Total Recall

Definitive Sylvester Stallone Movies

We look back at the roles that have helped mold the Creed star's career.

by | November 25, 2015 | Comments

Rocky Balboa’s back on the big screen this week, nearly 10 years after we thought we’d seen him for the last time — and darn it if the big lug’s latest appearance, in the franchise spinoff Creed, doesn’t look like one of his long saga’s finest chapters. In honor of this unlikely comeback, we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s feature to honoring the filmography of the man who brought Balboa to life. Yo film fans, it’s time for Total Recall, Sylvester Stallone style!

The Lords of Flatbush (1974) 67%


Before he was Rocky Balboa, Stallone got one of his earliest big-screen breaks with 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, a period piece about a leather-jacketed gang of street toughs and their efforts to grow up while struggling with peer pressure, romantic entanglements, and unexpected demands of adulthood. It’s perhaps chiefly of interest as a look at some future leading men before they made it big — in addition to Stallone, Flatbush stars Perry King and Henry Winkler — but the movie boasts no small amount of charm on its own merit as a modest slice-of-life story told within a timeframe that would later be ruthlessly mined for nostalgia. The end result, as Time Out wrote, is “a small masterpiece that places the mood and general ethos of the ’50s with absolute precision and total affection.”

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Death Race 2000 (1975) 83%


Take a story about a dystopian future in which an authoritarian government soothes the masses with the bloody spectacle of a cross-country race, add the words “a Roger Corman production,” and what do you get? 1975’s Death Race 2000, a cult classic starring David Carradine as “Frankenstein,” the champion racer who always defeats his competitors — including the perpetually frustrated “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Stallone). Even bloodier and more gleefully gratuitous than the similarly themed Rollerball, Death Race 2000 earned sniffs of derision from critics like Roger Ebert, who deemed the whole thing tasteless — but most scribes disagreed, including Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, who called it “an elaborate and telling fantasy about our peculiar popular entertainments” and “fine work carved from minimal materials.”

The Rocky Franchise


You’re supposed to write what you know, goes the old saying, and although Stallone wasn’t a boxer when he wrote the screenplay for Rocky, he was certainly a dreamer, and he understood the painful pursuit of a dream in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Like Rocky, Stallone needed a big break, and he got it with this critically lauded box office smash, which earned ten Oscar nominations, winning three, and launched what would become arguably the signature franchise of his career. Though the Rocky movies would eventually lose sight of the qualities that made the original special, the franchise as a whole stands up better than some might remember: Rocky II, which picked up right where the original left off, earned critical accolades while briefly setting the all-time box-office record for a sequel, and the overblown antics of the third and fourth installments are not without their charms. The less said about Rocky V the better, but the belated sixth chapter, Rocky Balboa, brought the saga poignantly back to its roots with a grittier — and deeply melancholy — return to the ring. It all started with one of the most enduring dramas of the ‘70s, and although Roger Ebert was describing the original, he could have been describing substantial portions of the series when he wrote, “A description of it would sound like a cliche from beginning to end. But Rocky isn’t about a story, it’s about a hero. And it’s inhabited with supreme confidence by a star.”

F.I.S.T. (1978) 73%


He’d later find it difficult to be taken seriously as anything other than an action star, but for Stallone’s first post-Rocky project, he demonstrated an eagerness to display his dramatic range with F.I.S.T., a Norman Jewison drama that uses the saga of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union as the loose inspiration for the story of a warehouse worker’s rise through the ranks of the fictional “Federation of Inter-State Truckers.” Responsible for carrying the film as its leading man as well as substantially rewriting Joe Eszterhas’ original screenplay, Stallone acquitted himself well in the eyes of most critics, some of whom saw signs of steely-jawed greatness in his performance. F.I.S.T. is rarely mentioned when people discuss Stallone today, but perhaps we should; as Variety argued at the time, “F.I.S.T. is to the labor movement in the United States what All the King’s Men was to an era in American politics.”

Nighthawks (1981) 70%


For a movie refashioned from what was supposed to be the script for The French Connection III — and was eventually, in Stallone’s words, “cut to pieces” by the studio — 1981’s Nighthawks turned out a lot better than it probably should have. Starring Stallone and Billy Dee Williams as a pair of NYPD cops on the trail of a terrorist known as Wulfgar (played by Rutger Hauer in his American debut), this is a quintessentially 1980s police thriller — which is to say that it’s soaked in blood and riddled with plot holes. But a good number of critics looked past its deficiencies to find a solid action flick; as Janet Maslin wrote for the New York Times, “All of it is standard stuff, and yet Nighthawks has been assembled with enough pep to make it feel fresh.”

