Scholars’ Spotlight: Sylvester Stallone – Cinema Scholars

Contents hide
2 Big Break
4 Franchising
6 Stardom
7 A 90’s Lull
8 Resurgence
10 Later Years

Scholars’ Spotlight: Sylvester Stallone – Cinema Scholars


With only two months to go until the premiere of the new Paramount+ Original crime drama Tulsa King, Cinema Scholars reflects on a select few of the career highs and lows of its leading man, Sylvester Enzenio Stallone. With a focus on his filmography when he ‘slipped’ out of Rocky’s shadow, avoided the slings and arrows of Rambo’s outrageous fortune. Or walked away from a huge explosion in slo-mo. We discover a career of rued resolve and risks rewarded.
Ask anyone to do a ‘Stallone Impression.’ The chances are they will perform a rumbling mumble culminating in an “Adrian!” This is a great disservice to the character and creator of Rocky Balboa. The overarching appeal of both Rocky, the Icon, and Stallone the Movie Star has endured. Both have continually evolved in real-time. Stallone’s career is to be admired for nothing if not its longevity. The story of how Rocky (1976) came to be has passed into Hollywood Legend.
Paul Mace, Sylvester Stallone, Henry Winkler, and Perry King in a promotional shot for “The Lords of Flatbush” (1974)

Big Break

Stallone had been plying his trade diligently for years. He appeared in small, and sometimes uncredited ’Youth’/’Mafiosa’ parts, as well as in well and lesser-known silver and small screen titles. This included an episode of Kojak (1975). There is no doubt Stallone was absorbing writing, directing, and acting techniques from these sets. When it came to shine, his star would be ready.
Rocky was, of course, his big break as a writer and actor. Roger Ebert famously referred to Stallone as ‘The New Brando’, comparing the former’s performance in Rocky to the latter in On The Waterfront (1954). It would be years before he became, what the man himself described as “an action star by accident.” Following the smash-hit success of his Boxing Drama debut, Stallone tried to broaden his acting horizons. He appeared in the solid, and underrated biopic F.I.S.T. (1978), with Stallone excelling with a layered performance as the labor union leader, Johnny Kovak.
His choice of a subdued, subtle performance in Nighthawks (1981) again showed an actor’s efforts to show his audience he was more than Apollo Creed’s punching bag. Released two years after Rocky II (1979), Stallone partners with Billy Dee Williams in the hunt for a Hans Gruber prototype performed by little-known European actor Rutger Hauer, in his American Studio debut.
Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith on the set of “Rocky” (1976)
Stallone quite possibly got one of his first bitter tastes of ‘Studio Interference’ and ‘Film Set Hierarchy’ here. This is because many of his character’s beats and scenes are left on the cutting room floor. This included a more developed storyline about reuniting with his ex-wife. The studio wanted a lean, slick, crime flick. On the flip side, Stallone wanted to show the world his leading man credentials.
The director, Bruce Malmouth, wanted to highlight Hauer’s obvious charisma and lethal charm. Stallone felt threatened that his star was being outshone and demanded that Hauer’s performance be toned down and his onscreen presence diminished. Hauer stood his ground and, duly, ignored him. Stallone’s image was not hurt. Although perhaps the lack of box office receipts for projects outside of the early Rockys may have begun to sting in the early 80s.

Taking Chances

The extremely amiable Rhinestone (1984) for example is a country music take on the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady trope. The film shows Stallone bravely dipping his toe into comedy (and musicals). He stars as a loveable buffoon alongside country music legend Dolly Parton. The film, co-written by Stallone, is by no means perfect. Also, the humor can cross into crass once too often. Still, the pair give it their all.
Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams on the set of “Nighthawks” (1981)
Unfortunately Rhinestone only made back roughly seventy-five percent of its $28 million budget. Stallone looks back on it as one of the films he wishes he had not made. He even said on a recent IG Q&A that he was way too thin in the film. However, it showed Stallone was open to taking risks and stretching different acting muscles. Perhaps the lesson learned in the 1980s was to take as much control of each project as he could. This was in the belief that they were as safe and risk-free as possible in his own hands.
In the years that followed, Stallone entered true megastardom. All of his hits were SMASH HITS and became iconic. He was not relying on Rocky and Rambo to sustain him through leaner times. Also, the actor’s movie marketing machine changed as his onscreen persona developed. He was no longer Sylvester Stallone. He was STALLONE.


