I bet if I were to ask even the sharpest of movie freaks to compose a list of performers most closely associated with that glorious enterprise known as the Bad Seventies Musical it would take quite a long while for the name Sylvester Stallone to eventually come up, but the truth is that the Italian Stallion has not one, but two such memorable disasters hidden away amongst the many lunk-headed sequels, misguided comedies and action flops that dominate much of his filmography. The second of these two, Rhinestone (in which he played a monosyllabic New York cab driver who Dolly Parton bets she can transform into a Country Music star) is the more obvious of the two, since he actually stars in it and is as horrifyingly bad as you would imagine, but the first is far more important since it is the film that marked the true turning point in his career.
Looking back with the gift of hindsight and the knowledge of all the truly terrible films to come (Rhinestone, Rocky IV, Cobra, Over the Top, Rocky V, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot!, Judge Dread and Driven to name just the most purely wretched of a wretched bunch) it seems odd to read Roger Ebert describe the subject of today’s post as “…the first bad film [Stallone has] made,” but people forget that following his star-turning breakout in the Academy Award-winning megahit Rocky, there was a period where Stallone was actually considered a gifted actor and filmmaker (as incredible as it seems he not only had been nominated for Best Screenplay, but Best Actor as well).
After Rocky he co-wrote the screenplay (with the infamous Joe Eszterhas, who made his own contribution to the world of Bad Seventies Musicals with his screenplays for Flashdance and Showgirls) and starred in Norman Jewison’s union drama F*I*S*T, which wasn’t nearly as well received, but kept afloat his reputation as a serious actor and writer who had the potential to be one of the great talents of the decade. The same was true for the period wrestling drama Paradise Alley, which also marked his directorial debut. Rocky II, which he also directed, proved to be a much bigger hit and though the general consensus was that it was inferior to the original, both critics and audiences seem to agree that it was still a well-made and entertaining film. After that Rutger Hauer’s villain got most of the attention from Nighthawks and North America’s indifference to soccer kept Victory from being a hit, but the back-to-back smashes of Rocky III (which he wrote and directed) and First Blood (which he did not) truly made it seem like Stallone was a man with the Midas touch. True, there were some rumblings that he had taken the Rocky franchise into a strangely cartoonish direction that seemed far removed from the sweet, realistic drama of the original, but even this could be deemed excusable when you considered that the first film was about a no-name boxer who dreamed of being the champ and the third was about a champ who had already gotten everything he had ever wanted.
It was a position Stallone could write about from personal experience, having gone from a bit-part actor struggling to pay his rent to a superstar who now had the professional freedom to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do in 1982 was make the transition towards becoming a pure filmmaker—one who could make the movies he wanted without having to star in them as well.
This was not as simple as it sounds. Though by this time Clint Eastwood (an actor turned director whose reputation for minimalist performances and cheesy patriotic action movies was at one time almost identical to Stallone’s) had already directed nine films, he had only failed to star in one of them and it, Breezy, remains the most obscure film he has ever made. Decades earlier, Gene Kelly made three films purely as a director, but the only one people remembered was Hello Dolly, an infamous financial fiasco. And Jack Lemmon’s sole directorial effort, Kotch, told a tale not unlike the one found in Breezy—with just as memorable results.
At that time Robert Redford had been the only superstar actor to successfully make the transition to non-performing director with his debut Ordinary People. But unlike Redford, who used his clout to get a downbeat and commercially questionable film made with the actors he wanted (rather than ones he thought would sell tickets), Stallone decided that for his first film completely behind the camera, he would instead craft a sequel to the huge 1977 hit film that had made John Travolta an overnight star and taught the world the glory of the discothèque.
I am, of course, talking about:
John Travolta as Tony A Struggling Dancer
Cynthia Rhodes as Jackie Another Struggling Dancer
Finola Hughes as Laura A Successful Dancer
Sylvester Stallone as Random Asshole On the Street A Random Asshole On the Street
Frank Stallone as Carl A Rhythm Guitarist
PLOT (OR LACK THEREOF):
Back in Brooklyn in 1977, Tony Manero was the king of the disco, but six years later he’s just another out of work dancer in Manhattan, making ends meet teaching classes to untalented wannabes and waiting tables at the kind of club he used to rule. Thanks to his only slightly more successful friend and occasional bedmate Jackie, he meets Laura, a wealthy British dancer whose moves and “intelligent” accent instantly catches his interest. When he is cast in the chorus of her new show, Satan’s Alley, he manages to spend half a night in her bed, but quickly learns that she has no interest in a man who can’t do anything for her or her career. Torn between the bitch who won’t have him and the saintly girl who will, Tony risks ruining his first big break, but when the director decides to take a chance and have him replace the show's male lead, he learns who he really is and is finally able to decide who he really loves.
