Aside from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone is the most iconic action star of our time. Schwarzenegger may have the better resume, and even though Stallone’s acting is often criticized, he’s shown definite moments of brilliance. Like it or not, Stallone is an Oscar nominated actor. With the third entry in the Expendables series coming out this weekend, what better way to honor Sly then with his ten best films. To be honest, I don’t like the Expendable series. While violent and brutal, they are pretty vanilla and cartoonish compared to Sly’s older and grittier films, which you’ll see a lot of on this list. Regardless of how you feel about his movies, you got to be impressed by the man’s longevity. As a great man once said, “Nothing is over!” So, let’s get to it – My Top 10 Sylvester Stallone Movies:
10. Lock Up (1989)
One of the reasons why Sylvester Stallone has been so successful is because of how likable he is. Even if he doesn’t always give you a ton of charisma, you always want to root for the guy. This probably stems from the fact that his break out role was Rocky Balboa, one of the most likable characters in the history of cinema. In Lock Up, you desperately want everything to work out for Frank Leone, a man with six months left on his sentence. He gets transferred to the shittiest prison of all time, just because the warden (played viciously by Donald Sutherland) wants revenge. This is one of the cheesier Stallone movies, as Leone develops a lovey-dovey relationship with some of the inmates. I’m sorry, but if this prison is supposed to be Hell on Earth, these inmates are just a little too nice. But don’t worry, there are plenty of jerk bags along the way as well, as one of them is responsible for the saddest death of a car you’ll ever see on film. Stallone’s acting is at his best when he’s monologuing, and he gets a powerful one here at the end. Along with a great understated performance from John Amos (Yes, McDowell from Coming America), Lock Up is definitely a lost Stallone classic you want to check out.
9. Over the Top (1987)
Over the Top could not be a more appropriate title. Yes, it’s ridiculous. It’s poorly written. It’s pure meathead cheese mo, but I love it. Stallone plays a truck driver who wants to bond with his estranged son, and along the way he arm wrestles a lot. That’s the movie. It works for two simple reasons: One, you buy into the relationship between Stallone and his son. Two, the arm wrestling scenes are awesome. The final match in particular is so tense, you think your television is going to explode. They should retire all arm wrestling scenes after that one.
8. Oscar (1991)
This is a weird movie, and Stallone’s rare attempt at comedy. The film was panned by critics, and I can certainly see why. It’s a complete mess. But despite all that, there’s a charm here that’s undeniable. I can’t put my finger on it, but it makes me laugh. Set in the 1930s, it’s a zany story about a big time criminal who vows to go straight, per his father’s dying wish. But on the first day, it all goes wrong. Misunderstandings. Bag mix-ups. Fake pregnancies. The movie is so repetitive to the point where it’s actually funny. The tone they are striving for is very specific comedy, and the large cast nails it, especially Stallone. Marisa Tomei also pops up as his daughter, and is hysterical. She was actually nominated for a Razzie, which I don’t quite understand. This is one of those misunderstood movies, but at the same time, I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it. For what it’s worth, Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up. As an aside, the title of the film is used for only one joke, which I found hilarious.
7. Bullet to the Head (2012)
This one kind of bombed at the box office a couple years ago, and it’s a shame. Stallone made his comeback with Rocky Balboa and Rambo in the late 2000s, and became a household name again with The Expendables. It was nice to see him return to one of his grittier movies though with Bullet to the Head. The fight scenes in this film are harsh and unforgiving. And unlike an Expendables movie, there’s no cartoonish blood spewing everywhere. It’s pure blunt force. There’s a fight in a Turkish bath that is gut-wrenching to watch. It’s vintage meathead Stallone at his best. If you missed this one, check it out.
6. Cobra (1986)
Cobra is the epitome of a guilty pleasure movie. Stallone is Lieutenant Cobretti, the cop who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He walks around with shades, a toothpick (or matchstick), and weapons that have a cobra insignia. Oh man, I love it. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. The film also has a great villain, the Night Slasher, played chillingly by Brian Thompson. While this isn’t the most well written movie in the world, both Cobra and Night Slasher have an awesome dialogue exchange at the end, as they duke it out in a fiery steel mill. This movie is pure adrenaline, and 100% bad ass approved.
