In the past year I've been surprised by how many of Stallone's movies pop up on cable week in and week out. When I started this post two weekends ago, Rocky II (1979) was on Spike TV. Last weekend Rocky III (1982) was on Spike. When I originally thought about writing this post back in February, Rocky II and III were airing back-to-back on TNT on a Saturday morning, and Stallone's 2000 remake of Get Carter came on TNT that night. (By the way, if you're wondering whether or not Stallone had plastic surgery in the early '80s, watch the ending of Rocky II and the beginning of Rocky III in one sitting and you'll have your evidence.)
Then there was Cliffhanger (1993) on Bravo one Saturday, and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) shows up on AMC now and again. TBS, would you please show Demolition Man (1993) and The Specialist (1994)? Gracias. Oh yeah, didn't I also see Rocky IV (1985) on Spike and TNT last fall and Rocky V (1990) on Spike in January? Indeed I did. Strangely enough, the original Rocky hasn't appeared yet, at least not when I'm flipping through channels. And where's Tango & Cash (1989) and Daylight (1996), cable programmers?
I saw Daylight on opening weekend back in college (don't tell anyone), and I remember seeing a "For Your Consideration" ad for the film in Variety right before the Oscar nominations were announced in early '97. Yeah, I guess Daylight's visual effects were worth considering if you were a voter, but I laughed when I saw "Best Actor: Sylvester Stallone" in the ad. I later found out that some stars make it part of their contract that the studio will push their names for Oscar consideration, whether it's Nicolas Cage in Adaptation or Brendan Fraser in The Mummy.
Anyway, cable channels love re-running Stallone's action movies, and they wouldn't keep airing them if people weren't watching. However, if you want to see a Stallone comedy like Rhinestone (1984) or Oscar (1991) or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), or a Stallone drama like F.I.S.T. (1978) or Cop Land (1997), you're out of luck. But pray extra hard and you may be rewarded with a Stallone-directed movie like 1983's Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive. Stallone even has a writing credit on that one. I wonder how the pitch to Paramount CEO Barry Diller went in 1982 ...
STALLONE: Barry, I love sequels. Love 'em.
DILLER: Yeah, Rocky III looks like it's going to be the biggest one yet. And I heard this character you play in First Blood has the potential to be—
STALLONE: I love 'em so much that I wanna make a sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977). That's one of your biggest hits, right?
DILLER: Yes. It is. But ... uh ... I'm sorry, but why did you just say "1977"?
STALLONE: I didn't.
DISEMBODIED VOICE FROM BEYOND: Sorry, that was me. I got a little date-happy.
DILLER: Who's "me"?
DISEMBODIED VOICE FROM BEYOND: The guy who's making up this conversation right now.
DILLER: I see.
STALLONE: You're saying I'm not in control of what I'm saying? That I got no free will?
DISEMBODIED VOICE FROM BEYOND: Forget I mentioned it. Please continue.
DILLER: Okay. Sly, let's back up and start with "That's one of your biggest hits," okay?
STALLONE: Got it.
(Stallone pauses, then continues.)
STALLONE: That's one of your biggest hits, right?
DILLER: Yes, it is. But that really won't be necessary. You know, with disco not being what it once—
STALLONE: Don't worry—I don't wanna star in it with Travolta. I'll stay behind the camera. Sound good?
(Diller stares blankly at Stallone.)
DILLER: You want to direct a sequel to Saturday Night Fever?
STALLONE: Sure! I'll write it for you too. Oh, and my brother Frank is gonna write most of the songs for the soundtrack. You said it yourself—disco's dead. But my brother's got a real gift for rock 'n' roll. You heard of Loverboy? They're terrific. Same deal with Frank. I'll make you a dub of his best stuff. Okay, see ya later!
(Stallone exits through Diller's office wall, Kool-Aid Man style.)
Here's something interesting I learned around the time of Rocky Balboa's release last December: aside from Cliffhanger, which made $84 million in the U.S. (you know I like talkin' box office!), Stallone hasn't had a substantial hit in this country outside of the Rocky and Rambo movies, but even Rocky V and Rambo III (1988) weren't hits. Films like Demolition Man, Tango & Cash, and Cobra (1986) weren't exactly flops, but they didn't draw people back to the theater after opening weekend either. Cable TV's another story, obviously.
