Film Review

Sly

todayMarch 7, 2024 23

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of Sylvester Stallone, the 80’s, and documentaries about iconic Hollywood legends

This spring, I am teaching a War and Film class for the first time.  We have arrived at the 80’s and the representation of the Vietnam War.  There were two main war film cycles in the 80’s, on one path lay the “realism” films of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger HIll, and Born on the 4th of July.  On the other path lay the revisionist films of Rambo, Missing in Action, and countless knockoffs.  To prepare for the course, I watched all five Rambo movies.  It was quite a ride and was a fascinating way to look at how Stallone created this iconic figure that influenced film and political culture to this current day.  I was already fond of Stallone because of the Rocky series, the second pillar of how he helped create a visual representation of the American Dream and the American Nightmare.  There are few other artists (yes, I think of him as an artist) who have influenced our culture in such a way.  As such I also decided to prepare for the week of Rambo by watching the recent documentary about Stallone that is currently on Netflix.

Sly is directed by Thom Zimmy, who has made a career out of working with Bruce Springsteen.  I find it fitting that Stallone is also a subject that Zimmy would be drawn to.  Both Springsteen and Stallone had a tremendous effect on how Americans perceive themselves and how the world perceives the United States.  In addition, both have been misunderstood, misused, or misinterpreted in their careers, although I would state that Stallone definitely did not fight back as much as Springsteen did when “Born in the USA” was embraced by many who believed in the antithesis of what the song is about.  Stallone did not push back and in many ways embraced how both iconic figures he created took on a life of their own.

Speaking of life, the documentary does a nice job giving us the backstory that helped create the work of Stallone.  His father was extremely abusive and bizarrely competitive with his son.  Each time that Stallone succeeded, his father was there to cut him down, sometimes literally.  For example, I had no idea that Stallone was a phenomenal polo player (in spite of his poor upbringing) but stopped after being belittled by his father as a teen and later actually injured in a charity match when he took it up again and tried to reconnect with his father.  Much of the rage and anger of his characters can be traced to these experiences.  He also was born with an injury to his face that paralyzed part of his cheek and lower lip.  This compounded with his father’s abuse gave him a drive to succeed and to show those who doubted him that he had something to contribute.

The film also walks us through the creation of these two iconic figures with excellent interviews from his brother Frank (who was always in the shadow of his brother, now I want to see a doc on Frank!) Quintin Tarrantino, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, it does lack interviews with his children.  It does acknowledge that Stallone was not an excellent parent, partially because he repeated some aspects of his father. It does not go into depth about the death of his son Sage, but does look at it from the perspective of Rocky.  

At times it does have some hagiographic leanings, but overall, the film gives Stallone the opportunity to walk us through his film career, giving the audience the chance to better understand how important he was to the 80’s and how his influence on the action genre and American culture as a whole was substantial.

I fully admit that I love the Rocky series, even parts IV and V as they show us different aspects of Stallone.  I am fascinated by the Rambo series now, although the recent two are extremely graphic, but that is also reflective of our cinematic world.  Many things have changed since Stallone’s glory days in the 80’s, but this documentary reminds us that the legacy he left is still immense.

Available to stream now on Netflix.

Written by: Gareth Jones

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