In hindsight, the strange, flop-strewn path Sylvester Stallone's career has taken following his late '70s/early '80s heyday is less surprising and unexpected than the fact Stallone became a huge movie star in the first place. Before Rocky pummeled its way into America's collective heart, Stallone was nobody's idea of a matinee idol. He was short, undeniably ethnic, goofy-looking, had a first name strongly identified with hapless cartoon cats with speech impediments and towering black, gay disco divas, and mumbled like Marlon Brando after a handful of Valium.
Before Rocky Stallone's career seemed headed nowhere. He had racked up major roles in B-movies (most notably Death Race 2000) and bit parts like "Subway Thug # 1" (in Bananas) and "Youth In Park" (in The Prisoner of Second Avenue) in major motion pictures. He was, in other words, a consummate underdog. In the public imagination, Stallone wasn't just an actor who played Rocky: he was Rocky, a soulful working-class tough with a heart of gold who persevered against long odds and grudgingly won the respect of a world that once shunted him to the fringes.
Stallone's finely wrought mythology mirrored that of his most famous creation. According to pop-culture legend, Hollywood lusted after the script for Rocky and promised Stallone the moon as long as they could cast an established star like James Caan or Burt Reynolds in the lead role. But Stallone stuck to his guns: this was his baby and he wasn't about to let some pampered movie star steal his thunder. Of course, it's always difficult to delineate where the truth ends and PR spin begins, but Stallone's steely determination to get Rocky made his way quickly became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Stallone's triumph over impossible odds became the kind of story we as a culture tell ourselves to preserve the fiction that ours is still a land of infinite opportunities, albeit one where infinitely more opportunities exist for the rich than for the poor.
Rocky continues to ricochet throughout pop culture in unexpected ways. When I interviewed Chris Rock a few years back, he told me that while he was preparing for Bring The Pain, the stand-up special that single-handedly catapulted him from Saturday Night Live also-ran to the funniest man in the world, he ran into Andrew "Dice" Clay while buying underwear and Clay advised him to re-watch Rocky as a crucial part of his training regiment. Oddly enough, Rock and Louie C.K separately cited Clay as a guru-like figure who dispensed sage advice at a crucial moment in their lives, although I guess in a world where Gilbert Gottfried can represent inspirational courage in the face of widespread timidity (in The Aristocrats at least), it shouldn't be that surprising. When the Diceman speaks, people listen.
Rocky and later Rambo resonated so strongly with the public that Stallone was doomed to forever play minor variations on those two iconic roles. Part of it was Stallone's very limited range and distinct body type: nobody was going to cast Stallone as a melancholy Cambridge professor or Oscar Wilde, so he might as well pick up giant paychecks to play big-hearted bruisers and glowering crime-fighters.
1987's Over The Top, the first entry in Sly Stallone week here at My Year Of Flops, is especially shameless in its recycling of the Rocky formula. So even though Stallone is ostensibly playing a truck-driving arm-wrestling dynamo named Lincoln Hawk (a name I assume has already been co-opted by a gay porn star), it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that he's really playing a pure-hearted, punch-drunk palooka with a thing for mousy wallflowers and pummeling slabs of meat.
In a plot that lazily cross-pollinates Dutch and Rocky, Over The Top finds Stallone reconnecting with his prissy military-school son David Mendenhall at the request of ex-wife Susan Blakely, a pampered daughter of privilege dying, I can only imagine, of embarrassment over playing the female lead in a Menahem Golan-directed Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie. Stallone's prissy little military-school Little Lord Fauntleroy at first expresses only disgust and revulsion at his dad's gutter-proletariat ways and lack of intellectual credentials.
Mendenhall's attitude towards his pops begins to change, however, once a gentleman who identifies himself only as "The Smasher" (I like to think he earned that nickname by smashing all sorts of academic records as a Cambridge undergraduate) sneers that he's going to rip Stallone's arm off during a thousand-dollar arm-wrestling match. Is there any truer judge of character than how a man responds to an arm-wrestling challenge from "The Smasher"? I know I never looked at my father the same way after The Smasher challenged him to a wrestling match and he soiled himself, then ran away crying like a little girl. Stallone, however, rises to the challenge.
Much unconventional father-son bonding ensues. Stallone lovingly prods his boy into hustling arm-wrestling matches for money. He thoughtfully, sanely pushes his 12-year-old progeny to drive his big rig, a not-at-all implausible plot point that pays off in the third act when Mendenhall very conveniently knows how to operate a stolen car he uses to get to his dad's big arm-wrestling match (just in time for the big climax even!). He shows his boy how to get ripped in a sun-dappled exercise montage. Against a backdrop of hair-metal bleating and composer Giorgio Moroder's synthesizer symphonies, father and son lovingly reconcile as Stallone prepares for the arm-wrestling championship in Las Vegas.
During the climactic arm-wrestling orgy, the film is confronted with a formidable challenge: how do you make arm wrestling cinematic? Golan lays on epic slow-motion, frequent reaction shots of enthusiastic crowds cheering and jeering, and plenty of trash-talking, but the competitors nevertheless look less like modern-day warriors engaged in the fight of their lives than steroid cases battling painful constipation. The angry, strained looks, the awkward contortion of muscles, the pained grunting: it all seems attributable to agonizingly reluctant bowels rather than a heroic sense of competition. Of course, it doesn't help that Stallone's foes are delineated primarily by the shape and color of their unflattering facial hair. I did, however, enjoy the part where Stallone revealed that the key to his arm-wrestling success involved wearing his baseball cap backwards, a seemingly simple maneuver that nonetheless transforms him from an everyday lug into a lean, mean, steroid-pumping arm-wrestling machine. That's the kind of classy touch that comes with having a screenplay co-written by an Oscar-winner (Stirling Silliphant, for In The Heat Of The Night) and a two-time Oscar nominee (Sylvester "I was nominated for two Oscars? Really? Including one for writing? Wow" Stallone).
Yes, Over The Top is Rocky with arm-wrestling, a formula that probably would have paid bigger dividends at the box-office if audiences hadn't already plucked down good money for four self-cannibalizing Rocky movies and arm-wrestling weren't the least cinematic sport this side of foosball.
With Over The Top, Stallone had clearly exploited the Rocky formula once too often and audiences rebelled against its condescending family melodrama and heavy-handed working-class trappings. Since Rocky's success, Stallone had morphed from David to Goliath and audiences weren't about to buy a giant movie star with a Texas-sized ego and an eight-foot-tall Nordic wife as a blue-collar hero anymore.
In that respect, I think part of the reason Rocky Balboa cleaned up at the box-office was because Stallone's mythology was once again perfectly aligned with the character he was playing. After decades at the top, Stallone was once again an underdog. The consensus was that Stallone was too old to play Rocky yet again, that he was a rank has-been way out of his league. For the first time in ages audiences were genuinely rooting for Stallone to prove the haters and skeptics wrong.
It'll be interesting to see how Stallone manages to fuck up his mild Rocky Balboa buzz. I'm guessing forthcoming, long-threatened projects delving into the murder of Notorious B.I.G. and Edgar Allen Poe's life will remind everyone why they gave up on Stallone in the first place.Over The Top, meanwhile, failed to ignite a national mania for competitive arm wrestling or Rocky-style sports movies devoted to lesser/crappier sports. It looks like us tetherball enthusiasts will have to wait a long, long time for our favorite sport to finally get its big-screen close-up.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure