Few movie stars can match the name recognition and drawing power that Sylvester Stallone has exhibited over the last forty years. He’s had his ups and downs but just as his iconic character, Rocky Balboa, always seems to get back up and claim victory, so did the actor. The tough New Yorker recently turned 71 – an age when most actors begin to slow down or even retire – and is currently making Creed II as a possible finale to the Rocky franchise. So is Sly looking to call it a career? Before looking to the future, let’s take a look at the past and gain a better understanding of one of Hollywood’s most popular stars.
The Early Years
Born to immigrant parents in New York’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Stallone had a difficult childhood being expelled from schools and even spending time in foster care. In his early 20’s and on hard times, he found a casting advertisement and his acting career was born. After supporting roles in numerous movies (The Lords of Flatbush, Farewell My Lovely, Death Race 2000 to name a few) and some television appearances, Stallone put pen to paper in the spring of 1974 and wrote the script for Rocky.
As he shopped the script, most studios expressed interest but were hesitant to let Stallone play the lead role, which he was adamant to do. Finally, Chartoff-Winkler Productions acquiesced and the movie was made to critical and commercial acclaim. It was the highest grossing movie of 1976 and garnered 10 Academy Award nominations – including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nods for Stallone – and won Best Picture and Best Director.
Stallone, now a bona fide star, made F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley, which both underwhelmed audiences and critics alike. His response was to write, direct, and star in the sequel, Rocky II, where he would once again battle with old nemesis, Apollo Creed. The movie was a critical success in addition to generating solid ticket sales for Sly again. Once again, success was followed with mediocrity as Nighthawks and Victory both underwhelmed the movie-going public. And once again, Stallone had a cure.
One of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history. Source: Rocky via Facebook
The Action Hero Era
Stallone went to the well again for the third installment of the Rocky franchise. Rocky III received average reviews from the critics but the character of Rocky Balboa was by now firmly entrenched in the American psyche and fans flocked to see the boxer take on new foes, grossing almost $125 million at U.S theatres in the process. Next up for Stallone in 1982 was a film that introduced what would be his second iconic character, John Rambo. First Blood was based on David Morrell’s novel about a lonely Vietnam War veteran who drifts into a small town. The local sheriff’s department torment him to his breaking point and he reverts to his violent, soldier’s past and engages in a fierce cat-and-mouse battle with the locals. While not a critics’ favorite, the movie was lauded for highlighting the mental struggles of Vietnam War veterans and brought in an impressive $125 million. Interestingly, this was also the year American audiences were introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian so it is arguable that 1982 was the birth year of the modern action hero.
Next up for Sly was directing Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever and starring John Travolta. The movie had enough star power and interest to do well at the box-office but didn’t generate many positive reviews. He then starred opposite Dolly Parton in the musical comedy Rhinestone which was perhaps Stallone’s low water mark for critical failure. And, as the pattern emerges, he followed a lackluster outing with an offering (or two) that audiences were sure to watch.
The year was 1985 and, just as three years previous, movie-goers were treated to both of Sly’s greatest incarnations. First up was summer blockbuster, Rambo: First Blood II which saw a decline in storytelling and a sharp rise in body count as John Rambo returned to Vietnam to rescue POWs and foil the Soviet Union’s military assistance to the Vietnamese. Fans flocked to see the bullets, bombs, and blood fly and gave Stallone what would be at that time his most commercially successful movie as a top-billed star. This was followed by Rocky IV where, once again, Stallone wrote, directed and starred. In a creative twist, the antagonist was a chemically enhanced Soviet boxer named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), whose dominance puts the great Rocky Balboa back into the position of underdog. The plot was fairly predictable as Drago kills Rocky’s friend and one-time rival Apollo Creed in their match, spurring Rocky to seek vengeance by way of overcoming adversity to defeat the seemingly undefeatable Russian. As with Rocky III, critics were weary of the tropes and clichés but audiences would not be deterred as they flocked to the theatres to make Rocky IV the third highest grossing movie of 1985, just behind Rambo: First Blood II. Both movies reflected the political mood of the time and tapped into strong pro-American feelings; finding POWs and soldiers missing in action in Vietnam was a salient issue and Cold War tensions with the Soviet union were strong so audiences were eager to watch entertaining movies that would simultaneously leave them with strong feelings of patriotism.
The late 80’s was also a time when video gaming was making big leaps and starting to incorporate movies. With Stallone’s biggest movies revolving around sports and action – two of the most popular gaming genres – it was foreseeable that Rambo and Rocky would step from the big screen and into the consoles of the world. Even today, Rambo lives on both as an on-rails shooter released in 2014 and as a slot machine game playable on the bgo website. Curious players have the opportunity to play the latter with £10 free from the casino according to Oddschecker’s free bet no deposit offers page.
Stallone’s private life also became big news around this time as he left his first wife and mother of his two children to marry Danish model, Brigitte Nielson. The marriage was tabloid fodder and ended two years later in a highly publicized divorce.
Now the most bankable action hero in the world, Stallone decided to remain in the genre. Cobra, written by and starring Stallone, was in keeping with the action movies of the time in that the critics were underwhelmed while audiences ate up the violence, the chases and the one-liners. Over the Top was next and, despite Stallone’s box-office clout, was an unmitigated flop. Even though audiences of the day were willing to watch formulaic and unsophisticated testosterone, they were not eager to see this offering of truck drivers and arm wrestling contests.