As a “behind the scenes” musical, Staying Alive eschews the traditional break-out-into-song-and-dance scenes in favour of the kind of musical montages popularized by the success of Flashdance, but best exemplified by the extraordinary “On Broadway” sequence in Bob’s Fosse’s All That Jazz. That said, the following scenes certainly do qualify:
FAR FROM OVER PERFORMED BY FRANK STALLONE
FINDING OUT THE HARD WAY PERFORMED BY CYNTHIA RHODES
I’M NEVER GOING TO GIVE YOU UP PERFORMED BY FRANK STALLONE AND CYNTHIA RHODES
FAR FROM OVER (REDUX) PERFORMED BY FRANK STALLONE
(WE DANCE) SO CLOSE TO THE FIRE PERFORMED BY TOMMY FARAGHER
THE WINNING END PERFORMED BY JOE BEAN ESPOSITO
Assuming you merely scrolled down past the above list in a hurried attempt to get to this post's chewy, snarky center, I think it would behoove you to quickly look at it one more time and see if you notice an odd pattern forming. While you take care of that, I'll just insert a jpeg of a magazine cover from this period that does little to downplay the long-held rumours of Travolta's closeted homosexualty:
Ready now? Okay, then I'm sure you noticed that of the six musical numbers noted above, half feature songs performed by the director's infamously less-successful younger sibling, Frank. What you probably didn't note--because it's the kind of information no sane person should actually know off the top of their heads--is that the remaining three numbers feature songs that were written by Frank Stallone as well. This is not insignificant, as it is the clearest example of the level of hubris Stallone possessed as he worked on the project.
As iconic as Tony Manero's white suit was, it was three brothers from Australia who were truly responsible for turning a movie about an asshole who likes to dance into something much, much more. It has become popular now to praise Saturday Night Fever the film as a classic example of how the 70s cinematic pursuit of verisimilitude was able to transform a typical teen dance movie into a major work of art--to the point that it more resembled a work of cultural anthropology than any mere trifling entertainment. On the other hand, the popular opinion of Saturday Night Fever the record album is that it is one of the archetypal examples of the wretched tastelessness that defined the end of the lamentable me-decade--a craven musical sell out from a group once best known for folky pop songs with memorable harmonies. What this clearly ignores is that while the film was a popular success, the album was a zeitgeist-changing uber-phenomenon. By the time they got around to filming Staying Alive (which itself was named after the album's biggest hit) the soundtrack recorded by the brothers Gibb still held the record for best selling LP of all time, having gone platinum 15 times over since its release. It wouldn't be until a year after Staying Alive bombed that Michael Jackson's Thriller would finally best the Bee-Gee's achievement.
What some folks might not realize is that this was not an accident. Saturday Night Fever was produced by an Australian gentleman named Robert Stigwood, who at that time was best known as the manager of a group of singing brothers known as--you guessed it--The Bee-Gees. It should come as no surprise then that his principal interest in the project wasn't in presenting an anthropological study of the social rituals of Brooklyn douchebags, but rather in crafting the perfect comeback vehicle for his biggest meal ticket. Rather than the album being a fortuitous offshoot of the film, the film was made specifically to justify the creation of the album.
But that had been over five years ago--a lifetime in the world of music--and The Bee-Gees had become the Celine Dion's of their time, a group no one with even the tiniest iota of taste and/or self-awareness could admit to enjoying. Because of this Stallone recognized that the group's music would have to be featured in the film, but it could not be allowed to dominate. Thanks to Stigwood's role as the film's producer, the group received prominent billing in its opening credits, but--with the exception of the use of the title song at the very end--the truth is that their contributions amount to little more than anonymous background filler. Rather than rely on the music of the group that allowed for the first film's creation and massive cultural success, Stallone chose to ignore it in favour of the questionable efforts of his baby brother, who he also cast in the not-so-crucial role of the guitar player in Jackie's band.
