Kevin: July 4th may be the day we celebrate America’s independence, but July 6th marks perhaps an even greater moment in our nation’s history, as that was the day Sylvester Stallone was born into this world 71 years ago in Hell’s Kitchen, NY. Since bursting onto the scene with “Rocky” in 1976, Sly has been a huge part of our moviegoing lives and a huge part of Tough Guy Digest, as we kicked off our labor of love with a Round Table on the film in which Stallone singlehandedly re-fought the Vietnam War (and won!), “Rambo: First Blood Part II”:
Early this summer we marked the appearance of Sly and Kurt Russell in the same movie – “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – with another Round Table on their first team-up in “Tango & Cash,” in which the two stars have to defeat probably the most fearsome villain in movie history: a senile 90-year-old drug lord who likes to rub mice on his face:
We also highlighted Stallone’s talents behind the camera as well directing John Travolta in “Staying Alive,” with Sly helping the “Grease” star regain his career confidence by molding him into … well a close approximation of Sylvester Stallone:
Sly was also a trailblazer, as he got in on the comic book movie game early (and R-rated to boot) with “Judge Dredd,” which if nothing else gave Sly one of his signature lines in “I am the law!”:
The star also had a softer side as well, as CJ and I found when we did a Tag Team of his “Over the Top,” in which the star bonds with his whiny son while traveling cross-country across a dystopian America where society has apparently broken down into two factions: those who can arm wrestle and those who can’t:
And finally we also praised Sly for coming up with one of the best hero names in movie history with Marion Cobretti in “The Age of Innocence” (wait let me double-check IMDb … nevermind, I meant “Cobra”), as well as his clever method of counting calories while eating pizza:
Looking over his entire cinematic resume, you would think Sly is a fan of (to put it in boxing parlance) the one-two punch when it comes to his most memorable films. By that I mean just when you think his career has suffered too many blows from too many flops like “Rhinestone” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot,” he’ll come back strong with two of his biggest hits in a one-year period. Let’s look at some of the best years Stallone has had over his long career:
In May of that year Sly released “Rocky III,” for my money still the best of the sequels since it gave the Italian Stallion his greatest-ever nemesis in Mr. T and wisely took advantage of Carl Weathers’ charisma as Apollo Creed by teaming him up with Rocky. “Rocky III” was the fourth-highest grossing movie of the year, while in October Sly also starred in “First Blood,” which kick-started his other great franchise (unless you really love “The Expendables”) after John Rambo did not get killed off at the end as originally intended.
Two of the biggest holidays on the calendar in 1985 were virtually owned by Sylvester Stallone at the box office, as on Memorial Day he released “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” and on Thanksgiving he gave us “Rocky IV.” Americans during the height of the Cold War in the ‘80s must have loved seeing Sly kick some Russian ass in both films, as they respectively ranked second and third at the box office that year just behind “Back to the Future.”
After nearly derailing his career with the back-to-back misfires of “Oscar” and “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot,” Sly came back with a vengeance in 1993 with “Cliffhanger,” which easily topped the Memorial Day weekend box office once we heard that Sly killed a guy by impaling him on a stalactite (or was it a stalagmite?). Just a few months later he released “Demolition Man,” which wasn’t the huge hit it should have been at the time, but whose satirical brilliance has become more appreciated since its release.
Yeah this one is kind of a cheat since it covers different years, but either way after nearly a decade of boring crap like “Driven” and “Get Carter,” Sly announced sequels to both the “Rocky” and “Rambo” films. Everyone who thought this sounded like a desperate and lazy move by a fading star were shocked when the poignant “Rocky Balboa” and the awesomely violent “Rambo” were released a little more than 12 months apart and showed that Sly was (to quote Frank Stallone’s Top 10 hit from “Staying Alive”) far from over. Neither film did blockbuster business, but they reminded us of why we still loved Sylvester Stallone.
Out of these choices, where does the rest of Tough Guy Digest stand on Sly’s best year? I myself would probably go with 1993. While all these movies are great, it’s one thing to do a sequel to an already popular film, but after a failed attempt to mimic Arnold Schwarzenegger’s success at comedies, Sly said fuck it and went hard-R-rated again with easily one of the great action films of the 1990’s. Then he followed that up with “Demolition Man,” which at the time was sold as a generic futuristic action film, but in hindsight is even funnier than “Idiocracy” and just as scarily prescient about where our society and culture were heading.
CJ: I’m actually gonna go with the sleeper pick of 2006-2008, and here’s why: Sequels are tough to do, and he was doing the 6th and 4th installments of two different series, which were also 16 and 20 years apart respectively, and which NO ONE was clamoring for. I remember reading about each and thinking, “Really? Someone’s desperate.”
And yet he surprised all of us with “Rocky Balboa,” which was good enough that during the last fight I thought “Fuck it, I wanna see Rocky win” even though I knew how unrealistic that would be. Then he followed that up with “Rambo,” which starts with Sly’s typical unironic earnestness and ends with one of the best third-act action sequences we had seen in a movie in years. It was so good it is also the only movie I have walked out of saying “Wow, THAT was violent.”
Anthony: “Demolition Man” is a great movie that was also WAY ahead of the curve about how PC our society was going to become. That and it contained a little ray of light named Wesley Snipes. His performance (and hair color) was amazing. I loved “Cliffhanger” because of the way John Lithgow chewed up every scene he was in. When both of these came out I was just starting to come to grips with the fact that I liked bad guys more than good guys in movies, and if the villain was lame I never respected the hero. Whereas “Cliffhanger” and “Demolition Man” had two of the best sons of bitches ever put on celluloid.
Mike: I’m going to go with 1978, when he starred in an underrated movie called “F.I.S.T.” where he was basically playing Jimmy Hoffa, while he also directed “Paradise Alley,” a movie so unbelievably bad that everyone should see it. In “F.I.S.T.” Sly’s character Johnny Kovak ascends from truck driver to major corrupt union boss, while “Paradise Alley” features a wrestler named “Kid Salami” who drapes himself in lunch meat before every match.
Also 1981 was another good year for him, when he did “Nighthawks” and “Victory,” both awesome films.
Kevin: Yeah that’s not at all what I was asking Mike but yes I’ll go to bat at least for “Nighthawks,” one of the best time capsules ever if you want to be reminded about what an absolute shithole New York City was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Mike: There are a lot of great moments in that movie. SPOILER ALERT: Probably the best one is the major “Psycho” moment at the end when Rutger Hauer is about to strangle the lady doing dishes and she turns around and it’s Sylvester Stallone!
The man wrapped his pistol in plastic and submerged it underwater just to keep up the facade that he was a woman washing dishes. That’s commitment.
CJ: Even though I know it’s him I’m still fooled! And yes, a little aroused as well. That’s the power of Sylvester Stallone. Happy birthday big guy.