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The Essentials: 10 Great Sylvester Stallone Performances

The Essentials: 10 Great Sylvester Stallone Performances

“Of course, if you go in intellectually, you hate it. But if you let yourself go with it, something happens about 40 minutes into the movie. You say to yourself, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to be the colossal downer of all time.'” That’s Sylvester Stallone talking about “Rocky,” in a 1976 interview with Roger Ebert. Looking at the mega action-star’s whole career in hindsight, and up until today, you could just as easily apply that quote to all of his films. He adopted this philosophical approach ever since he became famous in the mid-’70s, and it became the Sly Stallone method of contributing to the world of cinema. That it mostly entails blowing shit up, punching people in the face, and getting the audience emotionally invested in the underdog is very much the reason why he became a legendary action star, beloved by millions. 

Going through some rough patches and a handful of bad movies in the ’90s and ’00s was never going to break a man who knows what it’s like to be homeless, sleep in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and take acting gigs in soft-core porn as a means to eat. The rags-to-riches Sylvester Stallone story has now become a Hollywood true-life fable. He’ll never be placed alongside acting thesps in terms of disappearing into roles (which was never his goal anyway), but what’s often underrated when it comes to Stallone isn’t his acting as much as his passion for entertaining. Considering himself a writer first and actor second, from the “Rocky” to “The Expendables” franchises, Stallone has made it a point to have a hand in his movies’ screenplays, often writing them himself. He doesn’t disappear into roles; the roles disappear into him. And, though we can sometimes complain about it, we wouldn’t really want it any other way.

This Friday sees the release of “Creed” (our review), the seventh film to feature Stallone’s most popular character of all, Rocky Balboa. As our way of saluting this hard-working and passionate actor, I’ve detailed his ten essential performances. Not all are good cinema by any stretch of the imagination, and one in particular is a bit of a downer that 1976 Stallone might’ve easily dismissed, but all expose the Italian-American actor’s love of the craft and good old-fashioned movie entertainment. 

“Death Race 2000” (1975)
The pre-“Rocky” phase of Stallone’s career has all but rubbed off completely — mostly for good reason, since it includes the actor’s very first film appearance in the soft-core porno “The Party at Kitty and Stud’s” (1970) and tiny bit parts in Woody Allen’sBananas” (1971) and Melvin Frank’s Neil Simon adaptation”The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1975) with Jack Lemmon. But, there are two memorable performances that came in this early phase before he portrayed the iconic boxer: in the Brooklyn comedy “The Lords of Flatbush” (1974), where his sensitive side first saw the light of day; and in Paul Bartel’s crazed B-movie “Death Race 2000.” It’s the latter I’m highlighting over the rest because it sees Stallone filling the atypical shoes of a villain, playing “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo, one of his most impetuous characters, a creature who’d fit right in George Miller’s wasteland. The eccentric sci-fi story is set in a dystopian America in the year 2000, where a transcontinental race provides world entertainment in the form of drivers racing to the finish line and murdering people for points. The whole thing is very satirical, mocking American and French politics, involving Thomas Paine‘s descendants in plots to overthrow the president, and hiding grenades in mechanical hands so they can be called hand grenades. Stallone’s Joe is a jealous and murderous slob of a human, dying for attention and the chance to beat David Carradine‘s Frankenstein. He’s a menacing maniac on the road who’s insatiably fun to watch, but it’s in the late dinner scene when he steals it from everyone else with some clam sauce and a succinct delivery of two words: “Bull. Shit!”

“Rocky” (1976)
“People say ‘Rocky’ is realistic, but I don’t want realism, I want romance. In a way, the movie’s like a classical symphony where it involves you, it hooks you and then it builds to the big finish, the monstrous lancing of the musical boil. That’s my formula.” That’s Stallone talking to Ebert in this aforementioned interview about the formula that helped him create a legendary franchise and turned him into a star. He wouldn’t sell the screenplay until United Artists agreed to let him star as the story’s down-in-the-dumps central figure, and the result is Stallone’s idealism, romantic simplicity, and raw emotions whipped into shape for a heavyweight winner. On a budget of just under a million, the film went on to become a box-office behemoth, earning over $250 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing film of 1976. Stallone was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Screenplay — the only other two people before him to share dual nominations for the same film in those categories were Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin. In his initial 4-star review of the film, Roger Ebert said that Stallone reminded him of “a young Marlon Brando” and likened Sly’s performance a spiritual companion to Brando’s in “On The Waterfront.” The film spawned a franchise of five sequels, and will be extending its legacy this Friday with “Creed,” the story of the son of Rocky’s greatest foe. But the one in which the infamous Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) gave Rocky a chance at the title, when Rocky first met Adrian (Talia Shire) and they shared a shy moment before a kiss, where he ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (today known as “The Rocky Steps”) and punched frozen meat as part of his training — this is the one that put Stallone’s name on the map. He showed the world what tremendously sensitive talent lies underneath the gruff exterior in a role that will forever define his career, and rightly be considered the greatest he’s ever pulled off.

