In honor of the late Andrew Sarris, perhaps it’s time to consider Sylvester Stallone from an auteurist perspective. Even if he doesn’t write or direct all of his films, there are certain motifs – training montages, the American Dream, heaving pecs, villainous boxers of the black persuasion – that keep recurring. But if the Stallone filmography (Stallography?) can be boiled down to a single, non-muscle-related point of view, it is rugged individualism. Whether it’s nihilist ‘Nam vet John Rambo, underdog champion Rocky Balboa, and divorced arm wrestler Lincoln Ford, among others, the Stallonian Protagonist (Stallagonist?) time and again finds himself fighting a solitary fight against the world. Whenever a Stallagonist finds himself part of a larger group, he is unable to function according to its rules: in F.I.S.T, a well-intentioned union leader finds absolute power corrupt him absolutely; in Cobra, a renegade cop can only catch a criminal by playing by the criminal’s rules; in Over the Top, a humble truck driver discovers how innocent gestures like, say, driving his truck into his father-in-law’s house do not help his custody case.
The Stallagonist seems unable to cope in a society with structure and regulations, but what sort of society would he prefer? Some kind of anarcho system, perhaps? Probably not, since as Stallone explained to Sean Hannity, mankind’s natural inclination is war, not peace, and Stallagonists have at various times advocated interventionist foreign policy (Rambo) and advanced methods of interrogation (Cobra). Ah, but what about when the Stallagonist finds himself at odds with the law, as he does to varying degrees in Tango & Cash (1989) and Lock Up (1989)? Predictably, this is where matters become grayer.
In Tango & Cash, Stallone and Kurt Russell play a pair of rival detectives locked in an endless struggle to determine who can be the most dangerous, showboating sociopath. In the opening scene, Tango (Stallone) shoots a tanker truck because he suspects there might be cocaine in the tank. I will repeat: he shoots a tanker truck because he suspects there might be cocaine in the tank. Okay, it turns out he’s right, but still, I wouldn’t trust this guy this guy with my tax dollars. Meanwhile, mob kingpin Yves Perret (America’s sweetheart Jack Palance) sees Tango and Cash (Russell) as a potential threat, and frames them for murder in a seemingly open-and-shut case involving doctored-audio, fingerprints, etcetera.
Tango and Cash has gone down as one of history’s greatest atrocities, which is a shame, because it’s really good. Any 1989 movie that features Jack Palance chewing the scenery as a crime boss can’t be all bad (especially when he repeatedly talks about “Taaaahhngo and Caaahhsh” in that inimitable Palance twang that makes it sound like he’s passing a kidney stone). With its endless array of nonsensical-but-elaborate action sequences (including a finale with Stallone and Russell driving some kind of Hummer/tank/Batmobile in a car chase outside Perret’s ludicrous elaborate headquarters) and the leads’ awful, wonderful, awfully wonderful pseudo-comic dialogue (“I have an aversion to getting F.U.B.A.R.” “What’s F.U.B.A.R.?” “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition”), Tango & Cash plays like a community theater version of The Front Page, crossed with Cobra, 48 Hours, and a big slab of meat. For director Andrei Konchalovsky, once renowned for his work with Tarkovsy, Tango & Cash would be a mere hors d’oeuvre in preparation for the craziness of The Nutcracker in 3-D (2009) – which, you will recall, turned the Tchaikovsky ballet into a parable about Nazi Germany in which toys were rounded up and sent to the gas furnace.
Tango and Cash had to spend the movie proving their innocence; in Lock Up, the Stallagonist actually is innocent. Here, auto mechanic Frank Leone (Stallone) is near the end of a minimum-security prison sentence until the sinister Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland) suddenly sends him to a maximum security institution for his final weeks. Turns out, Frank had briefly escaped to see a dying friend, and Drumgoole, being evil, decided to show the young hooligan what’s what. We’re expected to be on Frank’s side, even though this is the kind of offense that a cop like Cobra might have murdered him for.
The rest of the film is a battle of wills between Frank and Drumgoole, who organizes yard brawls, orders Frank’s auto projects trashed, and even creates an elaborate set-up in which Frank will escape jail to save his girlfriend from being raped, only to be arrested and thrown back in prison for ten more years. The film ends with Frank strapping Drumgoole to an electric chair and threatening to throw the switch until he forces a confession out of the evil warden; this launches a police investigation that apparently leads to bad things for Drumgoole and no extra sentencing for Frank.
Stallone has long claimed that his characters are apolitical, although since they have a lot to say about Vietnam, the justice system, and organized labor, maybe he was thinking about… I dunno, maybe the abortion issue, or something. I’ve long pegged the Stallagonists as libertarian with a law-and-order bent, but having seen Tango & Cash and Lock Up, I’m starting to think they’re just kinda self-involved jerks, y’know? I mean, yeah, sure, Cobra couldn’t shut up about how the constitution was cramping his style, but what if someone thought to lay charges on him for the millions of dollars of property damage he inflicts on a daily basis? Something tells me that Cobra’s attitude might change a little.
I think what I’m trying to get at is: what’s your problem, Stallagonist? Why you gotta be so standoffish? Look pal, we all know this society isn’t great, but we’re working with what we have, and if you’re so smart, why don’t you get up here and tell us what to do? Yeah, you – the one in the tank-top with the big muscles! I bet you’re also one of those guys who complains about what jerks everyone in the government are, and doesn’t vote because “they’re all a bunch of crooks anyway” just to justify your own ignorance. I bet you’re one of those guys who’s only read one book and it’s The Fountainhead, and even that you only read half of.