I could spend a good long while discussing the reasons why he would choose to do something so obviously foolish, but in the end the only one that matters is the simplest--because he could.
As reasons justifying disastrous decisions go, "Because he could," is probably responsible for destroying more careers than any other in Hollywood. As any proper student of cinematic failure can tell you, there are two distinct kinds of Hollywood flop--the corporate folly and the vanity project--and in most cases the ultimate blame for their failures can both be attributed to "Because he could," the only variable being just who the "he" in the equation is. With the exception of perhaps Eddie Murphy, no other iconic 80s superstar suffered more as a result of his ability to make his decisions without having to justify them to the people signing his massive paychecks. Unlike Bruce Willis, who could survive and thrive after a "Because he could" flop on the level of Hudson Hawk (a film I am proud to say I actually saw in the theater when it was released), once Stallone started failing, it became impossible for him to stop. Given the freedom to do whatever he wanted with a project that had nothing to do with Rocky Balboa or John Rambo, he proved that his less-than-stellar vision would lead to him attempting to turn his brother into The Next Big Thing, regardless of whether or not Frank had the talent to justify it.
For this reason Staying Alive is important as the turning point in Stallone's career. Despite his only appearing onscreen for a couple of seconds, its failure laid the groundwork for all of his other failures to come.
That said, I have to admit that the music provided by Frank Stallone does amount to being the high point of the film, for as cheesy as it may sound, it's downright revolutionary compared to the film's script.
What Stallone and Norman Wexler, Staying Alive's two credited writers, didn't seem to realize is that if you choose to forgo plot in favour of a more intimate character drama, you are then required to create interesting three-dimensional characters who are compelling enough on their own to make you forget the utter lack of story. Instead they crafted a screenplay inhabited by cyphers whose actions are entirely dependent on what the director wanted to have happen in each scene, rather than what they would actually do in that situation.
But more than that, the screenplay fails because the director is never able to convince us that its logical conclusion is at all valid.. According to the script, we are supposed to come to believe that while Laura is initially compelling, her ambition and self-devotion make her unworthy of Tony's affection, while Jackie's ability to forgive his trespasses and love him for who he is makes her the deserved choice.
This may have flew in 1983, but 25 years later, it reeks of old-fashioned sexism. Laura's faults are no different than Tony's, but because she's a woman they are deemed unseemly, while Jackie's strange willingness to be continually treated like a doormat is portrayed as her most noble quality, rather than the tragic weakness it is. It doesn't help Stallone's cause that Finola Hughes is so much more interesting and charismatic than her blond counterpart, Cynthia Rhodes (whose greatest contribution to pop culture remains her performance as the girl whose botched abortion compels Baby to dance with Johnny in Dirty Dancing). Perhaps Stallone wanted to make a point about how settling for mediocrity is the fate of everyone, even gifted dancers, but if so he does not properly sell this conclusion and instead leaves the viewer hating Tony even more than they already did for settling for someone as challenging as a People magazine crossword puzzle.
THE KINDA-GAY PART:
What then is there about Stallone's first major folly to make it worthy of the attention of the second Project Kinda-Gay post? Well, as strange at it may seem, for all of his vanity and undeserved egomania, Stallone was a filmmaker who wanted to stretch beyond the limits of his comfort zone and the proof of this lies in Staying Alive's existence. And though its failure doomed him to direct only the sequels and "reboots" of his two most profitable franchise, there is something honourable in the attempt--even considering how poorly that attempt ending up being.
Anyone can do what they're good at and continue to succeed, but it takes a brave soul (albeit a brave foolish soul) to try something different and risk embarrassing themselves in the process. Stallone in this instance was that brave foolish soul and for that he derserves to strut:
Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti is a member of Los Angeles’ “Zombie Squad”—the term used for cops who take the cases that require them to sink to the lowest depths of human society. His latest case finds him searching for the “Night Slasher”, a vicious serial killer whose ubiquity and lack of any discernable pattern suggests he might not be working alone. Cobretti and his partner catch their first break when the Slasher and his cultists fail to kill the witness to a previous murder—a tall Nordic model named Ingrid Knudson. When it becomes clear that the Slasher has an inside man on the force, Cobra takes Ingrid out of L.A. to protect her, unaware that Nancy Stalk, a cop assigned to join them, is the mole. The Slasher and his goons descend upon the small town where they are hiding and Cobretti is forced to protect Ingrid and rid the world of the Slasher’s irredeemable evil.