“F.I.S.T.” (1978)
Between etching his permanent mark on Hollywood as Rocky Balboa in “Rocky” and “Rocky II” (1979), Stallone co-scripted and starred in this sentimental labor-union story loosely based on Jimmy Hoffa‘s Teamsters. While “F.I.S.T.” sounds like a great vehicle for Stallone to rip off shirts and punch some faces in, it’s a film that, in reality, sees him easing back on the violent action that would be later stapled to his name. The acronym deceptively stands for Federation of Inter-State Truckers, a union designed by Richard Herd‘s Mike Monahan who sees in Stallone’s disgruntled and rebellious Johnny Kovak a true leader of the people. Handling as much injustice as he can take on the loading docks, Kovak leads a riot against the oppressive regime in Depression-era Ohio, which is all the proof Monahan needs before inviting him to create the union. The film’s three-act structure, which at one point leaps ahead in time by about 20 years after F.I.S.T. becomes a two-million-member organization, makes Norman Jewison‘s direction haggard and thinly spread, but the greatest joy one gets from the experience is, indeed, embodied in the blue-collar poise of Sly Stallone, hiding traces of a subdued bellicose nature. His Kovak is partnered with David Huffman‘s Abe, pitted against Peter Boyle‘s impulsive Max Graham, forced into cahoots with Kevin Conway‘s local gangster Vince Doyle, and finally made to battle it out in a hearing opposite Rod Steiger‘s Senator Madison. It’s an impressive string of character actors, and Stallone more than holds his own against all of them. Whether talking about cutting balls off in private meetings, or riling his workers up by utilizing the four letters to their empowered convenience, Stallone shows robust conviction as a leader, during a time when he could’ve just as easily focused on playing just one type of boxer.

“Nighthawks” (1981)
Questions surrounding “Nighthawks” quickly morph into some variation of, “Who wouldn’t want to see Sylvester Stallone running after perps in drag?” Not only are we privileged with this comical gem of a moment in Stallone’s career, but we also get to see him sporting the greatest beard of his acting career as NYPD detective Deke DaSilva. Okay, so it’s no “Serpico,” but there is a certain sense of ’80s relish, a mix of nostalgia and contextual curiosity in the way people acted and dressed, that makes “Nighthawks” something of a cult classic. An obvious help is watching Sly Stallone described as above, partnered up with Lando Calrissian himself, Billy Dee Williams, and going against a German terrorist by the name of Wulfgar who is portrayed by a gentlemanly Rutger Hauer (sporting a hip beard himself in the early parts of the story). DaSilva gets trained in the ways of A.T.A.C. (Anti-Terrorist Action Command, yet another memorable acronym for Stallone to work with) by Nigel Davenport’s Hartman — a lieutenant who looks and talks like he should be discussing the effects of photosynthesis and not terrorism. DaSilva and his partner Fox (Williams) go after Wulfgar after the baddie relocates to NYC. This is now the immediate pre-“Rambo” phase of Stallone’s career, and it’s fascinating to watch him play one of his earliest law enforcers with such puppy-eyed zeal and restraint before personifying the iconic action character who goes off the boil so violently. Take that scene in the subway when DaSaliva has a shot of Wulfgar, but hesitates and doesn’t take it, as proof of something John Rambo would never, ever let happen. On-set stories of Stallone’s clashes with Hauer ended up being exaggerated (boo!) but the on-screen tension the two wrack up might make you think otherwise, making it worth the rental price alone.

“First Blood” (1982)
If there wasn’t a Rocky, there’d be a Rambo, and Stallone would’ve still found his way into conversations about Hollywood’s greatest silver-screen entertainers. The project went through a who’s-who of leading actors, including Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Al Pacino, before it landed with Stallone — and just imagine how different the whole thing would’ve been if any of those other guys portrayed John Rambo. No, it’s not really all that imaginable because Stallone brought his fevered determinism, raw capacity for hurling himself into all sorts of action, and bottled sensitivity to become the face, voice, and hairy presence of the Vietnam vet and Green Beret badass. Mandatory viewing in many homes, and a staple of many childhoods reared in the ’80s (mine included), “First Blood” introduced the world to a misunderstood and soft-spoken Rambo (Stallone), whose spasms of PTSD reach breaking point after he runs into a corrupt police force. The leader of said local police station, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), becomes obsessed with catching Rambo after the man escapes from custody and police brutality. Jack Starrett (and his unforgettably booming voice-box) turns in a memorable performance as the even more crazed cop Art Galt, and Richard Crenna‘s Trautman, the man responsible for molding Rambo into a dehumanized killing machine, handles some of the script’s greatest lines with appropriate gusto, including a sensational description of Rambo as a man who’d “eat things that a billy goat would puke!” “First Blood” is a head above all the sequels it spawned in terms of execution and characterization, including a final and very emotional breakdown in front of Trautman that clearly marks one of Stallone’s highest acting triumphs.