By the mid-1980s, Hollywood was starting to truly learn the value of multi-sequels and franchises. The continuing stories of Rocky and Rambo, Stars Wars, Star Trek, and Superman. All had completed their respective trilogies by 1984. One of the views from the Hollywood Hills was to build characters or ensembles that could sustain multiple outings. Invest in marketing, so logos looked good on a T-shirt and/or lunchbox. Build movie fan loyalty and watch the repeat business roll on in.
The theatrical one-sheet for “Cobra” (1986)
As discussed on the superlative podcast The Rewatchables, Bill Simmons and his co-hosts explained how Cobra (1986) was clearly designed to be Stallone’s ‘Cop Franchise.’ After cementing his ‘Boxer Franchise’ and ‘Soldier Franchise,’ the actor was following the still-popular trend that was established by Dirty Harry (1971). That of a rebel cop that plays by his own rules in order to catch the bad guy.
We can tell Stallone is invested in this character as he adds unnecessary amounts of affectation to the character. The sunglasses, worn in winter during a darkened grocery store shootout. Leather hand gloves. Mouth matchstick. Cutting a slice of pizza with scissors. Surely, all of this would have been explained in Cobra 2, 3, or 4. To Stallone’s credit, the film was a hit and a great benchmark for 80s overindulgence.
The plot of Cobra is nonsensical with a completely unexplained cult of serial killers. Plus the poster has two taglines. One for the film and one for the character. Rumors surrounded the film that Stallone was the actual director in all but title, that extras were not allowed to look at him, and he frequently came to set late, red-eyed, with an entourage of bodyguards.
Stallone also demanded the lead female character be played by then-girlfriend, Brigitte Nielsen who is nothing more than a plot device. Her introduction is an overlong photoshoot with robots. She then sports an unflattering mousey wig for the rest of the film, obviously to make her look more ‘ordinary’ despite her character’s introduction being a photo shoot. Cobra was also a benchmark for Stallone’s ego, as he later stated in a 2014 interview:

“I abused power badly. I read some of the interviews I gave now and wish I could go back and punch myself in the face”

Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Nielsen posing in a scene from “Cobra” (1986)
She is then propositioned by her sleazy agent, thus justifying his grisly murder, which she witnesses, thus needing protection by Stallone’s machismo from axe-wielding serial killers. The film’s final act includes the obligatory Western-style shootout, one of several nods to Westerns in the film. Cobra versus the Cult. Then, of course, he must have the one-on-one showdown with the film’s Big Bad.
Here we have another indicator of Stallone’s long-term plan for the character. He tries to introduce, not one but two catchphrases, respectively: “You’re a disease and I’m the cure” and “This is where the law stops and I start.” Both are equally ridiculous and glorious. However, neither is as iconic as “I’ll Be Back,” not that it mattered. In the end, Cobra was an R-Rated hit, making double its budget. It has never spawned a sequel, much to Stallone’s regret.


The triple whammy of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rocky IV (1985), and Cobra arguably made Stallone the biggest star in the world. He admitted he could then afford to coast through a few movies for the paycheck alone. How else can the insipid Over The Top (1987) or forgettable Lock Up (1989) be explained? Then, following the lukewarm reception of Rambo III (1988), Stallone was able to leave the 1980s on a relative high by hanging onto the coattails of another popular genre of the time: The Mismatched/Buddy Cop Movie that had been established recently by Lethal Weapon (1987).
Tango and Cash (1989) was released with a number of behind-the-scenes issues, namely the hiring and firing of various writers and directors which would carry on throughout production. The exit of Patrick Swayze to join the production of Road House (1989) to be replaced by Kurt Russell was at the forefront. This all leads to a disjointed film with a muddled tone that exists in its own reality. Since when do ‘hero’ cops regularly make front-page news?
Sylvester Stallone in a scene from “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985)
Do cops provide model headshots to newspapers, and have time to play the stock market so successfully that they need not be cops? Finally, how have two hero cops who work in the same precinct and are trying to take down the same drug lord, never met? Part-comedy, part-action, part-thriller, part-prison movie and again hoping to set up a franchise. Stallone is enjoying himself in the role of Raymond Tango, and his and Russell’s charisma carries the film through its ludicrous parts. Again, we never got the further adventures of a Stallone Cop Franchise.

