Rather than obsess over how weak and amateurish Stallone's newest action film happens to be, I thought I'd take some time to pick out some better examples of Sly's surprisingly interesting filmography. These five films aren't so much the best or even the most underrated, but merely five films that merit discussion and are worth digging into just a little bit more than usual. Agree? Disagree? You probably do, because I could have easily done such a piece on 10 Stallone films worth briefly dissecting, but I imagine I can only punish my readers for so long at one time. You'll get your chance below, but for now enjoy these mini-essays of well, uh, let's just call them five Sylvester Stallone movies that are much better than Bullet to the Head.
Rocky II (1979): This is arguably the forgotten Rocky movie and, I'd argue, the best sequel of the bunch (although anyone arguing for Rocky Balboa won't get a fight from me). In an era where not every hit movie automatically got a sequel, Rocky II was a genuine effort to continue the story in a logical and engaging direction. What would really happen after Rocky Balboa boxed Apollo Creed to a stand-still? Writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone is relatively unflinching in his look at how quickly the flame would burn out. Suffering from severe injuries as a result of the first film's climactic fight, but with no real marketable skills (we discover in this film that he can't read), Rocky quickly blows through the $150,000 fight purse and finds himself basically back where we found him, but with the burden of having momentarily tasted glory. The film veers toward the melodramatic in its second half, with Talia Shire's Adrian (whom Rocky quickly marries in the film's opening reels) becoming pregnant and then falling ill during childbirth, but the picture nonetheless remains a human drama, especially with the added depth afforded Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) this time around. By the time Rocky joins Apollo for a reluctant rematch, we don't really want either opponent to be humiliated, and the film concludes with one of the very best climaxes in sports-film history. After this point the series would descend into self-parody, but Rocky II keeps the story firmly grounded in reality.
Nighthawks (1981): Consider this the best Stallone film you've probably never seen. Aside from being well-ahead of its time in terms of its subject matter, this tense and frankly terrific action thriller involving a European terrorist in New York City serves as a preemptive rebuttal to the more overtly fascist ideology found in Cobra and perhaps wrongly found in Stallone's Rambo sequels (they are more complicated than you think, but I digress). This is actually Stallone's first time playing a cop (something he only did twice more in the 1980s, in Cobra and Tango and Cash) and he is far from the prototypical hard-ass movie cop who will bend any rule to get the job done. He is actually a by-the-book police officer, explicitly stating at one point that he did not become a cop in order to hurt people. He is repulsed by the methods proposed by the anti-terrorism INTERPOL agent (Nigel Davenport) and wants little to do with an operation that sees the rule of law as an inconvenience. Rutger Hauer is superb in his U.S. debut as the lead terrorist, and I would argue that is he is among the earliest examples of a somewhat colorful and charismatic villain for this kind of action picture, paving the way for Hans Gruber in Die Hard and every scene-stealing baddie that followed. The violence is both potent and somewhat restrained (several murders happen entirely offscreen), and even the climactic carnage is treated not as catharsis but as a tragedy. In a genre where the hero is defined by how little regard he has for the rules and/or the authority he serves, Stallone's DaSilva stands out as a cop who desperately wants to follow the rules and who believes that due process trumps the temporary emergency that terrorism represents. It's also a terrific action thriller.
Cobra (1986): Cobra isn't a good movie, but it's a fascinating bad one. Everything that the Rambo series gets accused of being and/or endorsing can be found in Cobra. It also wants to be a Dirty Harry for the '80s, complete with Andy Robinson in a supporting role, but it lacks all of the Eastwood film's nuance and depth. It's a hilariously right-wing action film where due process, a questioning media, and checks-and-balances are the enemy and the only hope for a crime-stricken populace is a single rogue cop who doesn't play by the rules. Stallone as Marion Cobretti basically embodies the visual of the 1980s movie cop, with the black leather jacket, black shades, personalized handgun, and handy motorcycle. It's not the first action picture to attempt to merge with a horror film, with its axe-wielding cult and slasher film-esque violence, but it was the first to reach mass popularity. It made more on opening weekend ($12 million, the second biggest debut of 1986) than earlier efforts like Revenge of the Ninja, Silent Rage, or 10 to Midnight made total (thanks to Scott Weinberg and Lex Gilbert to offering said examples). Ironically, it was heavily cut for U.S. theatrical release and the final product feels more like the 'edited-for-TV' cut. It also has a climactic shoot-out that feels like a precursor to modern-day video games. It was not the first of anything in its genre, but it stands as a prototypical 1980s cop movie, a one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about the genre.
