A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2023

SLY jj

2023, R, 95 mins.

A documentary directed by Thom Zimny 





One thing that I've always noticed about Sylvester Stallone in many of his interviews over the years is how well spoken and intelligent he is, not to mention that he has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor about his own limits as an actor and some of his more questionable film role choices during his six decade career. 

That, and at just two years away from 80, he still looks shockingly carved out of granite (although he does freely admit that the years are obviously catching up with him).  

To look at Stallone's career, it's compelling to see how it mirrored his greatest on-screen role in Philadelphia-based boxer Rocky Balboa.  Both were disrespected underdogs.  Both came from damaged and impoverished homes.  Both had lives punctuated by setbacks and roadblocks.  And both, yes, were given million to one shot chances in their chosen fields and eventually came out on top to defy and conquer all odds.

SLY is a new Netflix-produced biography that tries to chronicle the life and times of its Hell's Kitchen born Italian-American Hollywood mega star, from his humblest of humble roots to his early career successes and through his peak years as one of the most bankable action stars of his generation.  The doc also tries to cover his post-boom career and many of his less than smart career paths.  While watching this Thom Zimny-helmed affair, I couldn't help but reflect on the very recent Netflix multi-part Netflix-produced biography on one of Stallone's biggest industry rivals in Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was a very decent warts and all chronicle of that star's impossible rise to fame.  SLY has just as much reverence for its subject matter as last summer's ARNOLD, and no examination of Stallone's career would be complete without highlighting his many accomplishments in the film world.  If anything, SLY rightfully props up the Italian Stallion star as one of the greatest pop culture icons in the history of movies.  

Having said that, the doc - at just a scant 90-plus minutes - feels too abridged and regrettably sanitized when it comes to deep diving into his career and life outside of movies.  It's the kind of soft-pedalled effort that goes out of its way to smooth over its subject's many rough edges, leading to a final product that feels woefully abridged and incomplete in the process.  SLY could have easily been a half hour or so longer or - better yet - been given a longer form and multiple chapter doc approach like ARNOLD.  

To be fair to Sly in SLY, though, he deserves a hell of a lot of kudos for elevating himself from near obscurity to become one of the cinema's richest and famous celebrities.  The doc employs the obligatory talking-heads style approach that includes new and archival interviews with those close to Stallone, with everyone from former co-stars in Talia Shire, Henry Winkler, and Schwarzenegger himself chiming in alongside commentary from his own brother in Frank (more on him in a bit) and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino.  SLY does have a somewhat compelling arc as far as docs go in terms of having Stallone himself providing most of the running commentary about his career while packing up his memorabilia-filled mansion in L.A. (which he sold to singer Adele, not mentioned in the film) and moving on to a new home and fresh beginnings.  We see a multitude of movers painstakingly wrap and package statues of Stallone's most recognized creations (his home is literally a fanboy-like shrine...of himself), but he never seems to come off as arrogant or self-aggrandizing when it comes to his stature in the movies.  Oftentimes, he puts on old audio recordings of the many interviews he did when he was decades younger and frequently - and amusingly - chastises some of his younger self's choice of words.  Even more compellingly, Zimny even takes Stallone on a pilgrimage to his old Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, which the star has not been to in several decades.  You can tell that he's both genuinely emotional and somewhat conflicted about the memories flowing back in.



He definitely was part of a rags-to-riches story, to be sure.  As recounted by himself and his aforementioned sibling, Stallone was born in 1946 in one of the rougher areas of New York, and both he and Frank had a somewhat nurturing mother (who's oddly barely referenced at all throughout the doc), but a mentally and physically taxing upbringing under their abusive father, Frank Stallone Sr., who raised his kids with an iron fist and under abject poverty.  Stallone wears his famous (and often mocked) snarl as a badge of honor as he describes how he was born into the world under less than ideal  circumstances (one of his nerves was severed in the process, which led to partial paralysis of the lower left side of his face).  His childhood and teen years were punctuated by getting into ample trouble with authority figures (spawned, no doubt, by his own self-described cockiness as a youth) and being kicked out of one school after another.  As he matured he realized that he wanted to peruse a life in the performing arts, and despite having an affinity for it, many talent agents and hiring producers didn't see much to be gained in giving work to a rough-around-the-edges and semi-slurring greenhorn.  By sheer Rocky Balboa-esque willpower and drive, he muscled into minor bit roles in the early 70s, most notably a subway thug in Woody Allen's BANANAS.  

The doc then shifts much of its runtime (maybe too much) towards the inception and creation of ROCKY (which was born out of his then newfound desire to stretch his writing abilities).  A lot of what we're given here has been relayed before and is the stuff of industry legend.  Stallone was penniless when he wrote the first draft of what would become 1976's ROCKY (and in only a few weeks!) and he desperately attempted to sell the script all over Hollywood with one stipulation - he wanted to play the titular character.  He recalls being offered a small fortune for the rights, but only if he didn't star (many studios wanted it-factor and proven talent like Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds to star).  Of course, Stallone refused, leading to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff taking a shot with him, but only under the compromise of a vastly lower actor fee and a minuscule production budget.  The rest, as they say, is history.  This small little engine that could sports drama became the audience and critical darling of 1976.  ROCKY also won the Oscar for Best Picture and netted the then virtually unknown star Oscar nominations for writing and acting (which, at the time, only two others in history achieved - Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin...pretty damn good company).