“Cobra” (1986)
Before the decade was over, and before the system began its failed attempt to market Sly Stallone as a comedic force (like with the dire “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot“), the ’80s would bear fruit to what could be the most memorable so-bad-it’s-good Stallone action vehicle. Written by Stallone, “Cobra” follows an LAPD Zombie-Squad officer used as a last resort by regular cops who can’t handle the intensity of the job. Wearing airtight jeans and a black V-neck, sporting signature Aviator sunglasses, chewing on a matchstick, driving around in a modified 1950 Mercury with license plates reading “AWSOM,” and cutting pizza with scissors like a fucking boss, Marion Cobretti (Stallone) was born to become Cobra. Just to put it into perspective, this project came about after Stallone resigned from working on “Beverly Hills Cop” because it was too comedic for his tastes. The result is a film that he might not have thought comedic on paper, but that’s become regarded as something of a cult classic partly due to the laughs it generates when it comes to the dialogue (please, “crime is a disease, and I’m the cure” isn’t the film’s tagline for no reason), the music (Robert Tepper‘s ‘Angel of the City’ number is allowed to play in full over an unforgettable montage featuring, among other things, a photo shoot with robot mannequins) and the bizarrely insane villains screaming about a New World Order. Brigitte Nielsen‘s Ingrid Knudsen becomes a target, and Cobra is assigned as her protector; the pair’s stoic acting styles complement each other in sizzling B-movie campiness. A magnet for the Razzies at the time, “Cobra” is beloved by many Stallone diehards and is famously praised by Nicolas Winding Refn. Re-watching it reminds you just how much of an inspiration it was for “Drive,” in terms of its neon-velvet aesthetics, wardrobe, and killer attitude.

“Cliffhanger” (1993)
Featured in our mountain-climbing feature as a “sublimely, gloriously stupid” piece of work, “capturing a time in American culture when Stallone wasn’t an over-the-hill action hero falling back on his ‘Rocky’/’Rambo’ mythologies to draw a crowd,” “Cliffhanger” is a favorite among Sly fans, and certainly one I remember immensely enjoying as a kid. John Lithgow‘s cantankerous villain Eric Qualen is one of the most immensely enjoyable foes from Stallone’s rogue gallery, and that unpredictable opening sequence featuring Michelle Joyner as the ill-fated Sarah packs enough of an emotional punch to last over the entire running time. Conveying that presence is Stallone’s Gabe Walker, who handles the memory and carries the guilt around with the kind of intensity that became the actor’s signature by the early ’90s. With multiple “Rambo” and “Rocky” sequels behind him, “Cliffhanger” was breath of fresh (mountain) air in terms of Stallone’s filmography, a film set in a rarely tested environment for action, and — according to Stallone himself — something of a comeback role after a few box-office duds. Gaining 20 pounds of muscle and pretending like he totally doesn’t have a fear of heights, Stallone’s Gabe is an ex-mountaineer conned into helping a troupe of nasty villains locate suitcases full of money. It’s unabashedly silly in plot, narrative, and all its efforts to tick every box of possible mountain deaths — including Stallone grabbing a villain’s balls and impaling him on a stalactite. Take all of that and add the physical theatrics and pure-hearted displays of heroism, and you’re obviously dealing with an essential Stallone picture.

