Before he was the epitome of stubborn masculinity — that disposable kind of action hero who dishes out destruction and, despite the odds, survives, always just barely — Sylvester Stallone was an Academy Award nominated actor, writer, and director. It’s easy to forget the promise he once showed, since Stallone has spent the last thirty years of his existence acting as a human wrecking ball — punching, blasting, and flexing his way through so many action films. But people once genuinely thought he’d be the next Marlon Brando. Really.
Stallone begin his career the way he’s ending his career: doing bad movies. After some abysmal softcore porn (really), he nabbed a scene-stealing supporting role in the trashy classic Death Race 2000. Stallone then wrote the screenplay for Rocky in a three-day caffeine-addled fervor, grafting his own insecurities, anxieties and, ultimately, his self-endurance onto the story of real life boxer Chuck Wepner, a nobody who managed to knock down Ali in a fight. Ali won (of course) like Apollo Creed, but Wepner fought the odds and came from obscurity to challenge one of the greatest male athletes of the 20th century. Stallone channeled Wepner and penned a story of hope and determination, and he became an overnight sensation.
Stallone has, on occasion, returned to real acting since Rocky. Actually, it was just one occasion, but what an occasion it was: Cop Land, an admirable but forgettable Scorsese-lite crime drama in which Stallone plays an out-of-shape sheriff of a small New Jersey town inhabited by crooked New York City cops. The movie is mediocre despite its earnest ambitions, but Stallone is heart-breaking. Working opposite Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta, Stallone more than holds his own as a quiet and passive man who harbors as much hate for the crooked cops as he does for himself.
But that was a one-and-done return to acting for Stallone. Cop Land earned bleh reviews and failed at the box office, and Stallone retreated back into his genre bubble. Since 2010, he’s been primarily focused on his would-be franchise The Expendables, part-Rambo, part-Lethal Weapon. The non-story of some old fossils with muscles and guns, Stallone’s series thrives on the dual fisted slam-bang-pow-boom macho mania of the 1980s, when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were gleaming marquee names.