One of the hardest things we’re fighting against in this project is the way that the nineties action movie scene has become caricatured. The films are dumb. The stars are talentless, sweaty, steroid-enhanced mannequins. If we were to follow this logic, and simplify and codify the 1990’s action blockbuster, two actors would be seen to tower over the landscape. Schwarzenegger and Stallone and they would be seen to be much of a muchness. But Sylvester Stallone struggled throughout the nineties to find meaning. His films were often empty, hollow shells, devoid of interest or entertainment. Why is an individual so tied to a decade when in truth he was completely out of sync with taste and popularity?
Stallone is a true cinematic auteur, an individual whose fingerprints smudge any movie he participates in. Regardless of director, Stallone is the true author of any film of which he is the star. The only individual to have number one box office hits in five different decades, he is, regardless of any preconception, an icon of the nineties.
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Sylvester Stallone is easy target for reductionism; sometimes, he seems to exist in the collective imagination as a barely animated Spitting-Image puppet. He’s seen as a lunkhead – a marginally comprehensible, limited talented individual. As sweet as it was to see, Stallone was never going to win the best supporting actor Oscar for his role in Creed (2015). The prejudice against him and his abilities runs that deep.
Yet Stallone is an extraordinary cinematic talent. An instinctive and naturalistic performer (who was compared to Marlon Brando in the early days of his career) who has a rich gift for eliciting sympathy from an audience. He has singlehandedly created three successful franchises (suck on that Stan Lee!), and in Rocky Balboa, performed in a single role across thirty-odd years; something that is almost Truffaut-like in its commitment. As a star, he took control of every film he performed in, imprinting them with his own concerns – a complete repudiation of traditional auteur theory.
He remained deeply committed to documenting the immigrant experience in America, exploring how vital it was for these individuals to succeed and carve out a distinctive identity. He is thoroughly concerned with masculine identity, how this relates to your family, and how shared experiences bond men together. He gave vivid representations (most notably in First Blood (1982)) of the horror of trauma – how truly ghastly experiences would shape and shock the mental health of individuals. And he would consistently seek to stress the necessity of the individual to take control of his own destiny – no-one is ever there to help you achieve your goal in a Stallone film.
The characters played by Stallone would share common characteristics. They would be unquestionably good at their jobs, be that boxing, rock-climbing or killing. They would be admired and respected (and desired) by everyone around them; they are often an inspiration, regardless of their own failures in life. The ability to transcend a failure; to pick yourself back up again is a shared trait in the roles he writes/chooses. And they would have a deeply endearing goofy sense of humour. Stallone strides across his films; he found the furrow he wanted to plough and would do so with dedication and determination.
(Even Cop Land (1997) – everyone’s favourite “Stallone actually acts” film – deviates very little from these qualities. The main distinction in that film is that he is a little chubbier than usual.)
But for a star who is seen to be intrinsically linked to the nineties, the true decade of his career is found in the eighties.
Rocky (1976) was Stallone’s breakout film, a desperate, inspiring story of an individual seeking meaning in his life – not just through sport, but through truly accepting another human being for who they are (“We fill each other’s gaps.” is quite possibly the most romantic thing ever uttered in a movie.) Stallone would regularly return to this franchise throughout the subsequent years, taking his authorial intent to its fullest. He wrote, directed and starred in Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) …and it’s easy to ignore the physical and mental strength it took to achieve these films. To set up multiple camera shots, lead a large crew and perform physically gruelling scenes whilst subsisting on a diet mainly of egg whites is extraordinary, and beyond the capabilities of most human beings (Schwarzenegger included). These films saw Stallone’s directorial vision fully revealed, particularly in his use of montage, where he could express some of the purest qualities of cinema, most notably the capture of intimate human moments and the absolute control and manipulation over time that film fulfils.
In between these endeavours, he would create a phenomenal body of work:
- In First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988) he would take his traumatised Vietnam veteran into the wider world, exploring how the government can manipulate the mental health of individuals for its own political gain. He would examine how the soul seeks the security of order against the chaos of freedom, and how messy notions of territory and boundary are cruelly exploited for financial gain.
- In Staying Alive (1983) – Stallone’s only directorial effort not starring himself – he would explore how the consequences of initial success can affect a person, and how you can struggle to live in your own shadow.
- In Cobra (1986) he would demonstrate the limitations of how the right wing fantasy of maniacal, absolute justice imposed by the individual resolves itself. (It’s an acknowledged, ridiculous film – cutting pizza with scissors! – but one saved, as a lot of these films are, by Stallone’s absolute commitment to the parts he plays. Strange to think this film began as Stallone’s plan for Beverly Hills Cop (1984))
- In Tango & Cash (1989) he would subvert his own expectations of carelessness by playing the straight man in a buddy cop film. It’s an absolute gem of a film and the combination of Stallone and Kurt Russell is a team-up of considerable charm.
