Because Sylvester Stallone has been so famous for so long, it’s easy to forget how unlikely a star he is. He’s certainly not a pretty-boy, and he’s not really “handsome,” but he’s not exactly unattractive either (“sexy” might be the right word, if only by default, since he radiates a certain raw, pungent masculinity). For all his various on-screen girlfriends and sex scenes, it’s odd to think of him as a romantic lead (Rocky had his tender moments, but can you really imagine Cobra or Judge Dredd whispering sweet-nothings into your ear?). Even dialogue is not his strong suit – his molasses-thick baritone sometimes makes the words difficult to wade through, both for him and us.
He is, undeniably, an imposing physical presence, so much so that a career playing henchmen, thugs, and the occasional lead-villain must have been in the cards. But that wouldn’t have worked; as his early supporting turns in The Lords of Flatbush (1974) and Death Race 2000 (1975) demonstrate, Stallone has a tendency to dominate every frame he’s in. In Flatbush, he is one of four members of a Brooklyn greaser gang called “the Lord’s” [sic], along with Perry King, Paul Mace, and a terrifying young hoodlum by the name of Henry Winkler. Nowadays, it’s impossible to see Henry Winkler with his greased-up hair and leather jacket and not think of him water-skiing over a shark, but the greasy, muscled Stallone – his mouth, his face, indeed his whole body askew – really looks like he might have crawled out of some dismal Flatbush pool hall.
It’s odd to watch Stallone as part of an ensemble – not simply because we know he would soon become a star, but because he looks, talks, walks, sneers, acts, and reacts so strangely. Nervous studio executives can be forgiven for their reluctance to let him star as Rocky, but these early films show that Sylvester Stallone could have only ever been a star.
Stallone shares roughly equal screen time with the others this bit of low-budget New-York-neo-realism, but his scenes are the most affecting. He has three great moments: in the first, at a pool hall, his girlfriend tells him she is pregnant while he continues to shoot pool, trying to maintain his composure. In the second, he takes his girlfriend to buy a wedding ring, and tries to weasel out of it (“I got a ring for ya… on my bathtub”). Physically, Stallone is at his Stalloniest in these scenes – drooping frown, monosyllabic grunts, tight black t-shirt barely containing massive pecs – but he gives off the vibe of a small child being dragged to the principal’s office. (The third comes toward the end – a full-on Stanley Kowalski moment, with Stallone yelling at a fellow Lord about his dreams and aspirations). He taps into an element of vulnerability in his macho persona rarely exploited in his post-Rocky output, and one can begin to understand why Roger Ebert once suggested he could be “the next Marlon Brando.”
The Lords of Flatbush didn’t turn Stallone into a star, but it did lead to a good role in Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, arguably the best film to come out of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures that wasn’t a Bergman/Fellini/Kurosawa import. David Carradine (fresh off Kung Fu, and a huge star by New World standards) is Frankenstein, the much-feared champion of a cross-country auto race in a dystopian future, where contestants win points for running over pedestrians. Stallone plays Machine Gun Joe, Frankenstein’s fame-hungry archenemy, who repeatedly places second.
Stallone has been mostly derided for his forays into comedy, and he would later oversell the humour in the likes of Spy Kids 3-D, but here demonstrates good comic instincts. He delivers the most ridiculous lines (“I got two words to say to that… BULL SHIT!”; “How does it feel to know you’re gonna spend the rest of your life in pain? The rest of your life is about a minute and a half”) with that trademark scowly deadpan. Machine Gun Joe lives his life in the heavy shadow of Frankenstein, and the way Stallone pouts every line turns the fearsome man-mountain into a large, blubbering baby. In a way, Machine Gun Joe comes across as vulnerable as Stallone’s Lord of Flatbush.
One moment, in particular, is shockingly good: as the crowd cheers the arrival of Frankenstein, Joe yells, “You lousy sons of bitches! You want Frankenstein! I’ll give you Frankenstein!” and fires his machine-gun at the audience. Stallone’s face becomes ludicrously passionate during this throwaway gag, his brow furrowing and mouth twisting into some bizarre, angry shape. Stallone would revisit this pose (and facial expression) so often that it’s remarkable to see it used for comedy before the “Stallone Template” was even properly set.
Though he has given some fine performances, Stallone is not often praised for his acting ability; so many of his films have required him to do little more than glower while firing a gun. But let’s not underestimate him – Dolph Lundgren and Don “The Dragon” Wilson can glower and fire a gun too, but they never captured our collective imagination like Stallone. Stallone may not have been the star of The Lords of Flatbush or Death Race 2000, but there’s just something about his presence that blows Henry Winkler and David Carradine right off the screen. He has, as the French might say, a certain je ne sais quoi.
NEXT WEEK: “Gonna fly nowwwww…..”