I hate to be playing my “Sylvester Stallone is a symbol for America” card so early in this marathon, but as we arrive at Victory (1981), a film in which Stallone is billed in the end credits as “U.S.A.,” the comparison becomes unavoidable. More than any of his action contemporaries, and more than virtually any other movie star – yes, even self-made-man Arnold Schwarzenneger – Stallone perfectly embodies everything beautiful and questionable about the Land of the Free.
Both were underdogs, underestimated by the man (Stallone is practically the “huddled masses” personified). Both were founded on a principle of democracy – the idea that even a “bum from the neighbourhood” can become a President/Oscar-nominated screenwriter (although both are a little ambiguous when it comes to black people). Both have dabbled in porn, and neither likes to talk about it (although America is rather more dependent on it). Both had growing pains (the Civil War, Paradise Alley), both are a little culturally insensitive (see: any Rambo film), both have an affinity for catchphrases, both are proudly individualistic, and both send a lot of their production to cost-efficient offshore lands (your iPhone was made in China, while Expendables 2 was mostly shot in Bulgaria).
Both were, at one point or another, the biggest cultural forces of their kind (for Stallone, it was 1985, when Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV were the #2 and #3 top-grossing films of the year). Both burned through a lot of goodwill with mercenary, ill-conceived ventures (the Iraq War, which looks pretty good next to Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). Both reacted/are reacting to their declining powers by ignoring their problems and plowing straight ahead on the wrong path (the Bush Tax Cuts; Judge Dredd). After that, comparisons get harder, since Obama-era America is still only in its Copland stage. Having said that, I’m anticipating a Get Carter-type flameout in the near future, followed by several years in the wilderness while China (Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, et. al.) runs its course, before finally re-emerging for a modest comeback (with New York, L.A., and Chicago gaining new popularity as Rocky Balboa-type historic sites).
And, more than anything else, both inspire a lot of goodwill, no matter how dubious their beliefs and actions. In Amerika Idol, a fairly terrible documentary that played at Hot Docs in 2009, the poverty-stricken Romanian village of Zitiste decides to build a statue of a cultural icon to bring inspiration to its discouraged citizens. After considering Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi before concluding “they were all taken,” the people of Zitiste finally settle on the next best thing: Rocky Balboa. “For the first time in nearly 2,000 years,” alleges the narrator, “the people of Zitiste had a reason to celebrate.” Amerika Idol is a horrible piece of American imperialist crap, but the one person who emerges relatively unscathed is Stallone. When he talks about how he hopes the Rocky spirit can rub off on the poor people of Zitiste, he sounds simplistic and condescending, but you have to hand it to him: he’s living proof that “the Rocky spirit” can work every now and then.
In Victory (1981), Stallone plays an American soldier in a Nazi P.O.W. camp, who teams up his fellow Allied prisoners (including a former soccer star played by Michael Caine) to face a German all-stars soccer team. Our heroes see this as a perfect opportunity to coordinate a mass escape. The match is supposed to be an easy victory for the Germans – a bunch of Apollo Creeds to our heroes’ Rockys – but once they’re on the field, they discover that they might just be able to beat the Nazis after all, even if it means missing their escape. While Victory was strictly actor-for-hire work (it was directed by – wait for it – John Huston), it still has all the hallmarks of a Stallone production. Yes, it’s the underdog-is-given-a-once-in-a-liftetime-shot story again; having already discussed Rocky, Rocky II, Paradise Alley, and Staying Alive, this marathon is beginning to feel a bit like variations on a theme.
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Still, with Victory, we see the dawn of a new Stallone, one I fear we’ll be with for most of the remainder of this marathon. The Stallone of Victory is a snarling he-man, the kind of rugged, no-smiles tough-guy who will say of soccer, “What kinda game is this? Fer old ladies ‘n fairies?” If Stallone in Rocky is the plucky, can-do underdog America likes to think it is, then the Stallone of Victory is the arrogant prick it often is.
So he’s not perfect, and neither is America, but look: they’re both founded on a lot of positive principles, both can be charming in their excess, and both can be quite charming if you catch them on the right day. And in both Stallone and America, the good and the bad are so inextricably intertwined that you’d better be willing to just embrace the whole package. Or anyway, this is at least how I can forgive him whenever he’s spouting some neocon crap on Hannity.