“Demolition Man” (1993)
Though not as commercially successful as “Cliffhanger,” which came out earlier that same year and went on to gross a blistering $255 million, “Demolition Man” is nevertheless up there as fan-favorite camp with the likes of Sly’s mountain adventure and “Cobra” shenanigans. Featuring Stallone once again on the right side of the law, this time facing Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes, in one of his essential roles), the premise is set once Stallone’s Sgt. Spartan squashes protocol in order to catch mastermind criminal Phoenix in 1996. The result is a botched mess that leaves many hostages dead, and both Phoenix and Spartan becomes part of an experimental rehabilitation for the “California Cryo-Penitentiary.” Both are cryogenically frozen, and are thawed out in the year 2032 — Phoenix escapes and starts wreaking havoc in the utopian city of San Angeles, 20th-century style, and the only man who can stop him is, of course, Spartan. Most of the amusement eked out of “Demolition Man” is thanks to Snipes having way too much fun in the baddie role, and Stallone getting frustrated with straight-laced officers Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) and Alfredo Garcia (Benjamin Bratt), while not giving two shits about the city’s new language-violation laws. In a completely different league in terms of watchability than Stallone’s other sci-fi film set in the future — the dishonorable “Judge Dredd” (1995) — this one’s got the adrenaline-pumping entertainment, classic ’90s one-liners (“A blast from the past!”) and a laid-back Stallone having a party with a semi-serious screenplay. You’ll be glued, whether you care to admit it or not.

“Cop Land” (1997)
Now for some serious business. James Mangold‘s sophomore effort “Cop Land” is a novelistic crime drama set in the made-up town of Garrison, New Jersey. With a story deeply involved in police corruption and unjustified violence, it’s eerily relevant to the hot-button issue of police brutality in U.S. culture today. For our purposes though, it contains one of Stallone’s greatest performances. He plays melancholic local sheriff Freddy Heflin, whose hearing impediment makes him ineligible for the NYPD but not completely deaf to the corruption perpetrated by the New York City officers who live in his town. An incident involving young cop Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), nephew of famed Lieutenant Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), brings on an Internal Affairs investigation spearheaded by Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro). The stellar ensemble is rounded off by Ray Liotta, Peter Berg, Robert Patrick and Janeane Garofalo; but it’s Sly Stallone, ’70s and ’80s action-movie icon, who ends up standing out. He gives an unnervingly subtle and gently giant performance as a man simmering on the inside until he can’t take it any longer. Who’d have thought the actor who made a career out of punching his enemies would be so believable as a small-town loser so used to taking punches? Stallone famously gained 40 pounds for the role, and deservedly received critical plaudits for his performance, but because of insurmountable pressure to succeed (in no small part caused by the film’s star-studded cast), the mediocre box-office results for “Cop Land” proved to be a big issue for Stallone. He couldn’t get much work after it, and his star power faded even further — an unfortunate circumstance that in no way reflects his searing portrayal of a man building towards an explosive climax.

“The Expendables 2” (2012)
Finally, we have this beacon of ’80s-action nostalgia. It will always be difficult to recommend “The Expendables” and its sequels as any kind of serious cinema. This is leave-your-brain-at-the-door entertainment at its loudest and most ridiculous, but for better or for worse, it’s absolutely essential in appreciating Stallone’s staying power after he’d tasted the very best and the very worst from the Hollywood lifestyle. While he returned to the myths that made him famous and revitalized his “Rocky” and “Rambo” personas for modern audiences, it was the creation of a whole new concept that has provided his career the healthiest of lifelines. “The Expendables” (2010) first introduced Stallone as Barney Ross, elite mercenary leader out to catch bad guys with his group of highly trained and hardened badasses. But it’s really in the sequel, and the addition of Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme to the already action-packed ensemble featuring Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews and Arnold Schwarzenegger, where the franchise relives the bygone glory days of dumb, fun, practical action in its most entertaining and least cinematically offensive way. Ross and his band of rascals are out to avenge the death of their team member Billy (Liam Hemsworth) against plutonium-crazed baddie Jean Vilain (Van Damme, hamming it up with great results). It’s hokey, it’s ludicrous, and you could virtually predict every word, grunt, smirk, and punch line that comes out of Barney Ross’ mouth — but that doesn’t make it any less delightful. In fact, it adds to the adventure and if you get over the obvious gimmick of resuscitated catchphrases, you’ll actually have some fun with Stallone’s third monumentally successful franchise.

When it comes to Stallone movies, the bad ones are obviously bad (*cough*”Assassins“*cough*), while all the rest have something in them that makes for a durable watch. I know people who’d always choose “Over The Top” over something like “Cobra” as their preferred joyous disaster from the ’80s. Of course, all the “Rocky” and “Rambo” sequels were considered here — especially the very entertaining “Rocky IV” — but ultimately none hold quite the weight of the respective series’ originals, and it would feel a tad unfair to have two entries for what is ultimately the same performance. The three films which came the closest to making the cut are “The Lords of Flatbush,” “Tango & Cash,” and “Oscar.”

What are some of your favorite Sly Stallone movies and performances? Is something major missing from my list? You know where to sound off! And don’t forget to catch “Creed” in theaters this Friday.

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