And we are only scratching the surface – in addition he was involved in five other films in the eighties.
And then…Rocky V (1990). Stallone had been worn down by the pressure of his prodigious output over the previous decade and handed directorial duties back to John G. Avilsden, who in turn created an absolute mess of a film. There is a desire to document how a boxing career can have serious consequences on the physical health of the athlete, and how the profession can damage a stable family life, but the film lacks the earnestness that endears us so much to Balboa and his struggles. It ends with a limp street fight rather than a boxing match for pity’s sake! The bruises of this film were hard to erase for Stallone. He glanced across the hallway and saw what Arnie was achieving…and decided that the leap into comedy was for him.
Oscar (1991 – John Landis) is one of those films where it’s a struggle to find words to describe it beyond… it’s an absolute bore. I love Stallone, I love the idea of him exploring his comedic skills, I even forgive John Landis for being a murderer, but Oscar is an interminable mess of a film where I cannot find the enthusiasm even to perform a perfunctory Wikipedia search to remind myself of the plot. Suffice to say, comedy was not going to provide the career renaissance that Stallone required. Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) only confirmed this.
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Action movies suffer from their oppressive sense of patriarchy. They are almost exclusively about men who solve problems. Women, at best, exist as love interests, or at worst, motivation. The death of a woman is an acceptable trauma in the worlds that they inhabit, as if their only function is fertility, and once they have achieved this, they have fulfilled their use. It is an idea that is repeated again and again in action cinema (even as recent as Jason Bourne (2016)) with little thought given to the culture of violence against women that is propagates and upholds.
So the start of Cliffhanger can make you queasy, and not because of its vertiginous heights. The casual death of Michelle Joyner motivates both Stallone and Michael Rooker throughout the film. It devastates their friendship. It is a flippant death – one that seeks to hobble Stallone but causing the audience to doubt his abilities, but we are unconvinced; after all, he really did do everything he could to save her. Is he truly responsible for her death? Stallone’s sense of heroism is unequivocal, even when he is a failure he is braver and more successful than anyone could hope to be.
So why do the men making these films need to cast women in this light? Why are they so often a toxically masculine burden? Why do they so rarely provide true female heroes? It’s easy to say that women are sensibly disinterested in the violence perpetuated by these films …a cruelly casual response that betrays my own inherent privilege. Women are removed from the frames of these films. The emotional core of Cliffhanger is not that Stallone gets the girl, but that Stallone reconciles his friendship with his best (male, naturally) friend. Women are an impediment to friendship.
Male friendships are a wonderful thing in their simplicity, but can be defined by the openness by which offensive ideas are expressed within their company. Causal misogyny is prevalent. Cliffhanger seeks to reframe this ideal; Stallone and Rooker behave with a substantial degree of dignity and respect for others around them, refusing to treat people differently based upon their sex, age or class. Instead of perpetuating stereotypical masculine behaviour, Cliffhanger redefines it by demonstrating a nobility of bravery and selflessness that extends from evolutionary positions of strength. There is a responsibility that comes from being designed stronger, and Cliffhanger defines this as heroism. So whilst the early death is shudderingly tasteless and ill-thought through, the rest of the film demonstrates a commendable demonstration of a certain kind of masculine ideal.
(Now these notions of gender are privileged and unhelpful in and of themselves as we move towards a genderblind society, but it is important to recognise elements of progressive behaviour in the nineties, however marginal they are. I am aware that I perpetuate certain gender fallacies in the above passages but think they are still useful observations, especially in the consideration of Stallone’s career – the male friendship with Paulie proves to be more substantive than his relationship with Adrian within the Rocky series.)
Cliffhanger is a highly effective film, one that succeeds on the clarity of construction that director Renny Harlin brings to the picture. Harlin is a key figure in the nineties action scene – and one of those people who seems to have convinced people of his ability without convincing them of his auteurist credentials.
Action cinema is a criminally undervalued genre, especially when it is a genre that expresses cinema’s greatest gift to its fullest – the manipulation of tension. By controlling pace, the rhythm of editing, performance, and story, cinema is able to engage an audience within a fictional world. The difference between good films and bad films is often down to their ability to control tension. Bad films have good performances within them – success cannot be down to actors. Great movies have terrible stories once you deconstruct them – success cannot be due to writers. Tremendously talented directors make absolute shockers of films – directors are far less important than anyone other than Alex Cox would admit. Success is down to how tension is controlled. Action cinema, despite its popularity, is neglected, even more so than the derided form of horror cinema.
There has been a move towards recognising the talents of those directors who work within the action genre in recent years. Vulgar auteurism takes the auteurist principles (primarily the director as author of the piece) that the Nouvelle Vague critics applied to the studio system as uses it underline the success of certain genre filmmakers who are undervalued. Its use is limited, primarily because we have sought to stress the limitations of auteurist theory when applied to popular cinema. The success of these films is so often down to the work of second units, highly physical movie stars, and increasingly, visual effects artists.