I recently saw Stallone in Assassins (1995) for the first time. Here's a movie that had the right elements to be entertaining and successful, but it isn't. Sure, it's a pleasant waste of time on cable on a Saturday afternoon, but it could've been a lot better.
Assassins was produced by Joel Silver, who shepherded two Die Hards and four Lethal Weapons, and was directed by Richard Donner, who helmed all of those Lethal Weapons. Assassins' original script was written by Andy and Larry Wachowski four years before The Matrix made them a big deal, and the (credited) rewrite was done by Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar in '97 for cowriting L.A. Confidential. Stallone's costars, Antonio Banderas and Julianne Moore, were up-and-coming actors in '95, but neither of them do good work in this movie. In fact, Stallone's probably the best thing about it.
Moore plays a computer genius with no common sense whatsoever; in one scene she wanders out of her hotel room in San Juan to join a Day of the Dead parade even though she knows Banderas's assassin is somewhere in the area, waiting to kill her. Now, the idea of a genius with no common sense isn't hard to buy, but here's where the movie started to get on my nerves, aside from Banderas's cartoonish performance (if he had literally chewed on the furniture, it wouldn't have seemed out of place): right before Moore spaces out and joins the parade, Stallone and she have been discussing how they're going to get his money out of a bank in San Juan without Banderas picking them off. So once Moore decides it's a lovely night to celebrate dead people and Stallone is forced to retrieve her, I started thinking, This scene only exists so that Banderas can kidnap Moore and force Stallone to alter his plan at the bank the next day ... right?
No, because Stallone catches Moore in time and they get back to the hotel before Banderas can spot them. They then carry out their plan the way they said they would the next day.
So why was that stupid scene in the movie in the first place?! Just to make Moore's character look like an idiot? Just so she could be the typical damsel in distress who has to be saved by the hero? Donner got paid $10 million to direct Assassins; I suppose he laughed all the way to the bank in San Juan that's holding his money. One other thing about Assassins—since it came out in the mid-'90s, it's a movie in which instant messaging on tiny laptop screens is used to create suspense. Remember when action movies relied heavily on MacGuffins like missing floppy disks? Assassins is that kind of movie.
Like I said, Stallone's the best thing in it, and when Rocky Balboa came out last December, there was a surge of good will behind him once the buzz got out that Rocky #6 was actually a good movie. (I still haven't seen it.) The people behind the Razzies, the awards given to the year's worst movies, even said that once they heard about Rocky Balboa going into production they fully expected they'd be giving it multiple "worst" awards come February '07. But Stallone, who wrote and directed the sixth installment (he wrote all six Rockys and directed four of them), apparently came up with a good epilogue to the series, or at least an epilogue that was good enough.
However, once Rocky Balboa came out, Stallone started talking about his plans for John Rambo, another number-free "I have a full name, dammit!" sequel title; Stallone cowrote and directed this fourth Rambo film, which is set for release next summer along with fellow sexagenarian action hero Harrison Ford's fourth Indiana Jones movie.
Stallone may have already extinguished that surge of good will from last year: we can all accept him going back to the well once, but who's demanding another Rambo so soon after another Rocky? At least the character of Rocky Balboa was (initially) a sentimental lug with a dream who was easy to root for; Rambo was a Vietnam vet who went nuts and killed a bunch of cops, which was ... you know ... a little harder to root for. Maybe John Rambo will be a thrilling movie, but that good-will lightning bolt ain't gonna strike twice.
I admire Stallone for continuing to write and direct; aside from Clint Eastwood, there aren't any other stars who direct their own action films, and Eastwood doesn't write the scripts he directs, nor is he taking on action-hero parts anymore. I'm not saying Stallone's writing great works of art (see: the arm-wrestling extravaganza Over the Top), but have fellow Best Screenplay winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck written much since Good Will Hunting a decade ago? Not really. (Damon got a writing credit on Gus Van Sant's Gerry, but I heard the script is bare-bones, and Affleck cowrote the screenplay for his upcoming directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone.) Stallone stayed just as busy as them as an actor in the decade following 1976's Rocky, for which he won his Best Screenplay Oscar.
When I caught part of Rocky III on TNT back in February, I realized there was something unique about Stallone writing, directing, and starring in a big summer movie like that. I can't think of any other examples (no, Woody Allen movies don't count). For that alone, the Italian Stallion commands respect. (Warning: do not watch Rocky IV again, or your respect may immediately fly out the window.)