The joke in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel flashes by briefly in a movie crammed full of them. There’s a scene early on with Sonny Bono in an airport terminal shop. In the background, you’ll get a brief glimpse of a movie poster – an aging bald man slumped in a poster advertising Rocky XXXVIII.
At the time, Rocky III had just come out and the idea that Sylvester Stallone’s boxer would be punching away for years to come seemed hiiiiii-larious.
That joke was made four decades ago, and there hasn’t been another Airplane movie since. But the butt of the joke, Sylvester Stallone, is still sneering and punching across the screens, in Rocky movies and more, with his latest project the enjoyably retro gangster TV series Tulsa King.
It’s weird to say that one of the biggest movie stars of all time is underrated, but that’s how I’ve always felt about Stallone. Stallone has been a little bit of a joke in many circles. He’s easy to parody. Who hasn’t imitated a punch-drunk boxer yelling “Yo, Adrian” or Rambo’s monosyllabic grunts?
But he’s also been a massive success, and despite how uncool it sometimes felt to admit, I can’t help but like the guy.
I grew up as part of the Rocky III generation – the first of the franchise I ever saw and the one where it exploded into true ’80s excess. I got the wits scared out of me by Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, felt sad for Mickey, and pumped my pubescent fists along with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which 40 years on I still listen to whenever I want a jolt of pop-tastic rock anthem inspiration.
I’ve always been more of a Rocky man than a Rambo man – while in the right mood I dig the heaving gung-ho machismo of John Rambo, his movies always felt a little more tangled up in right-wing politics and America-first jingoism. Few of Stallone’s movies are really subtle, of course. (The man did make an action movie about arm-wrestling called Over The Top, after all).
Rocky, though, I’ll go to the grave defending, even Rocky IV, one of the most gloriously absurd ‘80s action movies. The series went from gritty uplifting realism with the first movie to steroid-pumped cheese and right back to some combination of the two with the excellent Creed sequels. Rocky, it turns out, contains multitudes. There’s a reason Airplane II made a joke about Rocky XXXVIII and not, say, Conan The Barbarian Part 33. Sometimes it seems he’d go on forever.
Of that ‘80s action hero pantheon of Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and the like, Stallone is the only one who’s been nominated for Academy Awards. His acting isn’t broad in scope, but darned if it isn’t effective when he works at it, such as his terrific performance in 1997’s Cop Land or the Oscar-nominated return of Rocky Balboa in Creed.
Looking back now at Rocky winning Best Picture over Network, Taxi Driver and All The Presidents’ Men in 1977, it perhaps wasn’t the most durable choice – I admit the other three are all objectively better movies – but still, I kind of love the underdog glory of Stallone winning Oscars for Rocky, a character who’d slowly move from realistic to cartoon and then back again.
He’s also made a lot of terrible movies – Stallone’s worst movies are pretty darned bad, but often oddly fun to watch. The 1986 franchise non-starter Cobra (which originally began life as Beverly Hills Cop starring Stallone, of all things) is like a template for all the over-the-top bad-assery one things of when they think ‘80s action movies. A cascade of one-word thrillers starring Stallone dot the 1990s – Daylight, Cliffhanger, Assassins, The Specialist. They blur together, and many are dire, but then you get a gem like Demolition Man or the blunt, testosterone-filled throwback fun of the recent Expendables series. Still, whoever thought of casting Stallone as Judge Dredd is hopefully working at an IHOP today.
Decades into his durable career, Stallone knows his strengths. In Tulsa King, his first TV series, the 76-year-old Italian stallion still dominates the screen, looking more and more like some kind of ancient Greek statue come back to life, or a still-hulking figure carved out of ancient oak. This antihero drama from the creators of Yellowstone is not groundbreaking television but it is a hell of a lot of fun watching Stallone’s take on a classic fish-out-of-water tale as an aging ex-con Mafioso from New York starts over again in Oklahoma.
There’s something curiously life-affirming about a senior citizen Stallone, beating the crap out of anyone who gives him lip, gurgling lines in a voice now so deep and craggy that it seems to emanate from the bottom of the sea.
The joke was that Rocky 38 would feature a withered old Stallone gamely defending his title one more time, tapped out and pathetic. The reality is that in the end he’s just about the last man standing of those ‘80s action icons. Stallone at 76 could still kick my ass and most people I know, drop a cheesy one-liner about it and probably go another five rounds. Long live the Italian stallion.