Strange Arcs is a feature in which our film staff explore the unlikely, unusual, and downright bizarre career arcs of some of our favorite film industry mainstays.
Over the past 40-plus years, Sylvester Stallone’s ripped physique and earnest face have been plastered on movie screens around the world. Though he’s also a successful writer and director, acting is his real bread and butter, resulting in critically acclaimed performances in Rocky and Cop Land, iconic turns in Rambo and The Expendables, and whatever the hell Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was. Sure, Stallone’s an internationally bankable action star, but he’s also tried his hand at comedy, drama, animated films, and musicals. In short, the man’s had one long, bizarre career. In honor of Rambo: First Blood Part II, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, I’ve decided to examine one of Sylvester Stallone’s strangest career arcs in a little more depth. So sit back, don your favorite sweaty bandana, and enjoy.
Director: Bob Clark
Co-stars: Dolly Parton, Richard Farnsworth, Ron Leibman
Synopsis: In order to get out of a contract with her pervy manager (Ron Leibman), country chanteuse Jake (Dolly Parton) bets him that she can turn anyone into a huge Nashville star. That person winds up being a tough-talking cab driver, Nick (Sylvester Stallone). It’s kind of like She’s All That only balls-out awesome.
Why It’s a Departure: Prior to Rhinestone, Stallone focused all of his testosterone-fueled energy on action films such as Rocky, Nighthawks, and First Blood. Sure, he wrote and directed the garish dance flick Staying Alive the year before Rhinestone’s release, but he didn’t star in it. Still, maybe his devotion to that unnecessary Saturday Night Fever sequel should have tipped America off to the fact that Stallone had a secret song-and-dance man hidden deep beneath his sinew.
In terms of acting, though, Rhinestone is Stallone’s first high-budget foray into comedy, as well as his first, and only, stab at musical comedy. It’s a total oddity in his oeuvre, and it deserves to be seen for the weirdness factor alone.
Key Scene: With his first big solo number, the hilariously titled “Drinkenstein,” Sly proves that his brother Frank isn’t the only Stallone with musical chops. Actually, the song kind of stinks, but it’s got kitsch in spades. And the fact that Stallone sings it while dressed up like a common street pimp? Well, that’s just a cherry atop the sundae.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Co-stars: Richard Crenna, Charles Napier
Synopsis: John Rambo gets sprung from prison to help rescue a group of POWs from the Viet Cong, only to discover that it’s all part of a government cover-up.
Why It’s a Departure: This brutally violent action-drama couldn’t be more different than Rhinestone. For one thing, Stallone infused the character of Nick with warmth and humor, but he plays John Rambo as a man who’s had his humanity stripped away entirely. But more importantly, Rhinestone’s body count hovered somewhere around zero (I don’t think butchering a tune counts as murder, does it?), while First Blood Part II racks up more than 50 burned and bloody corpses.
In this way, First Blood Part II is also a departure from Stallone’s previous action films. Up until this point, his characters were violent, but they weren’t pornographically violent. Hell, even in First Blood, Rambo doesn’t actually kill anybody — he just crushes windpipes and blows up gas stations in self-defense. But First Blood Part II is an entirely different beast. It’s a bloodbath, an entertaining, cathartic-as-hell roller coaster ride filled with gunshots, impalings, and explosions. In 1985, this was pretty damn groundbreaking. In many ways, First Blood Part II, and Stallone’s take-no-prisoners performance as John Rambo, paved the way for every high-body-count action flick that came after it.
Key Scene: The Rambo franchise is about more than just unloading a machine gun on a group of enemy combatants. It’s also about the hardships that America’s veterans face when coming home from war — ungrateful civilians, PTSD, and tubby local sheriffs played by Brian Dennehy, to name a few. In First Blood Part II’s final scene, Rambo delivers this heartfelt speech about the frustration he and his fellow Vietnam vets feel. It’s some of Stallone’s finest acting.
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Co-Stars: Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Dolph Lundgren
Synopsis: After Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) kills Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in an exhibition match, Rocky comes out of retirement to fight the Soviet menace and avenge his pal’s death. He winds up defeating Drago, winning the respect of the USSR, and basically ending the Cold War single-handedly. It’s easily one of the most American of American movies. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if a Blu-ray copy of Rocky IV ran for president, it’d have a better chance of winning the Republican nomination than Ted Cruz.
Why It’s a Departure: At first glance, Rocky IV seems like a natural fit in Stallone’s career trajectory. After all, following up one successful action-movie franchise, Rambo, with another, Rocky, isn’t that unexpected. But Rocky IV isn’t just any action-movie sequel. It’s an all-out attack on the senses, a series of insanely edited training montages set to inspirational power ballads. It’s almost as if Stallone discovered Soviet Montage and music videos on the same afternoon, then he had the brilliant notion to hybridize the forms. Did I mention that there’s a robot? Or that James Brown shows up to perform “Living in America” while Carl Weathers prances around in star-spangled shorts?
Of course, when a film’s as odd as Rocky IV is, the actors’ performances don’t really matter. Stallone has little time between all the flashbacks and training montages to actually eke out any dialogue at all. Still, as with his performance in First Blood Part II, he does his honest-to-god best with whatever dramatic scene he’s given, always perfectly straddling the line between corny and sincere.
Key Scene: In one of filmdom’s best montages, Rocky IV juxtaposes the old-school training style of Rocky Balboa against the high-tech, ‘roid-injecting trickery of his Russian competitor. The whole spectacle lasts nearly eight minutes — it’s actually two back-to-back montages held together with a brief scene between Rocky and his wife — and culminates in Stallone’s character sprinting up a mountain. Yes, sprinting. Up a mountain. USA! USA! USA!