A 90’s Lull

A film that did spawn a successful franchise at the end of the 1980s, with the lead playing a cop, was a little film called Die Hard (1988). This film, along with Batman (1989) led to a seismic shift in the cinematic landscape and changed the idea of what an action hero looks and sounds like. Both films capitalized on their success with quickly greenlit sequels. Action heroes soon started to look more like your Average Joe. He had wit instead of one-liners, fewer muscles, and more bruises. Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Seagal and Van Damme were being left behind.
Stallone was trying to stay relevant with an ill-advised return to the ring in Rocky V (1990). The film lies at the bottom of every fan’s Rocky Rankings, for good reason. Stallone admits he took his eye off the ball during the production. Still, it laid a path of redemption for Rocky Balbao (2006), Creed (2015), and Creed II (2018).
Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Morrison (grand nephew of John Wayne) in a scene from "Rocky V" (1990)
Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Morrison (grand-nephew of John Wayne) in a scene from “Rocky V” (1990)
Stallone believes he was in a lull in the 1990s. The decade began with a huge risk as the actor tried his hand at broad comedy in the form of Oscar (1991). A thoroughly enjoyable, old-fashioned mob comedy in the vein of Billy Wilder, with a wonderful madcap, hugely talented ensemble featuring Marisa Tomei, Chazz Palminteri, Tim Curry, Harry Shearer, and Kirk Douglas.
Stallone carries the film, and even though not a top-notch comedian, raises a lot of laughs and pulls off a breaking-the-fourth-wall look of the highest degree. All in all; audiences were not ready for a film that would be more suited to a Broadway stage. After this blip, many filmgoers would argue Stallone’s career was a steady stream of crowd pleasers where you knew what you were in for with his name on the poster.
Cliffhanger (1993), was Stallone’s Die Hard. a one-man effort and a genuine hit. Demolition Man (1993) remains a joy, with Stallone, a young Sandra Bullock, and livewire Wesley Snipes playing off one and another superbly. The same cannot be truly said of The Specialist (1994) with Sharon Stone in an overblown revenge flick, which was originally offered to Steven Seagal. The misjudged Judge Dredd (1995) was a huge disappointment to both fans of the comic and of the actor. This was mainly due to the fact that Stallone thought he was making a buddy comedy while the director and writer thought they were making a dark satire, true to the 2000 AD source material. This was one of the final times a film was marketed as a STALLONE film.
Follow-ups Assassins (1995) and Daylight (1996) were standard and forgettable, relying on the name above the title. It was perhaps these low-level hits and misses, and seeing his old Staying Alive (1983) pal, John Travolta, receive accolades for his indie masterpiece, Pulp Fiction (1994). This led to Stallone relying on those acting muscles he had when he used to have a first name.
Sylvester Stallone…hanging from a cliff in a scene from “Cliffhanger” (1993)


Cop Land (1997) was the film that put a spring back into Stallone’s step, despite gaining forty pounds. He proved he could go toe-to-toe with cinematic heavyweights Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel and hold his own sharing a screen with solid stars like Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick. Stallone felt comfortable in his own cinematic skin and was more confident going forward in his career and age. As the new millennium dawned, he had entered his 55th year.
Although critically acclaimed to this day, with director James Mangold going from strength to strength, Copland was not the huge hit that Stallone was craving. In haste and possibly in need of a check, Stallone continued to take risks with bland remakes/reimagining of films like Get Carter (2000). Dull and overly serious films like Driven (2001), and some straight-to-video-worthy disappointments in the form of Avenging Angelo (2002), D-Tox (2002), and Shade (2003).
Although he had the biggest opening of his career so far with Spy Kids 3D (2003), Stallone was becoming an annual Razzie Award target. This was his true lull. It seemed he had nowhere else to turn. So, almost inevitably, he turned back to his “best imaginary friend,” Rocky Balboa, in 2006. When the film was released, it received mixed reviews, but over time it has found a place in the hearts of movie fans.
Sylvester Stallone and his dog Butkus on the set of “Rocky” (1976)
Rocky Balboa was a metaphor for Stallone not giving up, that he still had “some stuff in the basement” to offer. He still deserved his pursuit of happiness, and Stallone offered a fantastic motivational speech, which the film now is best known for:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward! That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not point fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

Later Years

Stallone took Rocky’s advice. In the years that followed, it took a while for the Stallone Resurgence to fully take off. It was cemented by his Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning performance as Rocky in Creed. He settled into his advancing years, and entered the days of being affectionately known as ‘Sly.’ He even kept busy during the pandemic. Stallone re-edited and created a director’s cut for Rocky IV (1985) in 2021, entitled Rocky vs Drago.
One or two movies would harken back to his 1980s glory days. A whole franchise, in fact. This started in 2010 with The Expendables films. A fruitful relationship soon developed between Stallone and director James Gunn. Gunn cast him in minor but noted roles in Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume II (2017) and The Suicide Squad (2022).
Now Stallone is currently doing the rounds on a global scale to promote his new TV show, Tulsa King. This is following the release of the well-received trailer. Sly shows no sign of slowing down, and why should he? He has a fanbase that adores him, and a lot of his movies remain entertaining and rewatchable no matter how dated they may have become. Stallone is a movie star. He took the hits and kept moving forward, and that is how winning is done.
Tulsa King is premiering exclusively on Paramount+ and it’s scheduled to debut the first two episodes on November 13, 2022.

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