Film Review – Sly
“Time” is the running theme throughout the documentary, Sly (2023). For its main subject, Sylvester Stallone, time is constantly on his mind. Is there time to make another hit movie? Does he spend enough time with his family? Has he spent enough time building bridges and reconciling with those he has wronged? And of course, there’s the time he has remaining amongst the living. As a young man, Stallone would overcome any obstacle with his physicality – finely tuning his body to be bigger, stronger, and faster. In the 1980s and 90s, he was one of the premier action stars in the world, right alongside his friend and box office competitor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Father Time has caught up with Sly. With a body that can no longer keep up with his demands, Stallone is left to reflect on what he has accomplished, and how much else he has left to do.
Directed by Thom Zimny, the documentary briskly traces Stallone’s life, from struggling actor to the superstar he would become. Zimny (who also co-edits with Annie Salsich) structures the narrative by focusing on Stallone’s three major movie franchises (Rocky, Rambo, The Expendables) and drawing parallels to his real life. Each of the three work as a metaphor: There’s the young up and comer just trying to get his foot in the door (Rocky), the celebrity trying to maintain his artistic voice amidst a whirlwind of naysayers and negative press (Rambo), and the aging veteran who has accepted his place in life but can still kick ass (The Expendables). Much of the doc has Stallone narrating, opening up to reveal his thoughts, joys, and disappointments throughout each stage.
The film was shot as Stallone was preparing to move back to the East Coast. The editing assembles his interviews in a slapdash, on the fly manner. Stallone goes from talking while inside his California mansion, to walking the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in New York, to sitting in the passenger seat of his car, to his home office, to his art room, and so on. Sometimes, he will be clean shaven, and a second later will be sporting a full on goatee. The interviews clearly happened in different places at vastly different times, and the way they’re all arranged creates a sporadic, stream-of-consciousness type of effect.
But does it lead anywhere? That’s the major question, and I’m not so sure the documentary addresses it. As forthcoming as Stallone tries to be, he does so only at an arm’s length. He has always been well aware of his public image, and only allows a small snippet of himself to be revealed. This is likely due to two major causes. During an early scene, Stallone describes being in awe of Steve Reeves in Hercules (1958). He believed Reeves set the ideal standard of masculinity, one that he has tried to replicate in his own life. The second major influence was Stallone’s own father, Frank Stallone. Sylvester admits to having a complicated and turbulent relationship with his dad, who he describes as abusive. In an act of self-analysis, Stallone intuits that his lack of affection was directly linked to the way his father mistreated him. The documentary digs in on this notion, coming back to the father issue over and over again.
Can all of Stallone’s personal problems be attributed to his father? Maybe or maybe not – the film doesn’t really address it head on. In fact, the biggest disappointment of Sly is that it doesn’t probe Stallone’s psyche beyond the surface. Stallone constantly talks about having regrets, but never goes in detail about it. He talks about maintaining the relationships with his wife and children, and touches upon his son who died at a young age, but we never get to learn anything about them. In fact, we don’t hear from his wife and daughters at all. Stallone’s brother, Frank Jr., confesses his own career was sidelined because of the enormous success Sylvester received. This is an interesting topic, but is sadly brushed aside and forgotten. It’s as though Stallone wants us to see that he can be open and vulnerable about himself, but only to a certain point. He mentions his other artistic pursuits, like painting and poetry, but we never see him partaking in any of it. Many of the interviews – from Schwarzenegger, Quentin Tarantino, Talia Shire, and Henry Winkler to name a few – describe how much of a hard worker Stallone is, but nothing about who he is away from the camera. What are his hopes, dreams, fears? What are his weaknesses? If we strip away the fame, fortune and movies, what are we left with?
I think that’s something Stallone intentionally refuses to share. “I don’t like sad endings,” he says, “I’m in the Hope Business.” The key moment comes when Stallone talks about the disagreements he had with the filmmakers over the ending of First Blood (1982). Instead of the more artistically interesting choice – with John Rambo becoming a weapon of mass destruction due to the effects of the Vietnam War – Stallone insisted on a more hopeful ending where the character walks away with a glimmer of redemption. Stallone maintains he pushed for this to inspire war veterans, but it also acts as a peak into how he views himself. He can’t be anything else but the hero. He still believes himself to be Steve Reeves – shining on the screen as a quintessential alpha male. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the good guy all the time, especially if it means raking in millions of dollars in movie tickets. But for a film that promises to show Stallone as we’ve never seen before, it ends up doing the exact opposite.
Sylvester Stallone is one of the biggest stars in the history of movies, and he deserves a documentary that is open and honest about who he is, warts and all. Sly doesn’t delve in hagiography, but it doesn’t paint Stallone with enough dimension. It never pushes the envelope to discover the humanity beneath the stardom. Whatever depths there are to be explored is done so sparingly. The film wants us to see Stallone in the same light as the famous statue of Rocky Balboa. We not only see the one standing at the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but we also see another one standing at the edge of Stallone’s pool, as well as another one residing inside his home. Clearly, the statue means something to Stallone, and he wants it to mean something to us as well.