Sylvester Stallone began his film career as an underdog, a young actor/screenwriter whose idea for a boxing movie would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon. Over the course of his career, Stallone has rolled that success into, among other things, three successful franchises: the Rocky franchise, the Rambo franchise, and, most recently, The Expendables franchise, all of which he has not only starred in, but has also written — and, in some cases, written and directed.
As an actor, Stallone is always dedicated to his characters. That devotion comes off the screen and makes Stallone one of the screen's most beloved action movie icons. But he has also proven to possess solid dramatic acting chops — which are often undersung — when he has dialed back his action persona for quieter moments.
Below, A.frame looks back at the essential films of Stallone's career.
As with American Graffiti and Grease, The Lords of Flatbush was part of a wave of nostalgia for the '50s that was sweeping the nation in the '70s. The coming of age drama tells the story of a small gang of greasers, with Stallone as Stanley, who agrees to marry his girlfriend when he thinks that she's pregnant. Stallone is also credited with writing additional dialogue for the film, receiving his second writing credit for doing so before going on to write his first feature, Rocky. The Lords of Flatbush also features Henry Winkler in a leather jacket before going on to become an icon as Fonzie on the aforementioned Happy Days.
For millions of film fans all around the world, Sylvester Stallone is Rocky Balboa — there simply is no separating the two. And rightfully so, as Stallone refused to let anyone else play the role after writing the screenplay, turning down offers until United Artists agreed to fund the film with him in the role of Rocky. And that tenacity and determination certainly paid off. Stallone set the bar for sports movies, creating the ultimate underdog tale with iconic moments that are referenced, parodied, and worshiped in real life to this day.
Rocky racked up 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Stallone, and won three (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing). The Best Picture Oscar win for Rocky is its own underdog story, as the film beat out Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, and Bound for Glory.
The crime thriller Nighthawks sees Stallone teaming up with Billy Dee Williams — fresh off The Empire Strikes Back — as the two investigate an international terrorist threatening New York City. Nighthawks is known for having several versions, some more violent than others, with Stallone at one point involved in the editing process. This was the first time Stallone would play the role of a law enforcement officer; he would go on to take on other such roles throughout his career.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Rambo movie. Despite the more excessive, shoot-'em-up action spectacles of the First Blood sequels, the original is (slightly) more grounded — focusing on Stallone's John Rambo, a misunderstood Vietnam veteran who must use his combat and survival skills to evade a small-town sheriff and his deputies, who turn their instant dislike for him into outright bloodlust.
The action elements and violence are certainly present, but the original is also somewhat anti-war and anti-violence, as Rambo delivers a speech about the horrors of war, his PTSD, and feeling forgotten by the country he swore to serve. Stallone, who delivered an excellent dramatic performance in the film, co-wrote the screenplay. (He has also co-written the screenplay for all four of the sequels to First Blood).
In the Rocky franchise, the fourth installment is arguably the fan favorite, with its exaggerated elements (montages! Russians! A robot?!) and memorable one-liners ("If he dies, he dies."). This time, Rocky is living the good life until his friend, Apollo Creed, is killed in the ring by the ice-cold USSR heavyweight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Rocky is knocked back down to underdog status by the technically superior Soviet, and he must work his way back to avenge his late friend, and prove himself worthy of winning once again.
It's easy to write Over the Top off as a movie about an arm-wrestling trucker. And it is a very straightforward premise: Stallone stars as a trucker who enters an arm-wrestling contest to win $100,000 and the respect of his estranged son. But it's a testament to Stallone’s everyman appeal that he makes it work by giving his all throughout the movie — straining, sweating and flexing as he slams other guys' arms down onto tables.
Stallone continued to prove his bankability and dedication to his craft with this action thriller set in the Rocky Mountains. A year after losing a friend during an ill-fated climbing expedition, Gabe Walker (Stallone) is called upon to rescue a stranded group on the same mountain. Only the group is involved in a botched heist, searching for millions of dollars in the mountains. The stunts are breathtaking and nerve-wracking for anyone with a fear of heights.
Cliffhanger is actually in The Guinness Book of World Records for the most expensive aerial stunt on film, and Stallone reduced his own fee to cover the $1 million cost of said stunt, which went smoothly and continues to look incredible to this day, nearly thirty years later.
Demolition Man is a wild blend of cop action thriller and sci-fi futurism. Stallone stars as Sergeant John Spartan, known for the damage he typically causes when trying to catch criminals. His greatest foe is Wesley Snipes' Simon Phoenix, a dangerous crime lord. After a failed hostage rescue, both men are cryogenically frozen. Phoenix is later unfrozen decades later in a virtually crime-free 2032, where he begins to wreak havoc, necessitating that Spartan, the only man who can stop him, be unfrozen as well. It’s undoubtedly an interesting take on the future (Taco Bell, the only restaurant to survive the franchise wars, is now an upscale fine dining restaurant), and Spartan stands out as an old-school cop in a modern world.
Based on the comic book of the same name, Judge Dredd sees Stallone again as a futuristic law enforcer, this time in a completely crime-ridden dystopia. Dredd is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, not a good look for a man assigned to literally be judge, jury and executioner in this society. This is a far grimmer, dirtier future than the one depicted in Demolition Man, and further forward in time, but the costumes and visual style add character to the gun-toting action of the movie. Stallone fits in well in this future, a mostly stoic man dedicated to the law.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, Cop Land is an excellent dramatic showcase for Stallone, after a run of more action-heavy and heightened movies involving police characters. Here, he stars as Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a small New Jersey town who comes into conflict with the New York police officers who live in the area. His character has long idolized the NYPD in his neighborhood, but, after an officer kills two young Black men, all sorts of corruption comes to light. Now, the sheriff must decide if he wants to continue to support the men who he’s looked up to for so long, or do the right thing instead. Stallone is joined by an outstanding cast, including Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and the late, great Ray Liotta.
While Rocky V seemed like the conclusion to the saga of the iconic boxer, Stallone stillwanted a little more closure for the character. So, 16 years after that film, he wrote, directed, and starred in the sixth Rocky film, Rocky Balboa. In this heartfelt look at the character that earned him superstardom, Stallone portrays Rocky as a widower who has retired from boxing and is running a Philadelphia restaurant. When Rocky is challenged to an exhibition fight by the reigning heavyweight titleholder, he decides to climb back into the ring for one more bout. In the film, Rocky is also working on his relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia). In one touching scene, Rocky wisely explains to him that life is not about "how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."
Stallone harkens back to the action movies of the '80s and '90s with The Expendables. Co-starring A-list action team including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, and his Rocky IV rival, Dolph Lundgren, the movie's plot feels like it could easily fit in with the films in the Rambo franchise. Stallone's character assembles a group of mercenaries to overthrow a Latin American dictator, only to find the mission compromised by government corruption. The flick proved to be a hit, spawning two sequels that pulled in even more icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, among others.
Rocky Balboa's boxing saga may have concluded, but his journey as a mentor was just beginning. In Creed, Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky's late friend and former rival, Apollo. Trying to forge his own legacy as a boxer, Adonis seeks out Rocky in hopes of having the former champ help him to become the fighter he believes he can be. Rocky, meanwhile, is facing his own mortality after dealing with several losses and his ailing health.
Stallone earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, marking his first Oscar nomination for the role since being recognized for the original. (The prior nomination was for Best Actor.)
With Ryan Coogler at the helm, Creed works as a meaningful passing of the torch to the next generation, with Stallone still supporting the underdog, as he has done throughout his entire career. In 2018, 42 years after Rocky, Stallone played the character for the eighth and final time in Creed II, which saw Rocky supporting Adonis as he faced off against Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, for the Heavyweight Championship.