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The Sylvester Stalloeuvre: A Working Class Sylvero Is Something to Be

“I like to write popular stories,” Sylvester Stallone told Roger Ebert in 1976. “Mass audience stories that still have something to say. One of the reasons I wrote about a prizefighter is because a down-and-out prizefighter is about as low down as you can get on the social scale, and I didn’t want Rocky to appeal to the audience on any intellectual level. It had to be a gut movie.” Stallone would go on to appear in many, many movies that didn’t have much to say at all, but before his niche as a bazooka-wielding sentient pectoral was solidified, he tried his hand as a purveyor of middlebrow prestige pictures.

No less than Norman Jewison directed F.I.S.T. (1978), which Stallone wrote with future Basic Instinct/Showgirls scribe (and current Mel Gibson archenemy) Joe Eszterhas, about no less a topic than the history of labour unions in the United States. The film begins in the 1930s Cleveland, where Johnny Kovak (Stallone), a worker at a loading dock, organizes a riot against the cruel bosses. When the workers are locked out of the factory the next day, Kovak joins the Federation of InterState Truckers (F.I.S.T.) as a union organizer. The union starts slow until it gains mob muscle, and the film follows 20 years of Kovak and F.I.S.T.’s uneasy relationship with mafia influence.

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F.I.S.T. is solid but unspectacular – curious, given the potentially riveting material it deals with. The problem may be Stallone, whose performance becomes stiffer and stiffer as Kovak ascends in influence. He’s convincing enough as a worker-turned-leader, but it’s a frustratingly mellow performance to hang a 145-minute saga on. A character like this demands an electrifying presence, but the moments when Stallone gets worked-up are among F.I.S.T.’s most unfortunate. “We built dis union tagether! Whadda hell d’you know anyting?! You just wanna see yer name in da paper nexta buncha goddamn lies! Ya think I’m gonna sit here’n letcha make a livin’ offa my brotha’s bloodja sonofabitch!”

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More interesting is F.I.S.T.’s engagement with union politics, which it seems to regard with ambivalence. During one heated negotiation, a boss says, “The price is too high, Mr. Kovack,” and Kovack responds, “So’re your profits.” This type of applause-line is surprising coming from Stallone, whose on- and off-screen images are usually unabashedly right-wing. Still, Kovak is loosely modeled after Jimmy Hoffa, and while the film is sympathetic to the rights of blue-collar workers, it suggests that corruption is inevitable in any organized bureaucracy.

After reportedly clashing with Jewison, Stallone’s next move was to take over the directing reigns for Paradise Alley (1978). If F.I.S.T. was to be his Citizen Kane, then Paradise Alley would be his Godfather: a sprawling, generation-defining American family epic. From top to bottom, it’s a Sylvester Stallone joint; he even uses his viscous baritone to belt out the theme song in the opening credits. Folks, take it from me: if there’s one place where Stallone’s talents do not lie, it’s vocal music.

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Stallone stars as Cosmo Carboni, the eldest of three brothers in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, 1946. He struggles a bit as a fast-talking, streetwise hustler, more Leo Gorcey than Rocky Balboa, but at his best, there’s a certain joy to his performance. He encourages his young brother Victor (Lee Canalito) to fight in a wrestling bout for some quick cash, but when he easily wins, Cosmo starts to see prize money as a way out of the slums. Soon, however, Cosmo starts to fear that Larry (Armand Assante), the third brother and Victor’s manager, is starting to exploit Victor. It all ends with the brothers together for a big match not 180-degrees from the one that ended a certain other Stallone film. As Paradise Alley plays out, the plot isn’t quite this streamlined: there are so many characters, subplots and digressions that the 107-minute runtime feels about twice as long.

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This probably sounds like one big fiasco, but the frustrating thing about Paradise Alley is its mediocrity. The working title, Hell’s Kitchen, is the type of specific-yet-vague-and-all-encompassing moniker given to films of daunting ambition, yet the resulting film is curiously flat – both huge and miniscule. No wonder: in 1980, Stallone told Ebert that his original cut ran much longer. “There were a lot of scenes in there to give atmosphere and character,” he said, “and they wanted them out just to speed things along. They removed 40 scenes, altogether.”

As exhausting as the prospect of another 40 scenes of Paradise Alley may sound, I daresay this film might have benefitted from three or four extra hours of content, to become some sort of sprawling, fascinating, possibly unwatchable epic. Stallone’s subsequent directorial career may not suggest he’s capable of a Once Upon a Time in America or a Margaret, but late efforts like Rambo (2008) and Rocky Balboa (2006) do suggest he has enough mad passion to concoct some sort of wild, visionary mess.

In the year and a half between Rocky and F.I.S.T, Stallone’s public image went from charmingly Balboa-like to= Too many self-aggrandizing interviews, plenty of overexposure. “Many people seem to be waiting for Stallone to get his comeuppance,” wrote Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice, and indeed, neither of his follow-up films made much of an impact. F.I.S.T. collected a sluggish $20 million at the North American box office, while Paradise Alley flatlined with just a little over $7 million. Next year, it would be back to the comfort zone for Rocky II, initiating a long cycle in Stallone’s career of alternating between flops, and Rocky and Rambo movies. Today, they are primarily remembered as career-footnotes professional Sylvester Stallone columnists, who have been known to bitch and moan to anyone who will listen about how long they are, and why can’t we just skip ahead to Cobra already?!

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