As an actor and director, Sylvester Stallone has been a torchbearer for a brand of downhome and occasionally dangerous American cinema.
Prior to the London Olympics, I'd pointedly set out my stall as a hateful cynic. And like so many of those so-called 'cynics', I buckled at the first hurdle, soon finding myself locked to the rolling TV coverage and montage-heavy, jingoistic self-love.
After one particular six-hour sofa session, my Union Jack facial transfer burnished and running, my fist all but pumped out, I decided I needed a break, and so started flicking the channels for a movie. It turned out – in what was a smart piece of opportunist scheduling – Sylvester Stallone's 1976 Oscar-winning meatball opera, Rocky, was just starting up.
As I watched – for the first time in well over a decade I might add – it struck me what a quaint film Rocky is. Following the Olympics and accounting for the conventions of live commentary which bombard viewers with inane facts and statistics, we know that the athletes on our screens are – for the most part – lavished with money when it comes to modern, innovative training techniques.
And yet here was a film about a self-made athlete, a man who attained sporting excellence (or [spoiler] almost did) through the most modest of means: jogging around downtown Philadelphia in a dimestore grey tracksuit; employing a doddery drunk as his trainer; and, of course, contravening all number of health statutes by using a side of beef as a punchbag.
By Rocky IV, we even had a story which directly addressed the idea of humble street poetry versus cold, corporate technology, as Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago pumped iron for Mother Russia with machines that looked liked they'd been borrowed from a world robotics expo. If such a thing even exists.
It's cynical to say so, but Rocky is a smokestack fairytale, a film which makes little logistical sense in the modern world. The notion of total economic autonomy in professional sport is a big reach, yet it still offers an insight into Stallone's subsequent cinematic project.
More so than helping to embody a period of action cinema which offered audiences lone, bulky heroes who worked through their perilous missions while taking little heed of the laws of democratic society/physics, the characters Stallone essayed in what we're calling his 'early' period largely choose to keep proceedings aggressively, stogie-chompingly old school.
While Stallone's later films may lean heavily on a digital crutch – from the vertiginous blue screens of Cliffhanger to the CG blood plumes of The Expendables – the man himself is always presented as a model of cheery archaic values. Satin jackets, box-fresh leather slacks, skull tattoos, cigars as status symbols, the soft caress of the American flag, zero irony. He is the Garrison Keillor of regressive meatbag action hokum. He brings a knife to a gunfight. On purpose.
Indeed, he starred in a film which arguably stands up as one the high watermarks in espousing the joys of primal machismo and the application of said in creating a complex form of meritocracy based entirely on upper body strength. That film is, of course, 1987's profile of a loose-cannon arm wrestling champ and his weedy kid, Over the Top.
"This is our Bicycle Thieves," hollered critics at the time. "Though instead of a poverty-stricken labourer searching Rome for his physical right to self-empowerment, we've got a burly truck driver attempting to secure a viable economic future for his son through barroom sports."
The 1993 one-two punch of Cliffhanger and Demolition Man both furtively played on Sly's fondness for the primitive. In the former, he played a daredevil mountaineer whose life literally hung by a thread, his mortality entrusted to the robustness of ancient rocks.
During the film, he proceeds to foil a botched mid-air heist, taking on a band of tooled-up goons led by John Lithgow. Like his celebrated John Rambo in the great First Blood, his prime weapon is his detailed knowledge of the land he loves.
Demolition Man toyed with his persona by displacing the no-nonsense tough guy maverick cop he'd played in films like Cobra and Tango & Cash into a world devoid of such blue collar staples as fried food, toilet paper, swearing and sexual intercourse.
Read as an allegory, Demolition Man offers a harsh admonishment of top-heavy government. It also puts forward a water-tight case for capital punishment in ultra-liberal societies that adopt cryogenesis as a form of criminal discipline. Furthermore, it affirms that downhome values, ruthless pragmatism and a yen to (literally) smash the heads of crazed serial killers is something that the future will never be able to artificially manufacture.
As a poster-boy for hard right filmmaking, even his more light-hearted films add to the argument. John Landis's Oscar, from 1991, saw Stallone playing a career-criminal forced to go straight. His sincere efforts to enter the banking sector eventually come to nothing, and he decides to return to his old ways, confirming the conservative belief that re-education and forgiveness are useless within the penal system.
And Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot … well, that was pretty much a gratis season ticket to Charlton Heston's dream archive. We're not saying that Stallone's cinema is fascistic, merely that they deal in right wing platitudes with a notable lack of ambiguity.
As a writer and director, Stallone is an artisan of modest means. His unasked-for 2008 Rambo allowed us to check in with the face-painted scourge of every South-East Asian tinpot dictatorship that has sprung up over the last 40 years. Using the kidnap of a group of Christian Aid workers as an excuse for a series of blood-caked sorties into rural Burma, the experience of watching Rambo could easily be synthesised by, say, watching stock footage of an abattoir kill floor, or repeatedly throwing a bloody side of beef into an industrial fan.
Taken at face value by Stallone, the inexorable cavalcade of murder which occurs in Rambo offers a crude affirmation that, when organised government has failed, there will always be lone soldiers of fortune out there to maintain the anti-Communist status quo. The Expendables (the first one more than the second one) retains this hell's ditch ideology.
Of course, Stallone is not solely responsible for films in which pumped-up action men seek and kill jabbering ethnic minorities. It's a motif that harks back to the earliest days of cinema (cf The Birth of a Nation) and will continue for years to come. And yet, there are elements within his films in which his stickler-for-tradition tendencies are altogether more palatable.
Some may dismiss them as sentimental, but the opening scenes of Rocky Balboa frame his obsession with the past as a form of sweet nostalgia, as he saunters around his dinky Italian restaurant and regales his clientele with old war stories. These scenes are emblematic of the Stallone screen persona, and especially in his post-2000 films, long, balmy reminisces are used to hold time between honour kills.
That he is swiftly coaxed back into the ring for one last punch up suggests that a Stallone trapped in place where he can only relive past glories through faded photographs and tall tales is not a Stallone worthy of screen time. It's only when he's pounding the Philly sidewalks and right hooking some frozen steer that Sly is in his element. In time, yet out of time.