Stallone, relatively overnight, became huge, but SLY wisely reminds us that many of his immediate post-ROCKY career choices were not winners, like his pro-wrestling based PARADISE ALLEY (his feature filmmaking directorial debut) or his turn in the Norman Jewison social drama F.I.S.T..  Obviously, if you mention either of those two films to anyone on the street, most would have no idea that Stallone was in them.  Early career setbacks like this led to him penning and directing the inevitable ROCKY II, which put him back on the map for yet another audience (but less critically) adored return to form.  ROCKY would span more sequels in the 80s alongside Stallone making a series of films about his second most famous hero in ex-Vietnam War solider Jonn Rambo in FIRST BLOOD and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.  Stallone owned the mid-80s perhaps more so than any other star in genre pictures, with Schwarzenegger himself being the only one to rival him.  It's welcoming to see Schwarzenegger appear frequently throughout this doc to recall how much awe he had in Stallone during the early sections of his career, which would lead the Austrian star to seek out his own piece of the industry pie and later become one of its largest power brokers (both he and Stallone were bitter rivals in this era, but have long since reconciled and are now tight friends).    

SLY is on decent ground when it has the actor trying to own up to his unique skill set as an actor.  He freely admits that he was never going to nab serious parts in period costume dramas or Shakespeare adaptations.  He also intuitively understands that - like maybe a John Wayne before him - what he brought to the table was a striking and always credible and raw physical presence in his films that was always believable.  He often laments his on-screen failures, like taking jabs at comedies like OSCAR (which, in my humble opinion, he's really good in as a befuddled straight man) or attempts at serious character-driven ensemble crime dramas like COPLAND, which easily contained one of his best low-key performances of his career that was largely forgotten during awards circuits during its year of release because it was regrettably a box office bomb.  Crushing failures like this led to Stallone returning back to the well and to what he did best, namely playing Rocky and Rambo again in sequels in the 2000s while headlining ultra-macho throwback action franchises like THE EXPENDABLES (which still carries on to this day).  Stallone cringes while recounting a story about how a fight scene with Stone Cold Steve Austin (who also starred in the first EXPENDABLES picture) went horribly wrong, leading to Stallone being on the receiving end of a broken neck and requiring the surgical insertion of metal discs.  Earlier in the doc, he casually talks about how his ROCKY IV co-star Dolph Lundgren punched him so hard in the chest that he ended up in the ICU.

Stallone accepts that he has had many regrets in his career looking back as a wiser and more cautious-minded 77-year-old, like the recklessness of putting his body on the line for his art far too many times over the decades, which has nearly killed him.  I also greatly appreciated how both he and his brother Frank speak openly and candidly about their nightmarish relationship with their domineering father.  Whereas their childhoods were typified by physical abuse, when the bothers became adults (and Sylvester became the big meteoric star of the pair) their dad unleashed different forms of psychological torment on them, mostly stemming out of petty jealously for just how big one of them became (one notorious story involving Sylvester and Frank Stallone Sr. playing polo is particularly harsh for how the latter inflicted cruelty on his son).  There's a depressing undercurrent to SLY about how this nearly unstoppable super man action hero of the movies never truly won the fight of getting his dad to truly love and respect him.  It's noteworthy as well what a good sport Frank Stallone is in this doc, who clearly never had anywhere close to the same level of industry fame and acclaim as his brother (he memorably played a street corner singer in ROCKY and performed the Billboard Top Ten hit song for his brother's critically destroyed sequel to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER in 1983's STAYING ALIVE, which he directed to great critical scorn).    

Still, as frank as Sly is about some details of his personal life, he virtually never talks about any of the women in his life, like his own mother and his three adult daughters from his third marriage (they're not even name dropped).  He offers nothing in terms of insights about his two previous failed marriages, and - most oddly - has very little to say about the tragic death of his son Sage (who co-starred with his dad in 1990's ROCKY V) at just 36.  He was found dead in July of 2012 after not being heard of for days (toxicology tests indicated coronary artery disease as the cause).  Losing a son so young would, no doubt, be traumatizing for any father, but it's kind of off-putting how Stallone barely speaks of it in this doc (maybe it's too painful).  Unfortunately, SLY just goes out of its way to avoid many unpleasantries and many controversies that have dogged the star over the years, like being busted by customs officials in Australia in 2007 for having vials of illegal contraband human growth hormone (he pleaded guilty to that).  Stallone has also been accused of sexual assault in the 2000s and 2010s (never mentioned here) and - easily most shocking - he never once discusses his recently strained relationship with producers of the CREED franchise (with the first film in the trilogy netting him his second acting Oscar nomination for playing Rocky).  Tensions got so bad behind the scenes that he was completely omitted from the recent CREED III altogether.  Why is this not covered at all in the doc?

SLY is a film of noble intentions. That much is clear. And Stallone's up and down history in cinema is ripe for exploration. There's no question whatsoever that - once he's gone - he'll be remembered as a bona fide Hollywood icon who once went from a nobody to a legend and never looked back.  But there's so damn much missing in SLY that I grew more annoyed and dissatisfied as it rushed through and glossed over integral aspects of his career in and out of movies.  It becomes clear very early on that Zimny hasn't really been given carte blanche to ask hard-hitting questions and get, in turn, thoughtful discourse about Stallone's many triumphs and just as many failures.  How does one even encapsulate a Hollywood career of the likes of Stallone in...90 minutes?  That seems like a creative fool's errand.  SLY is entertaining enough to sit through, but it's hardly illuminating, enthralling, or multi-faceted in its approach.  Stallone has always had a mesmerizing on-screen physicality that might not ever be duplicated again.  He had a stretch in the late 70s through early 90s where he attained the upper echelon of action hero royalty.  That should be celebrated, but there's too much myopic hero worshipping celebration in SLY and not enough of a penetrating deep dive into his life story to give us a compellingly layered doc that goes the distance and emerges victorious.

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