Sylvester Stallone: This time he's serious

Whether it’s any kind of a film or not – and early reports conflict sharply – the new Rambo movie has to be some kind of milestone, and some kind of vindication for its (incredibly) sixty-one year old star-writer-director.
The standing ovation he received at the Baftas (of all gigs!) is an encouraging sign that Sylvester Stallone may be on the verge of a forgive-and-forget critical renaissance such as was granted Clint Eastwood around the time of Unforgiven, with the twin benefits of a more sympathetic reappraisal of the back catalogue and the chance to do some really significant work in the future.

I hope so.
Many people think I’m joking when I say I’m a huge Stallone fan. But I am, and not in a ‘guilty pleasure’ sense either: I think his is one of the most interesting (if often frustrating) film careers of the medium’s last three decades.
Everyone knows he is a more serious, intelligent and articulate fellow than many of his films would like you to believe.
And everyone knows he is not just a star but a writer and director too - you may not think him especially good in any of those capacities, but like the proverbial dog on its hinter legs, that he does it at all is admirable, and surely suggestive of more than financial ambition.

And as a star, as an icon, it really does seem to me that he completes and concludes that trail that leads back from Eastwood through Heston, to Mitchum and Bogart and back to Gable and Cooper. He is the last film star, the last perfection of a single image, the last actor to have both benefited and suffered from being his age's pre-eminent symbol of masculinity.
What these greats have in common, and what I think Stallone shares with them, is the simultaneous ability (and desire) to both project this archetype and at the same time subtly interrogate it, and where necessary move it forward.
The imitators and rivals that spring up in every era invariably lack this ambiguity and sense of process: with neither the will nor the prowess for reinvention, they go through the motions. But Coop and Gable and Bogey and Chuck and Clint and Sly are more fluid and alert to change, even when they stand against it.

Though one of the faces they present to the world (both as stars and characters) is monolithic and implacable, they have others. Stallone, in fact, may be the most schizophrenic of the bunch: never has a star been so visibly torn by the internal struggle between simplicity and the epic statement, by the contradictory need to embody losers and heroes both.
At his best he plays both in the same film; that after all is what Rocky and Rambo both were, in their original incarnations. Both were superb performances in superb films. And the problem with the sequels is not the fact of them per se, but their capitulation to escapism in the face of success.
However great the queues around the box-office made him feel, Stallone was wrong to let his characters share some of that triumph, for in essence they spoke not to successes but to underdogs and outsiders. Even Chaplin at his most arrogant would have seen the error of having the Little Tramp elected President, yet this is essentially what Stallone did. The Rocky and Rambo sequels both conform to this same odd pattern.
Rocky was a hero for what he attempted, but reason as well as drama demanded that he lose the actual title bout that forms the film’s climax. But for Stallone himself it was a fight he won. The story of him turning down a desperately needed $250000 for his script, holding out instead for $75000 and the chance to star, is well-known but true, and it says a lot about the man and the nature of his aspirations at the time.
His next films had the same kind of integrity. His first as writer-director, Paradise Alley (1978), was a fascinating and very credible evocation of New York life in the forties, with wrestling replacing boxing as the route out and knowing use of the old Universal aeroplane logo at the beginning. FIST (1978) was a mammoth road to ruin saga set in the world of American labour relations; very serious and well made.
Rocky II appeared in semi-desperation after these failed at the box-office, and reversed the meaning of the original entirely: now, in a rematch, Rocky actually wins and becomes world champion; it is a victory for wishful thinking. Rocky III and Rocky IV ploughed the same field to ever increasing degrees of cartoonish folly, so that when Stallone tried to bring the saga back to earth in Rocky V, by having the character made bankrupt and return to his old neighbourhood, it just seemed absurd. When Rocky IV had ended with Rocky as personification of the USA winning an impossible world championship bout against a semi-robotic Russian, it was too late to expect us to be excited by his winning a fist fight in the street.
Again, it was telling that Stallone’s original script for V ended with Rocky dying at his moment of (minor) triumph, perhaps reflecting the author’s realisation that stardom had made him lose sight of the stories he wanted to tell. (Lucky he didn’t: even his detractors had to recognise that Rocky Balboa, the sixth film that emerged a couple of years back, had real merit.)

But it’s a mistake he made again.
John Rambo, the anti-hero of First Blood, is an accident waiting to happen; when he snaps and the film becomes a cracking survivalist thriller in the manner of Deliverance or Southern Comfort, we sympathise with him as a character but are happy to see him carted off to a secure institution at the end. The idea of him completing any kind of coherent mission is crazy.
But yet again, the success of the film led to a sequel in which the mentally unstable, aimless drifter magically becomes a pumped-up ultimate soldier, sent back to Vietnam to free American soldiers still captive there. Mission accomplished, and very nicely thank you at the box-office, and before you know it he's off to a live war zone and defeating the Russians more or less single-handed.

Rambo, even more than Rocky, came to define Stallone as a screen presence: Reagan’s pet, a grunting Republican automaton; it earned him actual enemies as well as fans and couldn't-cares. But we are wrong if we accept their caricature of him as essentially a muscleman, an Arnie or a Dolph or a Van Damme. The muscles came late in his career and are generally to be regretted (they compromise his less mythic-heroic performances, and look repulsive, with popping veins that constantly distract you from the story in hand.) He was not a body builder who graduated to movies on an action hero ticket, but a dedicated and serious actor, painfully earnest, who studied drama at the University of Miami, worked off-Broadway and wrote screenplays about Edgar Allan Poe.

His work after Rocky and Rambo was always haunted by their success, but a lot of it is interesting, all the same.
Nighthawks (1981) was an excellent cop thriller, still in realist mode, and with a shabby, bearded Stallone, Cobra (1986), despite an 85 minute running time that betrayed much post-production tampering, was a fun, Dirty Harry-style job of scum-clearance ("You're a disease - and I'm the cure") that almost gave the star his third big character, but somehow just fell at the final fence. (The first half is terrific; the second merely enjoyable: it goes absolutely haywire somehow.) Oscar (1991) was a brave stab at comedy for John Landis, Cliffhanger (1993) and Daylight (1996) exciting action/disaster movies, Get Carter (2000) an underrated remake of a slightly overrated original full of interesting things, and D-Tox (2002) a mix of cop thriller and slasher horror with an original premise and some good scenes.

But Cop Land (1997), in which he is supported by De Niro, Keitel and an especially good Ray Liotta, is a true masterpiece, one of the standouts of modern cinema; on the surface a tense and complex police thriller and in essence a brave and complete return to the structure and morality of the traditional western.
It was quietly recommended, and Stallone's performance as an overweight sherrif who learns to stand up to the enemies in his back yard was generally praised. But the film passed most people by.
Rambo, the confusingly titled new film (it’s a sequel to Rambo III, which was a sequel not to a film called 'Rambo II' but to another film called Rambo, which was a sequel to First Blood) may or may not prove the way ahead for Stallone. But if it keeps its head above water, the next film he makes could well be something.
Certainly the time would be right for Cop Land now. Something else a bit like that would be fine.