Sylvester Stallone has never really shied away from telling us what he thinks, about anything really. Especially his past movies. There’s an SNL sketch from 1997 when Stallone hosted while promoting Cop Land. Stallone, playing himself, is involved in an auto accident with another driver played by Norm Macdonald. The entire length of the sketch is Stallone trying to help while Macdonald is crying out in agony, not in pain, but remembering another bad Stallone movie like Rhinestone*, as Stallone tries to defend the thinking around each one. (Stallone tries to explain Cobra had a lot of problems in editing.)
*For the record I kind of like Rhinestone.
In the new documentary about his life, Sly, which closed the Toronto International Film Festival, we don’t really get the blow-by-blow of what Stallone thinks about each and every movie he’s ever made. If you want Stallone’s thoughts on, say, Nighthawks or The Specialist, this isn’t that kind of film. And to be fair, Stallone has made a lot of movies so something like that would be a very long movie. Also, as stated, Stallone hasn’t been shy about talking about his past films and what went wrong, so that information is already out there.
Instead, director Thom Zimny carves out a few select areas of Stallone’s life to cover. With a big one, of course, being the release and success of Rocky – but then interestingly focusing on Stallone’s two followup films that come between Rocky and Rocky II that were both critical and box office disasters: F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley. This is an interesting time period for Stallone when he decided to take some huge chances. And neither of them worked, which seems to have taught Stallone to just give audiences what they want, which in this case was another Rocky movie. (Stallone would give audiences four more Rocky movies after that.)
Ans this becomes the heart of the documentary, Stallone, as a force of nature, knowing what audiences want to see. A lot is made out of Stallone’s rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger (who appears in Sly as a talking head), and this documentary touches on it, too. But Stallone and Schwarzenegger have very different mindsets when it came to making movies. Schwarzenegger sought out great directors. During Schwarzenegger’s prime run, he worked with James Cameron three times, John McTiernan twice, Ivan Reitman three times, Paul Verhoeven, and Walter Hill. Schwarzenegger’s mindset was to find great filmmakers and put his faith in them to make a great movie.
Stallone is the opposite. Stallone’s faith was in himself, to the detriment of most directors he wound up working with. Just go to the “production” tab on Wikipedia of almost every movie Stallone did. It starts to become funny how, like clockwork, there will be the section on how Stallone and his director “didn’t see eye to eye” and Stallone wound up taking over the production. If Stallone was going to be in a bad movie, it was at least going to be on his terms.
Movie-wise, the doc circles in on Stallone’s three franchises: Rocky, Rambo, and The Expendables. The first two make a lot of sense, but with all due respect to The Expendables, it’s just a franchise that doesn’t have the cultural importance of the other two. But, I get it, it kind of bookends Stallone’s career after the doc dives into Stallone’s last true attempt at critical acclaim in Cop Land. (Stallone is legitimately great in Cop Land, which was pretty much ignored by awards at the time. Stallone would finally get another Oscar nomination for playing Rocky again in Creed.)
Stallone on his father is interesting. And I’ve never really heard him talk about his father at length like this before. It was an obviously complicated and fraught relationship – Stallone often describes his father as “physical” – that also informs Stallone’s entire career. Stallone gets pretty emotional discussing his love for Polo – and how he was becoming pretty good – but his father’s jealousy and insecurities stopped Stallone from playing. There’s really interesting footage from the mid-1980s, of Stallone setting up a polo match in which he brought in a bunch of top-ranked players so he and his father could play against each other. At one point, Stallone’s father takes a cheap shot, hitting his son in the back with a mallet. Stallone even comments on this at the time in the post-game press conference, kind of making a joke about it but also laced with a lot of truth. We cut to current-day Stallone who says, after that day, he sold all the horses, all the equipment, and never played again. What was supposed to be a nice moment for him and his father, his father once again ruined. And we can tell this still really bothers Sly. And all of these emotions about his father are used to frame Stallone’s relationship with his late son, Sage, who died in 2012. Stallone doesn’t talk a lot of about Sage – the little he does, it’s obvious this is still a very raw subject – but the clips used from the time the two co-starred together in Rocky V are pretty heartbreaking.
Sly is about as good a documentary on Sylvester Stallone can be without being a Ken Burns’ length saga. (Though, I’d for one love to watch something that long about Stallone; also, bring Greta Gerwig in as a talking head) I’d love to hear his updated thoughts on Rhinestone, why he didn’t do Beverly Hills Cop, what was the deal with the awkward shower scene with Sharon Stone in The Specialist, why he felt he had to take over so many productions. (Though, of all movies, Sly does get into some details about Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.) Stallone seems like someone who still has a lot to say and will tell his stories to anyone who wants to listen. And I’d like to hear some more.
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