5. Nighthawks (1981)
We’ve had a lot of great actioneers and guilty pleasures on the list, but Nighthawks is one of Stallone’s more legitimate films. It’s a gritty cop movie, where Stallone (Deke DaSilva) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams), played by the one and only Billy Dee Williams, are assigned to track down an international terrorist who’s come to New York. Rutger Hauer is great as Wulfgar, a classic villain. While slow at times, the film has some of the best tension you will ever see, including one of the all time great subway chases. Stallone is very Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry-esque here, despite one unfortunate acting moment when he reacts to a hostage dying. If you think you’ve seen every great 1970s cop drama there is, this could be a hidden gem for you. The score is gorgeous, and the ending absolutely brilliant.
4. Cop Land (1997)
Cop Land was directed by James Mangold, who’s done Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and last year’s The Wolverine. Cop Land was one of his earlier directorial efforts, and it’s definitely a little sloppy. But when it hits, it hits big. The cast is outstanding, which includes Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta. What fascinates me most about Cop Land though is how different a role this is for Stallone. He plays this sad sack of a man, who’s resigned himself to the life of a sheriff for a small New Jersey town that is basically controlled by corrupt cops. But in classic Stallone fashion, you desperately root for his character, Freddy Heflin. What also strikes me about this movie is how corrupt all these police officers are. Seriously, everyone but Stallone is a complete dick. These cops make the ones in The Place Beyond the Pines look like Mr. Rogers. The movie keeps your eyes transfixed on the screen to see what decisions Freddy is going to make to get himself out of this shitty and impossible situation, and a lot of that has to do with Stallone’s understated performance.
3. Cliffhanger (1993)
It’s Stallone kicking ass on a mountain. That’s pretty much all you need to know. This is classic nineties action fare – Unapologetic fun, with great characters. The first scene is pretty iconic, and was even parodied immediately in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Once again, it’s Stallone playing an extremely sympathetic character. Not only is Stallone at the top of his game, but it’s got a great ensemble cast, including Michael Rooker, and an awesome villain performance from John Lithgow. (Spoilers) It also has one of the most frustrating deaths I’ve ever seen in a movie. You know it’s coming, but you still dread it. FRRAAAAAAAAAAAAANK! NOOOOOOOOOOO!
2. First Blood (1982)
“I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.” That line says it all. While not as iconic as my #1 choice, John J. Rambo comes pretty damn close This is pure movie heaven. Rambo, a bad ass, but tortured Vietnam vet, comes to a small town looking for his war buddy, who’s now dead. When a cop (Brian Dennehy) forces him out of town for no reason, Rambo loses his shit. Rambo gives him plenty of opportunities to forget about it, but the cop can’t let it go, and the entire town suffers for it. Much like in Rocky, Stallone proves that if given the right material, he can flat out act. In one of the most emotional monologues you will ever hear, Stallone gives arguably the best performance of his career. As much as I love this movie, I’ve actually never seen the sequels. Every time I’m about to watch them, I stop myself for some reason. Maybe it’s because I know they are probably average action movies, and I want Rambo’s story to end with this film. I’ll get to them at some point. If you haven’t seen First Blood, for the love of cinema, please do so immediately.
1. The Rocky Franchise
Yeah, pretty anti-climactic, but come on? Was it really going to be anything else? I know I’m cheating by putting them all here, but if the countdown were half Rocky movies, it wouldn’t be very interesting. If you want to read my ranking on all of them though, click here. The theme of this countdown has been “likable characters,” and there is none more likable than Rocky Balboa, the quintessential underdog. Everything that needs to be said about Rocky has been said. And while the original is clearly the best, and one of my favorite movies of all time, I actually admire Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI) the most. Nearly every movie that gets made is just to make money. Hollywood is a business. And sometimes screenwriters are forced to write stuff they really don’t care about. With Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone truly wanted to tell this story, even though on the surface, another Rocky movie seemed like a pathetic cash grab, and a shallow attempt to jump start his career again. You can plainly see in his performance though that this was something very personal to him. It oozes out of the screen. I love it, and I love everything about the Rocky franchise. Heck, even the fifth one.