Sylvester Stallone Reflects on His Bumpy Career in Netflix Doc Sly

Movies Reviews Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone Reflects on His Bumpy Career in Netflix Doc Sly

About an hour into Sly, a trim and entertainingly biographical documentary about a refuge from the days of the first-name-basis movie star, various talking heads discuss Sylvester Stallone’s ’90s-era action-movie output collectively, without giving them the courtesy of a film-by-film breakdown. It’s speculated that in response to a couple of ill-received comedies (including Stallone’s self-described low point Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!, which he was essentially tricked into doing as a prank), Stallone started inhabiting more generic and, more importantly, monosyllabic characters. This was his way, the movie suggests, of shutting up and acting out what was expected of him. Indeed, this image of Stallone is pervasive enough that the observation might give casual viewers some pause: Since when was Stallone known for his gab? Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Sly is how it re-emphasizes that the real Stallone is, in fact, a pretty chatty, even loquacious guy. Even his references to his own limitations name-drop enough artists to undermine that lunkheaded image.

Of course, close Stallone-watchers will recall, with affection or frustration or both, how exactly that lunkheaded quality works into his writing, which can be turned into movies as sublime as Rocky or as stupid as Rocky IV. This relates to the familiar framing Sly utilizes, explaining (as countless profiles have already) that Stallone, facing resistance to his acting career even in the less traditional cinema landscape of the early 1970s, had to write his own ticket. He famously refused to sell the Rocky screenplay off to someone else. Instead, he got himself cast as the autobiographical character of Rocky Balboa – rough around the edges and down on his luck, like Stallone; also a touching and eminently likable underdog figure, like, well, some versions of Stallone – and won big.

At first, Thom Zimny’s Sly looks tantalizingly like a walkthrough of Stallone’s life via his filmography. Rocky is never too far out of mind when discussing his rough childhood and early stirrings of actorly skill, and the movie goes on to chronicle the subsequent disappointments of his follow-ups F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley, followed by his decision to bring back Balboa in Rocky II. The relative familiarity of these stories is mitigated by three related things: The quality of several talking heads (including, most engagingly, Quentin Tarantino and Wesley Morris); the level of access to Stallone himself, who appears open and self-effacing as he discusses his career; and Stallone’s accompanying stash of old interview tapes, which he sometimes plays on-camera to offer supplementary information and commentary. The sight of an older Stallone urging his younger self, with playful irritation, to come out and describe Rocky as a love story is awfully endearing.

There isn’t time for him to go into this level of detail for every movie – and it makes sense that, say, Cobra and Judge Dredd aren’t afforded the same screentime as Rambo, let alone Rocky. But it’s a little disappointing – almost surprisingly so – that the last 30 years of his career are confined to the last 20 minutes or so of the film. Stallone himself offers a reason for not dwelling on the minutiae of his most mediocre hits and misses: “Don’t watch the second half of any biography about a star,” he recalls himself saying, adding that any big successes are chased with the promise of “stay tuned for the fall!” No shame in Sly trying to shape itself a little differently, but in doing so, the movie sometimes elides more personal lows or groups them together in generalities. The tragic death of his son Sage, for example, lingers in the periphery, with an on-screen title card but no direct discussion from Stallone. Fair enough to leave it in the realm of the actor’s privacy, but when he discusses his regrets, the off-limits stuff starts to feel conspicuous. (That’s true of smaller details, too: Sly is also framed with Stallone packing up his residence and moving… somewhere? He doesn’t say, rendering the practical side of the obvious metaphor a bit abstract.)

Hyperbole, on the other hand, is still readily available, even when Stallone shows plenty of humility. Among the dubious claims: That Stallone was unique as an actor-director superstar, which ignores how Clint Eastwood was directing first and far more frequently (and, more subjectively, Stallone did not actually direct any of his own best movies), and that Rocky was unprecedented in the realm of underdog stories. The movie also weirdly positions The Expendables as his late-career triumph, rather than his Oscar-nominated return to Rocky Balboa in Creed (apparently making one of your best movies ever, featuring your signature character no less, counts less when other people have the screenplay credit and don’t beg you to direct the sequels). It’s a weird thing to skip over in a movie where the superstar admits, “if I knew I had to do 25 films my whole life… [I’d] choose a lot different than this” as he gestures toward a chart of his filmography.

But every time the hand of Stallone weighs too heavily on the proceedings, Sly offers something revealing. For example, Rocky V, long dismissed by Stallone himself as a disappointment, gets more on-screen consideration than the empty spectacle of megahit Rocky IV, with the actor concluding that the fifth Rocky may have been too personal, too specific to his experiences, to fully connect with his fanbase. Later, Stallone talks about one of the most memorable scenes from his underrated serious-acting vehicle Cop Land, and how he used ad-libbing (a favored technique of his, going back to his earliest roles) to goad no less than Robert De Niro into delivering a fiery face-off moment. Is Stallone revealing his surprising skill as an actor, or taking another ego trip?

Probably both; these qualities can co-exist comfortably. The most fascinating of the doc’s dualities is Stallone’s stubborn resistance to sad endings, even as he remains deeply and profoundly aware of his own mortality. Suddenly, his decisions to always keep his characters alive (the ending of the last Rambo movie is discussed in this regard) feels like more than first-on-the-call-sheet vanity (though there is also that). He’s offering the immortality he knows the casual cruelty of real life will ultimately deny him, and everyone else. Basically, he’s Babylon-ing. And Sly, flaws and all, fits perfectly into his filmography of underdog inspiration and big-guy hubris.

Director: Thom Zimny
Featuring: Sylvester Stallone, Frank Stallone, Quentin Tarantino, Wesley Morris, Talia Shire, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Herzfeld
Release Date: November 3, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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