Daylight (1996): This one was released at the tail-end of Stallone's early '90s comeback run, which basically went from Cliffhanger in 1993 until Copland in 1997. The best of this streak is easily Demolition Man, but I may write about that in October for its 20th anniversary, so allow me to stand up for a genuinely underrated little genre piece. The film is also a product of the mid-90s disaster movie boom, as 1996 alone brought us Twister, Independence Day, and Daylight while 1997 would give us Dante's Peak, Volcano, and oh yeah, Titanic. Anyway, this was the third of three surprisingly not-terrible Rob Cohen films, following Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Dragonheart. The disaster drama, starring Sly as a former EMS chief who finds himself attempting to rescue survivors trapped in a sealed off tunnel, is a no frills but mostly engaging genre exercise. The film is lean and mean, with an emphasis on mean, as the picture is arbitrarily cruel about who lives and who dies along the way. Like the variations on The Poseidon Adventure, it presents a situation where most of the would-be victims are already dead or soon will be then asks us to focus on the lucky few who have a token shot at survival. With a strong cast (Amy Brenneman, Viggo Mortensen, Dan Hedaya, Stan Shaw, Jay O. Sanders, Danielle Harris, etc.) a relentless pace, and a solid and polished production (the film cost $80 million back when that meant something), Daylight is, along with the better-known Copland the following year, is the last truly wholly successful genre film Stallone has yet made outside of his marquee franchises.
Rambo (2008): I have long argued that Rambo is Sylvester Stallone's Unforgiven. If Rambo: First Blood part II and Rambo III were (perhaps wrongly) used as examples of nationalistic American exceptionalism and the unquestionably morality of military intervention, then Rambo is basically Stallone's apology for hoisting such simplistic ideas on the American moviegoing populace. In place of a certain can-do righteousness is utter and complete pessimism. There is no joy to be had in the film's insanely graphic violence, as much of it is aimed at innocent villagers being massacred in Burma as a matter of course. There is no hope in the naive missionaries traveling by river-boat to offer supplies and medicine to those ravaged by endless war. There is no real change to be had, no 'difference' to be made. Stallone's Rambo is a bitterly cynical variation on the old 'veteran gunslinger embarks on one last heroic quest', where whatever good Rambo can accomplish via doing what he does best is meaningless in the broad scheme of things. Oh sure Rambo kills countless murderous soldiers and saves a few missionaries, but it doesn't make a damn bit of difference and doesn't do a damn bit of good (you'll remember the look of horror from Paul Schulze after his unyielding pacifist beats a man to death with a rock in the heat of the moment). Those who were saved are horrified by what they have witnessed and what they had to do to survive. John's return to mass bloodshed is not a triumphant comeback but a tragic inevitability. Rambo may not be a great film, but, intentional or not, it is a sad, stinging, and definitive rebuttal the to the entire might-means-right and moral absolutism of the entire 1980's action genre.
And that's it for now. There are plenty of other Sylvester Stallone film I could discuss, ones outside the beaten path (Antz, Spy Kids 3D) and ones that really are just a little better than their reputation (Oscar, which would have made this list except I haven't watched it in 20 years), or films that had an accidental impact on the industry (Judge Dredd, which not only killed the R-rating among mainstream genre fare for a good decade but counts as almost subversive the Patriot Act-era). Plus of course I've already written extensively about both Expendables films and the initial three Rambo pictures. Come what may, Stallone has had a fascinating filmography over the last 35 years, one where a large number of films can be dissected and analyzed beyond their effectiveness as pure genre exercises. What's your pick for the most underrated Stallone picture? How about the most misunderstood? The best, the worst, or one that you just think is worth discussing? Sound off below and know that your choices and mine are arguably a better use of your time than Bullet to the Head.