This is the spring season when Sylvester Stallone ushers out the old and welcomes in the new.
The timing may be pure coincidence, but it seems fitting that what Stallone says is the final installment of the "Rocky" series appeared in video stores just as his latest movie, "Oscar," makes its nationwide debut. With "Rocky V" a "fait accompli," the ex-Philadelphian has apparently put his celebrated alter ego to rest, and if the slapstick "Oscar" fares well, he may manage to exorcise the specter of Rambo, too.Perhaps it's a paradox that an actor would be so eager to escape from the shadows of the two roles that brought him fame and transformed him into a $2 billion man. (Actually, his movies have grossed a few million less than that, but he'll get there - it's only a matter of time.)
Then again, Stallone's career is full of contradictions. Here is someone who has shown in countless interviews that he's witty and articulate, but his screen persona comes from playing what he has called "monosyllabic sides of beef."
So, is Stallone a victim of Hollywood typecasting? Possibly, but as he holds or shares screenwriting credits on 13 of the 17 movies he has starred in, Stallone can claim to have exercised a degree of control over his roles that few actors can equal.
Now that the days of "Rocky" and "Rambo" are apparently over, the time seems ripe to look back at Stallone's film "oeuvre."
One way to look at his career is to divide it into two epochs: the pre-Rambo and Rambo eras. Why attach such significance to the John Rambo character, introduced in "First Blood" (1982)? Because far more than the Rocky Balboa role ever did, the character of Vietnam veteran Rambo has defined Stallone's screen personality. He became the prototypical Stallone hero - the silent, avenging angel with body by Jake and face by Caravaggio.
Between Rambo's first appearance in 1982 and the release of "Rocky V" in 1990, Stallone starred in seven action pictures: "Rambo: First Blood Part II," "Rocky IV," "Cobra," "Over the Top," "Rambo III," "Lock Up" and "Tango & Cash." All cast Stallone in some variation of Rambo. Even Rocky in the fourth installment behaves like a "Rambo" clone.
And though their specifics vary, these movies stubbornly adhere to the same simple formula: First see Sly get beaten, whipped, tortured and generally brutalized; then watch him exact vengeance on his enemies. At times, his Rambo-era films seem like paeans to pain. But that's part of the formula, designed to whip up the viewers' bloodlust and make them clamor for the retribution Stallone is certain to exact.
The action movies from Stallone's Rambo phase lend themselves to this kind of collective analysis because they are practically interchangeable. (We won't dwell on his abortive 1984 stab at comedy, "Rhinestone," with Dolly Parton.) On the other hand, the films that pre-date "Rambo," while largely forgotten (with the exception of the three "Rockys"), deserve a little closer look, if for no other reason than they feature Stallone at a point when he was still playing characters, rather than caricatures.
Even after 15 years and four sequels, the original "Rocky" has lost little of its emotional wallop. For the plot, Stallone may have dusted off one of the most timeworn of movie scenarios - unknown boxer suddenly gets a shot at the title - but he reworks the material in completely original terms. Even the language seems inventive, as if Stallone had coined his own dialect for the picture. Shot in Philadelphia, the film gains emotional resonance from the sharp details Stallone uses in imagining the lives of the principal characters. In "Rocky," Stallone created an enduring story of the struggle of Everyman. It's a tale with universal appeal.
In between "Rocky" and its first sequel, Stallone made two films, "F.I.S.T." and "Paradise Alley." In many ways "F.I.S.T." is an ideal follow-up to "Rocky." It picks up on some of the same themes and allows Stallone, in the role of union leader Johnny Kovacs, to play another working-class hero. Depsite the parallels and its populist sentiments, however, "F.I.S.T." manages to be more than simply "Rocky Goes to Washington." For the first and only time in his career, Stallone portrays a character with some complex and ultimately ambiguous motivations. What starts out as an uplifting fable in the style of "Rocky" develops into a cautionary tale about a man led astray by his ambitions.
With "Paradise Alley," Stallone entered the ranks of the auteur. He wrote, starred in and directed this period piece about three brothers trying to escape their dead-end lives in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the late 1940s. His directorial debut generated mixed reviews and little audience interest, but "Paradise Alley" does showcase Stallone's distinct talents as a filmmaker, especially his penchant for quirky char-acterizations and flair for bizarre action sequences. A prime example of the latter is the epic, almost surreal, wrestling match that takes place in a drenching rainstorm at the movie's climax.
The diminishing returns of "F.I.S.T." and "Paradise" put his career back on the ropes, prompting Stallone to return to the character who had catapulted him to stardom.
In "Rocky II" (1979), as in the first movie, "Rocky" faces a situation somewhat analogous to his creator's: After retiring from boxing, "Rocky" feels that he's slipping back into obscurity and realizes his only source of salvation lies in a return to the ring.
Unlike in the first film, however, Stallone appears unable to draw on his own experiences to explore "Rocky's" dilemma with any real insight. The freshness of the original is lacking, replaced by one trite plot development after another, the worst occurring when Rocky's wife lapses into a coma. "Rocky II" simply retraces the same emotional territory.
"Nighthawks" and "Victory" (both 1981) mark a transitional phase. In both films, for the first time, Stallone allowed someone else to handle the screenwriting chores. "Nighthawks," which paired him with Billy Dee Williams as two cops trying to track down a vicious terrorist in New York City, goes a step further in breaking with tradition. It might be the only Stallone film in which he keeps his torso completely under wraps. He even dons a pair of rimless glasses for most of the film.
Unfortunately, "Nighthawk's" attempt to place Stallone in a conventional thriller misfires, sabotaged by a script that depicts his character in the most stereotyped terms (right down to a wife who has left him because of his dedication to his job). The movie is interesting in one respect, though. In a prescient moment, a character utters a line that neatly summarizes the credo of Stallone's "Rambo" films: "The only way to combat violence is with greater violence."
"Victory" is the nearest thing to an ensemble piece that Stallone has appeared in. Directed by John Huston, the movie casts Stallone alongside Michael Caine as captives in a German POW camp run by Max von Sydow during World War II. The plot centers on a soccer match between the prisoners and the Germans, which the Allied officers plan to use as cover for a mass escape attempt.
That's the premise, at least, but after a promising beginning, the movie starts to waffle: Should it stay true to its World War II action-flick roots or turn itself into a vehicle for Stallone, complete with the obligatory "Rocky"-like finale? Despite the participation of a lot of top-notched talent, "Victory" opts for the latter course, no matter how hackneyed the scenario then becomes. One can't blame Stallone for this development - someone else wrote the script, after all. Nonetheless, "Victory" can leave the viewer with the impression that sometimes Stallone's mere presence may be enough to subvert a movie's good intentions.
Neither "Nighthawks" nor "Victory" performed well at the box office, but if Stallone's roller-coaster career appeared to be once more careening downward, "Rocky III" (1982) took him right back to the top. That installment ranks right up there with the first, not so much for its emotional impact as for sheer entertainment value.
"Rocky III" dispenses with the solemn, earnest tone of its immediate predecessor and instead presents a story line as pumped up as its star's bulging pecs.
Stallone's physique, developed into Herculean proportions by a stringent training regimen he pursued specifically for the film, matches the movie's style perfectly, for the entire picture has an exaggerated, larger-than-life quality. Also prominently displayed is Stallone's offbeat sense of humor. In scenes such as the charity wrestling match with Hulk Hogan that turns into a brawl, the movie often manages to be funny, surprising and exhilarating at the same time.
"Rocky III" lets Rocky go out a winner, and it's too bad that Stallone didn't end the series there, permitting the character to retire gracefully, still the champ.