Sylvester Stallone’s Less Than Stellar Film History
Throughout his 40 plus year career, Sylvester Stallone has been lucky enough to have starred in not one, not two, but three successful film franchises. We all know him as the underdog boxer, Rocky Balboa, in the famed Rocky series, Vietnam war veteran, John Rambo, in the Rambo films, and as Barney Ross, leader of a group of roughneck mercenaries in The Expendables. Most actors settle with just one series that takes off but for Sly, all three of these franchises raked in millions of dollars and experience an unlimited demand for more. Fortunate for him, Stallone himself even had some clout in the development of some of these movies by writing and directing quite a few of the entries. While Rocky and Rambo solidified Stallone as a certifiable Hollywood star, Expendables helped breathe new life into his career. Since then, it’s been easy sailing for action icon. With his recent Academy Award nomination for reprising the role of Rocky Balboa in the Rocky spin off, Creed, let’s take a look at the lesser known films of Sylvester Stallone’s career.
Some may not know this but Sylvester Stallone’s directing career dates back all the way to the 1970s. He actually directed the little known, critically panned sequel, Staying Alive, in 1983. It was the follow-up to the acclaimed Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta as a disco king at a crossroads in life. He even has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the movie as a man who bumps into Tony Manero on a crowded New York street. After this horrible misfire, he hasn’t directed anything outside of his three lucrative franchises and if you saw this film, you’d know why.
After Rocky and Rambo established him as a resident tough guy alongside comrades Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis (both of whom would later join him in The Expendables), he rode a wave of generic action flicks in the 1980s, none more obscure than 1989’s Lock-Up co-starring Donald Sutherland. Stallone plays an inmate who is nearing the end of a prison sentence but is transferred to a higher security cell to be tortured by a warden and his cronies seeking revenge for an earlier break-out. Hmm, this sounds awfully like another prison-themed film Stallone would star in years later. Anyway, it garnered bad reviews and tanked at the box office. Let’s just say this is one of those films Stallone wouldn’t remember he was apart of today.
We always poke fun of Stallone’s sometimes inaudible speech. His slurred New York-Italian accent is one of his trademarks and is what made the Rocky Balboa character so great but is often the subject of mockery with hilarious results. At the start of the 1990s, Stallone tried a different turn by attempting to be intentionally funny and showing off his natural humorous persona. The first of these comedies was 1991’s Oscar where he played a mobster attempting to leave his life of crime behind. It was a critical failure but the big winner here that some might know was 1992’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! where he starred alongside the late Estelle Getty. Yes, the infamous film where the poster shows Stallone standing next to an 70-year-old woman packing heat. I admit, while he did a decent job showing off his comedic chops, both movies were largely forgettable with Stallone even stating that the latter was one of the worst films he ever starred in. Both did nothing but put misses in his filmography.
Stallone was able to rebound with 1993’s Cliffhanger, which was directed by Renny Harlin, two years before his horrific studio-bankrupting film, Cutthroat Island. The ride didn’t last long though as he then went on to star in another dud in 1995’s Assassins. Acting alongside Antonio Banderas and Julianne Moore, the Richard Donner film, portrays Stallone as a hitman wanting to go straight but a young lion who wants in the business is killing off his remaining targets. What’s more interesting about this movie is that it was written by the Wachowski siblings. Yes, the same team that brought us The Matrix trilogy and V For Vendetta wrote a script for a paint-by-number 90s action movie. Similar to how Quentin Tarantino tried to prevent being credited as the screenwriter for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers after seeing how butchered it became, the Wachowskis tried to do the same here with Assassins. I’m getting off topic here; Stallone tried but the movie is pretty lifeless and did little to captivate audiences.
In the late 90s, frustrated by repeatedly going back to his safety net with actions vehicles, Stallone tried his hand at drama. The independent film, Cop Land, was released in 1997. Surrounding himself with a cast featuring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Harvey Keitel, Stallone plays a cop who discovers the corruption in the law enforcement of his small New Jersey town. Filmed with a measly $15 million, it was able make three times that in box office sales. Cop Land proved that Stallone can actually act outside his go-to roles and stand toe-to-toe with Hollywood’s finest. This success was all the film’s director, James Mangold, needed to gain footing in his journey to the top. He went on to helm two Oscar winning pictures, Girl, Interrupted and the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line.
Stallone attempted a bit of a comeback in the early 2000s. After starring in a remake of the 1971 film, Get Carter, he re-teamed with Renny Harlin in 2001 for Driven. This movie was produced with a script Stallone penned himself and put him in a setting he had never been before: the race track. He portrayed an aging auto racer who mentors a young driver who vows to win the Champ Car World Series. It was a massively boring movie and tanked mercilessly in theaters. Renny Harlin continued to cement his name as a hack and Stallone added another bomb to his massive film resume.
After even more misses in 2002’s D-Tox and Avenging Angelo, he was able to procure a well-received bit part in the 2003 indy, Shade before finally resurfacing after resurrecting the Rocky and Rambo films. He went back to the well and it was a success, Rocky Balboa grossed over $150 million worldwide while Rambo made over $100M, more than twice its budget.
Even though he’s riding high now again, Stallone had another bomb as recent as 2013 with Bullet to the Head, an action film that pits Stallone teaming up with Korean actor Sung Kang to take down a gang. I will say this about the movie, it contains a hilarious performance from Christian Slater.