This is my list of the top ten best Sylvester Stallone movies. Stallone is my all-time favorite screen-hero, his films have been a seminal part of my movie-going life for nearly three decades. In a career spanning 40 years Sly has been involved with some of the biggest films in the action genre. Lately Stallone has garnered a new generation of fans with the highly prolific and profitable franchise The Expendables. So much attention is paid to his hulking physique that it is often forgotten the man is an accomplished writer, director, and artist. The one-time Oscar winner and nominee for Best Actor has never achieved that level of critical success again, but his films have been solid box-office performer for decades. Stallone also holds the distinction for opening a movie at #1 in each of the last 5 decades.
Box Office Gross: $20,388,920 Adjusted: $69,182,917
Coming off the massive critical and commercial success of Rocky, Stallone attempted to push audience’s expectations of his screen persona with this low-key but memorable drama. Sly is a dock worker turned union organizer and eventual figurehead of the entire movement. The title acronym F.I.S.T. has no connection to do with pugilism, but rather stands for Federation of Interstate Truckers. That may have hindered the film’s box-office take due to potential audience members looking for a Rocky-esue fair-tale and getting a Jimmy Hoffa-like bio-pic. The direction by Norman Jewison and screenplay written by Joe Esterhazs and Stallone are all outstanding.
Box Office Gross: $63,408,614 Adjusted: $126,817,228
Tango & Cash is a seminal entry into the Stallone cannon in that it represents Sly’s first foray into the buddy-pic sub genre. After nearly 15 years of headlining action films solo, he paired up with the magnetic Kurt Russell for some action movie magic. Who knew these two contemporaries had so much onscreen chemistry. Perhaps this is due to Russell acting as the Felix to Stallone’s Oscar, if you excuse The Odd Couple analogy. The film itself barely hangs together and the strain of no less than three different director’s fingerprints can cause for some ebbs along the way. But as an example of 1980s action conventions Tango & Cash fires on all cylinders.
Box Office Gross: $16,057,580 Adjusted: $32,607,976
Over the Top is a wildly appropriate title for this tale revolving around a custody dispute and an arm wrestling tournament in Las Vegas. Directed with no real style by cannon studios head Menahem Golan, the film is a lazy mixture of clichés, training sequences intertwined with father/son bonding moments and rock music. Including a power-rock ballad by Kenny Loggins that will get stuck in your head for days. All these seemingly detrimental aspects make for one of the biggest guilty pleasures of Stallone’s lengthy career.
Box Office Gross: $49,042,224 Adjusted: $104,958,291
Cobra is Stallone’s version of Beverly Hills Cop. During that film’s pre-production Sly was being courted for the lead character, Alex Foley. At the time it was not a comedy but a very serious picture about a Detroit cop going to flashy Beverly hills to catch a killer and fight police corruption. The working title belay the heavy themes, Motor City Cobra. After much behind the scenes battling Stallone and the producers walked away, each going on to make the project they had envisioned. Both films are 1980s pop culture classics, while it is hard to envision Alex Foley committing the vigilante style executions that are part of Marion Cobretti’s existence, Cobra is undoubtedly the stronger film of the two. Coming off the huge box-office success of Rocky IV and Rambo II, Sly re-teamed with director George P. Cosmatos (Rambo II, Tombstone) working from a script written by Stallone adapted from the novel Fair Game. Interestingly enough the same source material would be filmed under its original title Fair Game starring William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford released in 1995. Cobra features the Miami Vice influence, slick photography and violence galore. Also worth noting, Cobra represents the second and last time Bridgett Neielsen would make an appearance in a Stallone flick.
Box Office Gross: $22,099,847 Adjusted: $44,199,694
Stallone is the prisoner with a heart of gold in this guilty pleasure that takes place within the walls of the most hellish prison in the united states. Frank Leone (a possible nod to directing great Sergio Leone) beat a man to death protecting his elder mentor, sentenced to heavy time, Leone escaped the prison to attend the funeral of his father-figure. Making a fool of the sadistic warden (a seething Donald Sutherland) and creating a lifelong power struggle and rivalry between the two men. The second film of 1989 that features Sly escaping from a prison, after Tango & Cash. Memorable moments include the restoring of a vintage mustang in the prison garage, a brutal game of playground football in mud and outstanding supporting performances from Sutherland, John Amos and Tom Sizemore. Bill Conti, the man responsible for the infamous Rocky theme delivers another quality soundtrack here. Lock Up is one of the most overlooked action/drama of the 1980′s.
