|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?