Cliffhanger does not need a theory applied to it to demonstrate its director’s talents. Harlin constructs a tightly-efficient film, where classical compositions reinforce the natural beauty of the film’s surroundings. Harlin knows when to cut to a wide shot to emphasise the sense of scale found within a mountain range. He successfully escalates tension, ensuring that the audience is never one step ahead of the story; for instance, we are completely unaware of who is the saboteur on the plane at the start of the film. Twists come at regular intervals to move the film along with an escalating sense of drama. There is an economy of shot; when a fantastic death by stalactite is staged, slow-motion is applied effectively to heighten the audience’s reaction.
Stallone is neglected as an actor, but he has a natural charm that only the most iconic of screen presences convey (Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Michael Caine et al.) Where Cliffhanger fails is in its choice of antagonist. Which is not to say that John Lithgow is not as charming as the aforementioned actors (his choice of a fairly accurate, but somewhat preposterous British accent is inspired), but when Stallone’s physical prowess is so underlined within the film, you cannot believe that there is any real sense of danger in the ultimate showdown between the two at the end of the film. These fights are meant to be orgasmic – they are the final release after two hours of teasing – but Lithgow cannot hope to threaten our hero.
And then Stallone goes and throws an awful quip out at the end of the film. Did he learn nothing from Oscar?
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Renny Harlin is all but forgotten nowadays. He still is regularly involved in filmmaking, but the success of Cliffhanger and the Shane Black scripted The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) demonstrate his enormous capacity for creating exquisite pieces of action cinema. Perhaps the problem is that we attribute his films to others (writers, stars) and neglect his own classical, constantly escalating, set-piece every ten minutes style of filmmaking. The above mentioned films are worth seeking out, as is his Die Hard sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) and the more recent Mindhunters (2004) where serial killing has never been as entertaining. Misdirection continued to be an essential part of his toolkit, he maintained his superlative sense of place, using locations to develop claustrophobic arenas for action. The films just got smaller and smaller.
Stallone wandered through the nineties. Generally, he was content to leave serious drama and comedy behind him and focus on his action career. Many of the films he performed in from this era pop up on lazy lists of misguided performances (the nonsense and noise of Assassins (1995) is indicative of this), and whilst Stallone never fails to charm the audience, he lost his magic touch for identifying emotionally satisfying properties. In Cop Land he surprised everyone by putting on a bit of weight, but it’s a performance that only defied the cartoon generalisations made about his acting, rather than the truth of a deeply convicted, truthful actor. It’s a wonderful film, but it has a rock-solid cast surrounding Stallone, and has never convinced me that it was quite as radical a departure as has been suggested.
Stallone and Harlin reunited in 2001 for Driven, a film that is about some motorcar sport other than Formula One. Stallone performed his usual script rewrite and his character, Joe Tanto, typifies the role he likes to play; beloved by everyone, even when he takes their job! Produced by the somewhat optimistically named Franchise Pictures, Driven is a thrilling picture that manages some compellingly messy interpersonal drama with some superb race scenes, including a taut race through the streets of Chicago. It comes from that insane moment in time when we were being force-fed Estella Warren’s acting career and suffers from some needless use of CGI shots that were so prevalent at the turn of the century, such as the sight of coins flipping in the air. Just because you can now make in a computer, doesn’t mean you should. Surprisingly, Harlin had moved away from his classical composition phase into a more handheld form of camera work, but he brings real life to a charming script that exemplifies Stallone’s deeply held belief that you get back up again every time you’ve been knocked down.
By the first decade of the twenty-first century, Stallone was on the ropes. But when Sly gives an inspirational speech in the movies, you know he truly believes what he is saying. Stallone grasped back his two most defining roles, John Rambo and Rocky Balboa, and wrote, performed and directed sequels to each franchise. In Rambo (2008) Stallone sought to demonstrate the limitations of good intentions and explore how individuals are rarely able to escape the cycle of violence to which they have been exposed. In Rocky Balboa (2006) he excavated an aging icon, and indicated to us all how we should never let anyone else define us or limit our ambitions. He continued his sweetly charming portrayal of a melancholic, rambling, big-hearted Balboa in the dynamic Creed, and proceeded to create a whole new franchise in The Expendables (2010), The Expendables 2 (2012) and The Expendables 3 (2014). It is a faintly ridiculous series of films, but not without its charms; some people go to the movies to see Anna Kendrick bang around some cups, I go to the movies to see Arnold Schwarzenegger hold a very big gun.
Cliffhanger is a tightly-driven piece of action cinema, one that creeps up on you each time you view it. But it is a rare highlight in Stallone’s bland and unambitious nineties career. The titan of action cinema lost his relevancy and lost his way.
The giants were starting to fall to their knees.