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Not every director is an instant auteur. For every Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, there’s a Kathryn Bigelow or Clint Eastwood. To compare the formal talents of Sylvester Stallone to these all-time greats may be a bit of a stretch, but his efforts behind the camera have only intensified as he’s gotten older — and benefitted from the acquired wisdom.
Take, for instance, his most popular film franchise. Everyone’s heard the story of Stallone’s rise to prominence. As a struggling actor in the ’70s, Stallone penned himself a dynamite script that put offers on the table. The only issue was that those offers were just for his words, not his talents in front of the screen. Rather than take the payday, Stallone pushed his way into the picture, and the rest is history. “Rocky” went on to become a box-office sensation before winning Best Picture at the Oscars, and — despite Stallone’s own initial reluctance to film a follow-up — spawned five sequels (plus the upcoming pseudo-sequel “Creed”). By examining the films in the “Rocky” franchise — all featuring similar subject matter, structuring and tone — we can see how Stallone’s directorial vision changed over the years.
First, though, it’s necessary to examine where he began — with “Paradise Alley,” a passion project for the young actor-turned-director suddenly swept up into the Hollywood game. Stallone’s inexperience showed. IMDB, at the top of its trivia section, highlights the claim Sly would often forget to yell action when a scene began, and then wraps up the section with a regretful quote from Stallone that the film was made at all. The story is a mess, and the direction — or lack thereof — does it no favors from the film’s opening moments. Credits roll over shots of Stallone and his Hell’s Kitchen chums racing over rooftops to a song (beautifully) sung by the director himself. Yet the darkly-lit sequence becomes repetitive, leads nowhere and lasts an eternity. From there, things only get messier, but hey — everyone has to start somewhere.
Stallone cut his teeth with “Paradise Alley,” and it’s a good thing he did. Next up was a highly-anticipated, career-defining sequel to “Rocky”; a sequel he knocked out of the park. Following up an Oscar-winning original had to be pressure enough for a writer who was also the face of the franchise, but adding another hat to the mix as a director made it all the more of a challenge. Stallone, a second-time feature director with one bust under his belt, was filling the shoes of an Oscar-winning veteran — a prize Stallone received two nods for, but no wins. It should come as no surprise then, that Stallone doubled down on the most popular elements of the original. “Rocky II” had two training montages instead of one, a marriage between the romantic icons established in the original film (after a timeless proposal at the zoo) and a fight to end all fights between the same men who already beat each other bloody in the last bout.
One could argue Stallone merely mimicked the direction of his predecessor, utilizing a structure, visual palette and pacing already successfully established by the first film’s director, John G. Avildsen. Those, though, are virtually a requisite for most sequels, and Stallone still balanced the slower moments early on with satisfying action scenes to finish strong. He also, like many actors-turned-directors, put emphasis on the characters, allowing movement within the frame and taking advantage of a few lengthy shots at pivotal plot points (like leading up to the proposal or when Adrian wakes up from her coma). For as propulsive as his montages and fight sequences felt, Stallone seemed just as comfortable with intimacy early in his career (perhaps because, as an actor, he was still being compared to serious thespians like Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and thus wanted to show off his skills).
Yet “bigger is better” quickly became the mantra for Stallone as a director, actor and person. He got buffer every time he stepped into the ring, and his movies moved more and more rapidly. Think back to “Rocky III,” to the scene where Rocky and Adrian have it out on the beach as the fighter confesses his fears to the one woman who might understand them. It’s compelling, yes, but also notable as one of the few scenes reminiscent to what “Rocky” and “Rocky II” really were: character dramas. “Rocky III” and “IV” became action movies, with Stallone trimming down the run times from 119 minutes (“II”), to 99 minutes (“III”), to a brisk 91 minutes (“IV”).
But what kept the “Rocky” series working was Stallone’s personal touch. As Sly’s brother Frank Stallone noted in the A&E documentary, “The Rocky Saga: Going the Distance,” “Every time you direct your own thing, it always works. Every time you try to bring someone else in, ’cause you want to go out and play golf, it doesn’t work.” It should come as no surprise then, that Stallone didn’t direct anything between “Rocky IV” and “Rocky Balboa” — a 21-year break that wasn’t without benefits.
Stallone has said getting the sixth and presumably final “Rocky” movie made was even harder than the first. Since the fifth film proved a critical and financial dud, Stallone’s career had hit the skids and studios were moving away from investing in mid-budget movies altogether. Combining a falling star with an outdated picture — and what was, presumably, an over-the-hill character — wasn’t an easy sell. But Stallone got it done, rediscovered his passion and put it up on screen for all to see. “Rocky Balboa” wasn’t just a classy throwback film more in line with the original picture than any of its sequels. Stallone also built it to last, shooting on film to help ground the dramatic elements of the picture’s first half before switching to digital video for the climactic fight scene.
And the fight scene was like nothing “Rocky” fans had ever seen. Not only was it smoothly updated to imitate modern boxing broadcasts, making it look exactly like what fans would see on HBO’s Saturday night fights, but Stallone also toned down the haymakers, uppercuts and general smash attacks that had dominated the franchise prior. Rocky’s showdown with Mason “The Line” Dixon (played by real light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver) felt authentic, and it needed to; with Rocky at the ripe age of 60, audiences had to believe he could actually go toe-to-toe with the champ. From the framing, to the switch from film to video, to the sparse presentation of Rocky’s day-to-day life, “Rocky Balboa” was a triumph of determination and perhaps the pinnacle of Stallone’s career behind the camera.
His next two pictures — and the last he’s directed to date — utilized the same adaptive spirit, incorporating modern directorial styles to provide a facelift to an old franchise and a new, old school one. “Rambo,” which went through a similar transition to the “Rocky” franchise over its four films, was bigger, louder and more violent than anything Stallone had shot prior. The grand finale was a lengthy bloodbath, with tight framing rapidly alternating with wider shots over a battlefield littered with bodies. It’s wild, spectacular mayhem, and Stallone could’ve repeated the technique for “The Expendables,” his reunion of action all-stars young and old (mostly old) for one big bru-ha-ha. Some scenes are similar — like the opening attack on Somali pirates where Dolph Lundgren’s character cuts a dude in half with a “warning shot” — but the picture overall is of a more sophisticated variety. Whip pans and shaky cams are implemented to help convey urgency and chaos, but they’re undoubtedly used because Stallone saw films like “The Bourne Supremacy” and wanted to keep with the times. While mounted back-to-back-to-back, “Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo” and “The Expendables” all exhibit different tricks of the trade picked up by the man behind each film, and they all benefit from his choices.
In the screenplays for “Rocky I – IV,” you can see how the stories reflect Stallone’s own mentality of the time. There’s so much crossover, fans often call Stallone by his alter ego, Rocky, because he really is the character he created. But watching how they visually transition gives you an understanding of Stallone as an artist. An abstract painter before he was an actor — who still produces pieces to this day — Stallone’s directorial style may not be as sophisticated as some of the world’s finest, but his work is perfectly suited for the stories he’s telling. And, if he does have an edge anywhere on his generational peers, it’s that he’s still learning with every film.
“The Director’s Chair” airs on El Rey Network. You can watch the full episode with special guest Sylvester Stallone online now.