Box Office Gross: $58,055,768 Adjusted: $111,343,671
Scoring his second blockbuster smash of 1993 (Demolition Man set an October opening weekend record), this cemented the fact that this was the year of Sly. Making this comeback all the sweeter was the abysmal returns from Schwarzenegger’s massive budgeted The Last Action Hero, in comparison Stallone was enjoying his best run at the box-office since 1985. Taking a cue from the groundbreaking Terminator series, Sly eagerly sought out science fiction themed projects to cater to the ever-growing fan base of the genre. Demolition Man deftly mixes action, satire and social commentary into a slick well produced package that remains relevant today. Sporting a supporting cast of big names Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Rob Schneider and Denis Leary.
Box Office Gross: $44,862,187 Adjusted: $77,604,742
After a string of expensive box-office underperformers (Judge Dredd, Assassins, Daylight) Stallone’s career was in decline yet again. So he went back to the drawing board and discovered a script by burgeoning newcomer James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma). The story was so enticing that Sly transformed his figure to resemble the heavy-set perpetually melancholy sheriff Freddy Heflin, this ensemble piece features fine work from Harvey Kitel, Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Peter Burg and Robert Patrick. Audiences and the critical community turned this into a surprise hit in the late summer of 1997. Copland while flawed in many areas still ranks high as a milestone in Stallone’s career. Too bad the acting stretch was short-lived, Sly shows true range and screen presence here, in physically demanding role.
Box Office Gross: $84,049,211 Adjusted: $161,195,830
After a few years tolling in sub-par comedies, spurred on by Schwarzenegger’s wildly popular entires into the genre, Stallone rebounded with an action ‘comeback’ film. Cliffhanger was billed as the make it or break it vehicle in Sly’s career (The first of many such episodes in a nearly 40 year career), the first glimpses of the teaser trailer featuring zero dialogue, while solely showcasing beautiful mountain ranges and slow motion action set to classical music, really sold the film. From that point on it was a feverish run-up to see if the movie was truly worthy of the attention. Boy was it ever. The opening moments are spellbinding and audiences globally were hooked, Cliffhanger became an instant classic in the early summer of 1993, holding its own with blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and The Firm, and blowing past Last Action Hero. Firmly cementing the return to the genre that made him famous, as of this writing Sly has never attempted comedy again.
Combined Adjusted Box Office Gross: $614,980,500
John J. Rambo a name that will live in cinematic infamy for generations to come. Most superstar actors are fortunate to have one established franchise to return to every couple of years. During the go-go 1980s Stallone forged a new kind of hero and action-thriller onto the screen as the title character Rambo adapted from the novel by David Morell. Infamous for its disastrous test screenings and an attempt by Stallone to buy-back the film for destruction, some key editorial changes and shifts in theme and tone shaped First Blood into a hit picture. For the rest of the 1980s Sly concurrently headlined two blockbuster franchises, this culminated in 1985 when Rambo: First Blood Part 2 was released in the summer to staggering box-office receipts and Rocky IV was released in Nov. to astronomical numbers. They landed at number #2 and #3 respectively, on the year’s top grossing chart. In full disclosure I’ve seen Rambo II, more times than any other film (although Rocky IV and Conan the Destroyer are close behind). So much so that when Rambo III was released in May 1988, I was picked up from daycare at the young age of 9 and allowed to see the movie on opening day. My mom must have been out her mind, but god love her for it. Its one of the lasting images of my movie-going life and I remembered thinking that these Rambo movies would always be coming out. Ultimately it wasn’t the Russians or the Taliban (whom he aided against the Communists) that killed Rambo, but an Aussie in the form of Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee 2. Both released on the same day and Rambo III while solid wasn’t the performer that its predecessor was, in effect killing off the franchise of two decades. Rumors began as far back as 2004 that a new Rambo film was shaping up, talk about Rambo in Iraq or Afghanistan was inflammatory and people were concerned that Stallone was glorifying war for profit. All was for not as the announcement that a new installment would focus on the conflict in Burma, still yet it would be another four years before the fourth installment hit screens. Rambo as it is officially titled was met with raging enthusiasm from most die-hard fans for proudly continuing the character and brand. It has always mystified me that Rambo had only a modest take at the box-office. I believe had it been released after The Expendables it would have grossed twice as much. As of this writing no current plans are in place for another Rambo film, but there is always rumor and speculation. Sly himself has been quoted as saying “Rambo is me before coffee in the morning, and Rocky is me after.”
