes along and just rips me apart.”
In classic Stallone fashion, The Dean contemplates retirement—and then rooks all the younger sharps nipping at his heals. “I guess I knew this day would always come,” he says right as it looks like he’s about to bust for good, before adding “But not today!” as he turns over a winning hand. As a man who subscribed so strongly to the idea of going the distance and victory through endurance, retirement just wasn’t in the cards. The old gambler had one more trick up his sleeve. He might quit some day. But not today.
|3.0||Rocky Balboa (also writer, dir.)||2006|
|2.5||Rambo (also co-writer, dir.)||2008|
|2.0||The Expendables (also co-writer, dir.)||2010|
|3.0||The Expendables 2 (also co-writer)||2012|
|2.5||Bullet To The Head||2012|
On the cusp of 60, Stallone resurrected his beloved heavyweight for a final requiem, a surprisingly moving story of a retired Rocky losing one last fight: with loneliness. Unwilling to go quietly into the night, even after his beloved Adrian dies of cancer, he decides to try to try his hand at boxing again just as the current heavyweight champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), is so desperate to buff his negative public image that he challenges the Italian Stallion to a fight. Aware he has little shot of winning but desperate to prove he can still compete—a clever mirror of the first film—Rocky agrees.
The idea of a 60-year-old retired boxer-turned-restauranteur holding his own for 10 rounds with the current heavyweight champ is laughable, as was the idea of Stallone playing this character at that age. Stallone simply shrugged off the skeptics and worked that idea into the script, having his son (Milo Ventimiglia) remark during the final battle, “Everybody thought this was a joke, including me! Now, nobody’s laughing!” As usual, what happened to Stallone inevitably happened to Rocky.
Rocky Jr. was right. The concept of Rocky Balboa is silly, but the execution is anything but laughable. As outlandish as its final outcome might be, this is a deeply personal film from a man in a desperate psychological struggle with his own mortality, hungry to prove to himself as much as viewers that he can still do something meaningful. Rocky Balboa isn’t a great movie—the plot is burdened with coincidence and subplots, and, like Rocky V, it would be much more poignant if Stallone had actually retired after making it—but it’s not an embarrassment. And that was Stallone’s great achievement: not to win, but simply to go the distance. He’d climbed the steps one more time. And he did it without even losing his breath.
The victory lap continues. Nearing 70, he’s riding high on several recent hits, most notably The Expendables franchise, which pairs Stallone with fellow fading action stars (Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris) and young up-and-comers (Jason Statham, Terry Crews). Once again, the point is less about passing the baton than proving he can still carry it; as mercenary Barney Ross, Stallone shoots his revolver faster than most men fire machine guns, and never seems to miss, or get tired, or fail to save the day.
Last year, Stallone squared off with yet another no-tégé in Walter Hill’s Bullet To The Head, playing yet another principled hitman on a quest for revenge. (No one outside of Charles Bronson has ever made more movies about angry middle-aged men seeking revenge than Sylvester Stallone.) Poor Sung Kang is his comic foil, a tech-savvy Washington D.C. cop who’s repeatedly shown how incompetent he is by the older, wiser, tougher, grittier Stallone. True to form, the king still refuses to give up his throne. It simply isn’t in his nature. Like he says at the end of Rocky V, “I didn’t hear no bell.”
Stallone’s most recent work, Escape Plan, returned him to a minor theme that runs through his career: paranoia about incarceration, a subject he’s addressed explicitly or implicitly in everything from Victory to Lock Up to Demolition Man. Sly is Ray Breslin, a master designer of maximum-security prisons who’s duped into getting tossed into an inescapable jail, where he finds an ally in an inmate played by Stallone’s old 1980s-action rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Together the two hatch an escape plan—and the most entertaining movie either has made in well over a decade. Yet again, Stallone plays a man pitted against an unstoppable force and long odds in an impossible situation. Does he prevail? What do you think?