The Rambo Franchise


Like Rocky, 1982’s First Blood acted as a launchpad for a series of progressively more cartoonish action films — and like Rocky, it’s a much darker, more sensitive film than you might remember. The role of haunted Vietnam vet John Rambo took full advantage of Stallone’s gifts, giving him ample room to display his knack for portraying quiet, haunted men as well as his athletic build, and while the end result didn’t exactly stay true to the David Morrell novel it was based on, it resonated with audiences and critics alike, and managed to provide some legitimate social commentary to go with all the action. That largely fell by the wayside as the series wore on, with Rambo repeatedly pressed into action as an increasingly ludicrous fantasy corrective for American foreign policy, butStallone managed to restore at least a little of the character’s haunted soul with 2008’s grim, blood-spattered Rambo. “This is a dark drama about war and the exorcising of demons,” wrote Eric D. Snider of the original. “And an unforgettable one at that.”

Cliffhanger (1993) 68%


By the early 1990s, there wasn’t much Stallone hadn’t done as an action hero — and in the post-Die Hard era, the entire genre was starting to feel a little stale. The solution? 1993’s Cliffhanger, which embraced action movies’ inherent silliness (by tapping the marvelously hammy John Lithgow as the villain) while taking them someplace semi-original (the top of a mountain). It certainly didn’t win any points for believability, but it did sate thrill-seeking filmgoers — not to mention critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who cheered, “Despite the don’t-look-down Olympian settings, Cliffhanger‘s spirit is brutal and earthbound. The movie is like one of those computer-designed simulator rides that whip you around until you’re dizzy and aching but don’t actually take you anywhere.”

Cop Land (1997) 74%


The decade wasn’t a total wash for him, but it isn’t a stretch to say that the 1990s weren’t exactly kind to Sylvester Stallone — and it was partly his fault. After dominating the box office as one of the biggest action heroes of the 1980s, Stallone decided he wanted to branch out, and the epic bombs Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot were the disastrous results. He never quite regained his box office mojo, but Stallone remained an underrated actor, and with 1997’s Cop Land, he took advantage of a rare opportunity to show his depth. As the overweight, ineffective police chief of a small New Jersey town, Stallone delivered a quietly intense performance, holding his own against a cast that included Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. In the end, of course, Sly gets his guy — but Cop Land played so effectively against type that TV Guide’s Sandra Contreras didn’t mind: “It sizzles toward an explosive and satisfying climax in which everything — Stallone included — fully bursts into life.”

Antz (1998) 93%


He’s always been most successful as an action star, but Sylvester Stallone is capable of more — and while many of his attempts to branch out have been met with varying degrees of failure, he hit critical paydirt with 1998’s Antz. As Weaver, the burly best friend of Woody Allen’s Z, Stallone got to do something besides fire weapons and throw blows for a change; in the process, he also made history, as part of the voice cast of the second feature-length CGI film. Though it was overshadowed commercially by Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, Antz was a favorite among critics who appreciated the film’s political subtext and sharp wit. It is, as David Denby wrote for New York Magazine, “A kids’ movie that will leave grown-ups quoting the best lines to one another.”

Shade (2003) 67%


Stallone’s highest-profile role of 2003 came in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, but he earned his best reviews as part of a little-seen (and surprisingly well-cast) drama about the world of high-stakes underground gambling. As the legendary card shark known as The Dean, Stallone lent Shade extra heft — and added a little low-key dramatic muscle to a storyline about a pair of small-time crooks (Gabriel Bryne and Thandie Newton) looking to make their mark with a big score. Its brief, limited theatrical run meant that Shade was in and out of theaters before most filmgoers were even aware of it, but critics were mostly kind, including Todd Gilchrist of FilmStew, who wrote, “With so many sucker bets coercing your hand before you’re really ready to make a safe cinematic wager, this will be one film you won’t mind losing your money to see.”


    Just one complaint.
    What’s up with that?

  • Jake Weston

    I’m sorry where is Tango and Cash?

  • Pinkk

    As mentioned already, Tango & Cash and The Expendables were forgotten! But Oscar! Totally underrated! It’s a fun movie to watch!

  • A_Gobshite

    Where’s his first movie the 1970’s soft-core The Party at Kitty and Stud’s better known under the alternative title The Italian Stallion

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