Without Sylvester Stallone we wouldn’t have current action stars such as The Rock and Vin Diesel. Wait wait; is that really a good thing? Nevertheless Stallone has been making films for nearly forty years. He’s responsible for two of the most popular film franchises of the 80’s, he’s starred In sixty films, produced seven projects, written twenty-four projects including television episodes and characters for a videogame, and directed eight films. For a body building action star the guy is fairly prolific. Oh and as mush mouthed as he can often be, have you seen Vin Diesel in Fast Five? What the Hell was that guy saying in that film? If you’re looking to dig through the bad stuff to find the diamonds here are his top ten films so far:
10. The Lords of Flatbush 1974
Directed by: Martin Davidson, Stephen Verona
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Stallone is pretty young in this film and it’s still one of his better roles. Set in the late 1950’s Stallone plays a young thug that becomes a part of a gang that rides motorcycles, smokes, and drinks their way through the Flatbush area of Brooklyn New York. The film is well executed if a bit on the melodramatic side, especially when the story begins to focus on the love lives of the characters. The film was directed by the team of Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona. It’s early in Stallone’s career here but for him anyway; he does a good enough job. Hell he holds his own with the Fonz right? Well, take from that what you will.
9. Death Race 2000 1975
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, David Carradine, Mary Warnov
Paul Bartel directs a classic film from producer Roger Corman that not only stars Sylvester Stallone but also David Carradine and Mary Warnov. This is one of those films that are so bad it’s just awesome. The down and dirty of it is a sci-fi story where the hot sport is a cross country race where the racers also get points for the kills they score along the way. The core concept of this film has truly made it into the pop culture zeitgeist. The film was originally released and over 30 years later kids are making jokes in the car with their mom saying “hit that guy he’s worth 150 points!” They probably don’t even know where the joke originally came from, especially since the Jason Statham starring remake made in 2008 has less to do with the original concept and more in common with a videogame like Twisted Metal. Stallone is pretty wooden in this film but no less so that David Carradine. Both actors are unintentionally hilarious in the film. Death race 2000 is a true drive in classic and Stallone is a ton of fun in the film.
8. Nighthawks 1981
Directed by: Bruce Malmuth
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer, Lindsey Wagner, Billy Dee Williams
Nighthawks is a film that is almost transitional for Stallone. This film finds Stallone transitioning into the modern sort of Hollywood cops and robbers style of action film but still falling into the comfortable New York tough guy role he had previously been playing. The film features the great Rutger Hauer in the role of the villain and is directed by Bruce Malmuth. Also featured in the film are Lindsey Wagner and Billy Dee Williams. Stallone and Williams play NYC cops that are assigned to a new elite anti-terrorism squad just in time to stop a terrorist who has come to town to cause some mayhem. Additional conflict comes into play when the leader of the squad orders the cops to simply shoot to kill. Nighthawks is a solid action film but it might actually feel a little sedate to fans of the bombastic Michael Bay films of today. The character intensity between Stallone and Hauer is the anchor that makes this film a must see.
7. Cliffhanger 1993
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker, John Lithgrow
What’s wrong with a well-made adrenaline rush of an action film? The answer is there’s nothing wrong with such a film. The film needs to have a streamlined story that’s also not too stupid or doesn’t assume that the viewer is stupid. Cliffhanger is just such a film. The premise is simple to set up allowing plenty of room for the action ride that the film is. Stallone plays a member of a mountain rescue team along with Michael Rooker. After the two of them lose Rooker’s wife in an attempted rescue Stallone’s character retires leaving a woman that he loves behind. Later he returns, not to work, but to try and get Jessie to leave with him. At the same time John Lithgow plays a criminal planning the heist of a lifetime. Of course the two end up facing off in the snow covered mountains. Renny Harlin directed this fast paced roller coaster ride. Sylvester Stallone is absolutely at home in this film and he does a fantastic job in the lead role.
6. Rambo 2008
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Like Rocky Balboa, the Rambo franchise is another franchise that Stallone decided that he needed to clean up, to end it with a great story and finality for the lead character. So Stallone wrote and directed a film that took into consideration the age of the character and it also did what the franchise has often done by trying to bring attention to some real world genocide. This film finds a very different Rambo from the younger man of the 80’s, yet in many ways still the same man carrying the same weight of his past. The action is fantastic and oddly more grounded for the age of the character and the final moment, just before the closing credits offers up a very nice subtle emotional beat to the character and gives him a nice finish.
5. Demolition Man 1993
Directed by: Marco Brambilla
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock
Ok, so here’s a film where Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock have the most bizarre form of cybersex probably ever put on film. Does it sound funny? Well it is funny and this time in Stallone’s career it’s supposed to be. In this science fiction film Stallone plays a rough and ready street cop that was put into suspended animation after being accused of killing people while chasing his greatest foe played by the hilarious Wesley Snipes who is also frozen by the way. Both men are thawed out to continue their fight in a future where everything is peaceful to a truly annoying degree. Bullock plays a beat cop obsessed with “classic” pop culture and the beat ‘em up style of cop portrayed in Hollywood films. She partners with Stallone to track down Snipes who is planning to run this new innocent and untouched world. Demolition Man is action packed and full of fantastic comedy from beginning to end. Snipes is on fire in this film full of hilarious one liners and Stallone even gets to be funny too.
4. First Blood 1982
Directed by: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy
First Blood is a film that has some really campy moments and it should considering the type of film that it is but at the same time it has heart and it’s an extremely well executed small cast story. The film made in 1982 is originally based on a book and is an answer to the backlash soldiers received as they returned home from the Vietnam War. Many Americans didn’t support the war and many of them took their disdain for the war out on soldiers that weren’t to blame. Stallone played John Rambo, one such hated soldier. He came home traumatized from the war having lost many good friends and not having a family to support him. At the beginning of the film he’s hitchhiking across country looking for friends who may have also returned home when he comes to a small town where he’s not wanted. Brian Dennehey played the small town sheriff desperate to keep his little town clean. He tries to run Rambo out of town but Rambo just wanted to pass through. Things escalate too far with incarceration and beatings which ignite memories from Rambo’s time in Vietnam leading to him bringing a war to this small town. There are a few clunker scenes and the closing horrible song actually became iconic because it was so bad. The movie is exciting intentionally melodramatic, and it’s the beginning of one of the greatest action heroes of the 80’s.
3. Rocky Balboa 2006
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Rocky was one of Sylvester Stallone’s best films. The film was so popular that it became a major franchise. Each film that was released in the series was just more ridiculous than the one before it until it got to the point that the franchise made a mockery of what was a fantastic and groundbreaking film. Stallone is as at fault for the mess as the studio that made the films because he continued to star in them. In 2006 Stallone turned 60 and he was still being asked about another Rocky film. He decided to take the franchise to a proper close by starring, writing, and directing the film. To the shock of many viewers Stallone crafted a quiet subtle film that sees him as a creator and his character taking stock of who he is and realizing that he is in fact getting older and not the super hero he once was. Rocky Balboa is a smart and honest film that is the only film in the franchise to truly touch on the heart of the original film. In the film virtual reality versions of Rocky and the current champ are pitted against each other and Rocky’s avatar loses the fight. In response to the highly publicized exhibition the current fast and young camp challenges Rocky to a fight and to the shock of his friends and family Rocky comes out of retirement and accepts the fight. He needs the fight to find a bookend to what feels like an incomplete life. Rocky Balboa is a truly amazing film that should have happened right after Cop Land rather than 10 years later.
2. Cop Land 1997
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro
James Mangold wrote and directed this film in 1997 that was meant as a reboot for Stallone’s career and for the actor proof that he’s more than just an action guy. To be honest Mangold probably plotted this film to be made with or without Stallone but casting him ended up being a brilliant choice. Stallone famously put on quite a bit of weight for the role because he didn’t want to play the super hero for this film. In Cop Land Stallone plays an older, deaf in one ear, and out of shape sheriff of a small town where big city corrupt cops come to live. Stallone had always wanted to be a city cop but could never qualify due to his partial deafness. He languishes in a world of depressed existence until he learns that the cops that he looks up to are in fact corrupt and he’s forced to be the hero even though he’s outnumbered and outgunned. While Cop Land may not be Stallone’s most impactful film it does feature his absolutely best performance. The film also stars Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro.
1. Rocky 1976
Directed by: John G Avildsen
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Meredith Burgess, Carl Weatheres
This film is quite a feat when you really think about it. Back in the era in which the film was made Stallone just didn’t seem like a storytelling auteur. Come on you know it’s true. But he had written this story and wanted to star in it. The resulting film was earthy and real to the characters in it, surprisingly heartfelt and also uplifting. Rocky stands 30 years later as one of the greatest sports films ever made. Stallone plays New York City thug carving out a life but wanting to do more, wanting to become a world class boxer and marry a local girl he loves. The film was brilliantly sprinkled with supporting actors that also felt like true neighborhood people including Talia Shire, Burt young, and the great Burgess Meredith. Carl Weathers is extremely entertaining in the film as Rocky’s final opponent too. Say what you will about the mush mouthed Stallone, and his was that in those days, but he is responsible for a Hollywood classic.