Combined Adjusted Box Office Gross: $1,485,137,900
Is there any fictional character in the last 50 years that has embodied the everyman spirit and belief in the American dream as iconic than Rocky Balboa? The Rocky series is remarkable in that each story can be viewed as a thinly veiled analogy for the issues and problems Stallone was facing in his personal and professional life. This is the role that forever turned the names Stallone and Rocky into the lexicon. Let’s not forget the original won best picture in one of the toughest Oscar fields in history, while creating a star in Stallone and memorable musical score. The final fight is a thing of beauty, and the closing moments in which Rocky embraces his girl and proclaims his love while the judges announce that Apollo Creed is the winner by split decision, still gives me goosebumps all these years later. Rocky II is the advancement of Rocky as a person getting married, buying a house, trying to use his new fame for lucrative endorsements, and ultimately retiring from the ring. Throughout the film Rocky is haunted by the idea that his success may have been a fluke, closely resembling the depression that Stallone went through when his post-Rocky films were box-office poison. Although Rocky II was not nominated for a single Oscar it still went on to become the second highest grossing film of 1979. At this point Sly had publicly remarked that Rocky was intended to be a trilogy with the third installment taking place in a roman coliseum and Rocky dying from injuries sustained during the bout. That synopsis sounds more akin to elements from parts IV and V, than anything from Rocky III. The third part picks up with Rocky’s lost appetite for struggle, years of successful title defenses and a wealthy lifestyle have made Rocky soft or civilized as Mickey puts it. Once again drawing from his personal struggles with infidelity and arrogance, Stallone found a way to incorporate his experiences into the Rocky character. Also providing a remarkable villain in both Hulk Hogan and Mr. T and one of the best songs ever written for a movie with Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. This film set the format for the next installment Rocky IV, which is the highest grossing of the series and is arguably the most fondly remembered. In the middle of the Cold War Rocky travels to Russia and faces the human monolith Ivan Drago. Forgoing the more dramatic elements of the previous sequels Stallone had honed the formula to perfection by this time. Braking down the story to its base elements and dedicating more time to montages and the prerequisite final showdown. The fight sequence is the most brutal and efficiently staged in the entire series. A staggering conflict that had audiences literally on their feet in theaters. I recall my father being forced to hoist me up so I could see the screen over the adults. There is no doubt Stallone-mania reached a fevered pitch in 1985. After five years without a new Rocky film, Sly re-teamed with John G. Avildsen to create the last chapter in the life of the Philly slugger. Rocky V was intended to feature the death of Rocky Balboa (an idea Sly had flirted with since 1981), obviously this wasn’t to be, MGM and eventually Stallone wavered on the concept and the script were re-written to include an epilogue on the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Rocky V was a creative and commercial failure (though the work-print edition is an improvement) that failed to present audiences with an interesting villain and a depressing storyline. The Rap/Bill Conti musical menage was also an enormous letdown, for the first time since 1982 the soundtrack album that accompanied the film was a disappointment. Apparently audiences weren’t the only ones who felt the sting from part V, Stallone publicly criticized the final product for years, dropping suggestions that there may be another story to tell in the Rocky universe. The 16 year battle to bring Rocky Balboa to the big screen is legendary in Hollywood circles. For over a decade producers scoffed at the idea of Stallone returning to the series 30 years after its initial inception. Defying all the naysayers Stallone (this time back in the director’s chair) delivered Rocky Balboa to theaters in time for the holiday season of 2006. Sporting a meager 25 million dollar budget and facing cynicism at every turn, the fantastic sequel was able to turn the negative into positives and the film ultimately grossed $70 million at the domestic box-office, proving that Sly’s instincts had been correct in not killing the iconic character a decade and a half earlier. Stallone has graciously stepped away from his star-making role and has officially retired the cinematic pugilists for eternity. Yo, Sly. You did it.