It was no surprise then that Stallone came out next with Rambo III. Predictably, critics weren’t overly impressed while audiences were happy to watch Rambo, now a true American hero, thwart the evil Russians yet again. That said, the successful gross of $189 million worldwide was a substantial drop-off from the earnings of the preceding film suggesting that Rambo’s luster was fading in the eyes of viewers.
The prison movie Lock Up was next and it failed to move critics or moviegoers as did buddy-cop flick Tango & Cash which underwhelmed despite having Kurt Russell in a co-starring role. So after a disappointing 1989 and with Schwarzenegger seemingly taking the mantle of world’s biggest action star and upstarts Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal entering the genre, Stallone did what he had done in the past and leaned on a sequel to re-establish his star’s shine and bankability. Enter Rocky V which had a modest return and was viewed by fans and critics alike as the weakest movie of the series.
Perhaps motivated by Schwarzenegger’s success in crime comedies Twins and Kindergarten Cop, Stallone waded into the subgenre with two forgettable films Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Stallone returned to the mountain (pun intended) of box-office successes in 1993 with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man (with another burgeoning crime/action actor in Wesley Snipes) and 1994’s The Specialist (with rising star Sharon Stone). Unfortunately for Sly, 1995-96 would bring a cold streak as the film adaptation of British comic book hero Judge Dredd, Assassins with Antonio Banderas and disaster movie Daylight all underwhelmed.
1997-2010: A Change in Path?
By the mid-nineties audiences were less enthusiastic about the action formula that had sustained actors like Stallone since the early eighties. Action movies were still popular but moviegoers were becoming more sophisticated towards the genre and required fresher storylines, plot devices and special effects. Rather than trying to squeeze something out of the Rocky or Rambo franchises, Stallone made a different move and starred in the crime drama CopLand. Headlining a powerhouse ensemble with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta, to name a few, Stallone portrayed Freddy Heflin, an overweight, partially deaf sheriff of a town populated with numerous corrupt NYPD detectives. The film showed a return to Sly’s acting abilities as first showcased in the original Rocky; the vulnerable Heflin was a stark departure from the alpha males – who always win/kill the bad guy and get the girl – which Stallone had become known for, particularly to younger movie-goers only familiar with his action flicks. The understated performance was praised by critics and served as a reminder of what he was capable of as an actor. Making 1997 an even better year was Sly’s marriage to his third – and current – wife Jennifer Flavin with whom he would have three daughters.
Unfortunately there was no follow up success at the cinema as the rest of the 90s and the first half of the next decade were rather forgettable and included an extended hiatus in the lead up to 2006’s return of Rocky. In Rocky Balboa, an aging Rocky is coaxed out of retirement to fight the current champion while mourning the death of his wife, Adrian and struggling to raise his son by himself. The focus on the fighter and less on the fight was a turn that endeared critics and fans and, at the time, seemed like an excellent capstone to the franchise.
Perhaps inspired by the success of Rocky Balboa, Stallone put out Rambo two years later. The box office gates and reviews were generally positive and as of today, Stallone says the franchise is finished.
2010-Present: New Action Hero?
In 2010, Stallone came out with The Expendables, a pure action movie amalgamating some of the greatest action stars in history including Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Jason Statham and Jet Li. The box office success prompted a sequel in 2012 which added Van Damme, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris and a third chapter in 2014 with Snipes, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson joining the ride.
In 2015, anticipation was high for the release of Creed. The film focused on Adonis Johnson, the son of former Rocky foe Apollo Creed, who seeks out the retired Balboa to help take his boxing career to the next level and give some insight to the father he never knew. Stallone once again showed the depth of character that he showed in the first and sixth chapters. The movie’s revenue was impressive, especially compared to the relatively small budget, and received critical acclaim for breakout actor Michael B. Jordan as the titular Creed and earned Stallone his third Oscar nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actor. Of note – this was only the sixth time an actor was nominated twice for the same character along with Bing Crosby, Peter O’Toole, Al Pacino, Paul Newman and Cate Blanchett.
A sequel, Creed II, is scheduled for 2018 and, while predicting the future is difficult, the ebbs and flows of Sly’s career indicate a strong likelihood for success. Recent action fare in The Expendables series and Escape Plan notwithstanding, Stallone seems to be in a much more artistic and dramatic frame of mind judging from the movies he has in the pipeline. Case in point, Creed II is rumored to see the return of Ivan Drago (played again by Lundgren) so the old fans will be intrigued by that angle while younger audiences, initiated to the franchise by the first Creed are sure to return to see where both Johnson and Balboa’s paths lead – possibly to the end for Rocky.
There is no argument that Sylvester Stallone is one of the biggest names in Hollywood history. It does seem, however, that his best movies tend to balance action/adventure with complex characters and non-clichéd storytelling. Many wonder if Creed II will be Stallone’s last hurrah and while it could well be his final turn as the legendary Italian Stallion, the 71-year old is definitely not hanging up the gloves on Hollywood.
Stallone with newcomer Michael B. Jordan. Source: Creed via Facebook