In 1977, Sylvester Stallone celebrated Rocky’s Oscar win for Best Picture. He might’ve seemed like an overnight success story, but Stallone had been toiling in supporting roles for years before writing and starring in Rocky. Born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, he was voted "most likely to end up in the electric chair" in school. He hasn’t ended up in an electric chair but his tough New York upbringing has served him well both in creating memorable characters and in helping him survive in Hollywood. Here are the best as well as worst films he’s made as an actor and director.
Stallone starred as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo opposite David Carradine in this Roger Corman B-movie about a brutal cross-country race. The tag line states: “In the year 2000 hit and run driving is no longer a felony. It's the national sport!” Both Stallone and Carradine claim to have done much of their own driving, and at this low budget they probably did. When the film was re-released years later Stallone was given top billing with Carradine. Remade in 2008 as simply Death Race, the newer film had none of the original’s camp appeal.
Stallone bashed out the first draft of the script for Rocky in three days. The script turned out to be his ticket to Hollywood stardom. This tale of a down-on-his luck boxer who goes the distance with the Champ won over both audiences and critics. It also launched a lucrative franchise with Rocky 'The Italian Stallion' Balboa fighting everyone from Mr. T to a Soviet boxer to his own inner demons. Surprisingly the latest installment in the series, Rocky Balboa, revealed a sweet maturity on the part of both Rocky and Stallone.
As Johnny Kovak, Stallone played a Jimmy Hoffa-like teamster and made a strong attempt to be taken seriously as an actor. If Rocky represented the American Dream, then F.I.S.T. was the flip side, the American Nightmare. It was about how good people and dreams could be corrupted. It didn’t quite succeed in its ambitions, but it was nice to see Stallone break out from his brawny mold and try something a little more challenging.
Stallone launched another franchise with his performance as Vietnam vet John Rambo. Rambo enters a small town, gets harassed by the local cops, and then wages a one-man war on the police force. This first film in the four-film franchise is by far the best with Rambo actually trying NOT to kill anyone. As he says, “I could have killed 'em all.” Lean, mean, and muscular, this is classic Stallone. Although Stallone has screenwriting credit he was not the first actor offered the role. Among the diverse performers considered were Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood.
“Crime is the disease. Meet the Cure.” How can you resist a tagline like that?! Stallone plays Lieutenant Marion 'Cobra' Cobretti and dispenses lines like, “This is where the law stops and I start – sucker” and “I don't deal with psychos. I put 'em away.” How can you not like this film? No real redeeming features, just stupid fun of the first order.
Stallone and Kurt Russell. Genius. Okay the film was a run of the mill police actioner but pairing these two guys together was great fun. The irony is that Russell actually replaced Patrick Swayze. The posters proclaim: “Two of L.A.'s top rival cops are going to have to work together... Even if it kills them.” That pretty much sums it up. Oh did I mention they both bare their naked asses?
As with F.I.S.T., Cop Land was Stallone’s attempt to be taken seriously as an actor. As Freddy Heflin, Stallone plays the sheriff of a suburban New Jersey town where a bunch of crooked cops provide him with a moral dilemma. Stallone got to go toe-to-toe with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta, and he did a good job of holding his own. For the privilege of working on the film Stallone took a mere $60,000 (he got $15 million for Rocky V and $20 million for Driven).
You can feel the testosterone ooze off the screen as Stallone lines up as much muscle as he can for this ass-kicking action film. Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Steve Austin, and Mickey Rourke star with cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Big, dumb, and fun with lots of stuff blowing up. What more can you ask for from an action film?
And Now for the Worst of Sylvester Stallone
At the opposite end of the spectrum here’s a quick list of Stallone’s most embarrassing screen moments:
- 'The Party at Kitty and Stud's' (1970)
Stallone got $200 to appear in this soft-core porn film. He looks pretty darn skinny and unattractive.
- 'Staying Alive' (1983)
Who the hell thought that Stallone could direct a musical? An embarrassment all the way round with this misguided sequel to Saturday Night Fever. Epic fail.
- 'Rhinestone' (1984)
Dolly Parton’s costumes may have glittered but nothing else did in this leaden romantic comedy. And to think he turned down Romancing the Stone to make this. Can you say do over?
- 'Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot' (1992)
Stallone considers this his worst movie. ‘Nuff said.
- 'Get Carter' (2000)
This remake of a bleak, British 1970s Michael Caine gangster film is simply a total miscalculation.