As a film buff I can think of few careers I find more fascinating than that of Sylvester Stallone’s. After making a good impression in a series of low budget movies like The Lords of Flatbush, Capone, and Death Race 2000 (which features my favourite performance of his career), he rocketed to super-stardom as the writer/star of Rocky, which was not only a major box office hit, but also made him only the third person in Oscar history to be nominated for both writing and acting in the same year (Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles were the two who preceeded him). He didn’t win, but at the time he seemed destined to join the pantheon of great American actors, with comparisons to Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro not being uncommon.
But then he followed up Rocky with two big flops—the union drama, F.I.S.T., and the period wrestling film, Paradise Alley, which he also wrote and directed. Fortunately, Rocky II resurrected him as a moneymaking force—enough so that the relative disappointment of the WWII soccer drama Victory had little effect on his clout, especially when Rocky III was on its way. His luck continued with First Blood, a film that gave him another iconic character in the form of emotionally damaged Vietnam vet, John Rambo, but then disaster struck in the double whammy of Staying Alive and Rhinestone.
This is the period where Stallone’s hubris suddenly became apparent and his choices grew much more questionable. Staying Alive saw him staying behind the camera as writer/director (save for a two-second cameo) in an ill-advised sequel to Saturday Night Fever. The film confirmed what many suspected after seeing his previous directorial efforts—the success of Rocky was a group effort that included the participation of director John Avidson. Working solo and with full creative control Stallone suffered from severe creative limitations, including unimaginative storytelling and a complete lack of subtext.
Rhinestone saw him attempting to stretch his legs with a light musical comedy in which he played a taxi driver who’s transformed into a country singer after Dolly Parton makes a bet with her manager. A gender reversed My Fair Lady with cowboy hats and tassels, it was the first film that clearly showed the limits of his acting abilities.
Left bloodied by the back-to-back mega-flops, Stallone performed what would become his trademark move and returned to his two most popular characters in the same year. The results, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV, were so overtly designed to appeal to the mid-80s audience that they turned once-credible characters into living cartoons. The slide in this direction had already started with Rocky III, which featured Hulk Hogan and the hilariously menacing Clubber Lang as its villain, but that film was a virtual cinema verite documentary compared to the cold war absurdity of Rocky IV.
With that film Stallone attempted to transform his inarticulate, working-class-schlub-made-good into an out-and-out action hero. Rocky Balboa no longer fought to prove himself or to take care of his family, he fought to honor his former rival turned friend, Apollo Creed, who was murdered by nothing less than the terror of communism itself. In terms of absurd anti-Soviet propaganda, the film was in the same class as Red Dawn and Invasion U.S.A. Rocky ceased to be a recognizable human and became an unstoppable god bent on protecting capitalism at all costs.
At this point I’d get all pretentious about what Rambo: First Blood Part II was about, but I’ve never actually seen the whole thing from beginning to end, but the snippets I have seen more than back up this analysis.
Unfortunately for Stallone both sequels were massive hits. Having been responsible for the two least-subtle films ever made, he came to the conclusion that this was what people wanted and he partnered up with a small studio for three films that paid him a lot of money, but also managed to wreck his career in a way from which he has never truly recovered, despite some notable successes here and there.
The studio was Cannon, founded and operated by two Israeli cousins named Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. After breaking out with the Israeli period T & A teen flick Lemon Popsicle (a film that you’d assume was a Porky’s rip off if you didn’t know it was actually released in 1978), they gradually took over A.I.P’s spot as the pre-eminent producer of low budget genre movies, most of which had already made their money back before a single frame of film had been shot, thanks to foreign pre-sales.
But for Golan, money wasn’t enough. He wanted prestige and respect as well and decided to try to buy it by hiring Hollywood’s biggest star to become synonymous with Cannon. The failure of the second and third of the three films they would make together would eventually result in the bankruptcy of his once successful company.
Before this, though, Stallone made his Cannon debut with a cop picture he wrote that marked a clear attempt to add a third iconic character to his repertoire. Using a novel originally published by Paula Gosling in 1974 as the basis for his plot, he reimagined its male protagonist as a gun-worshipping cop whose distaste for lawbreakers made Dirty Harry look like Alan Alda in comparison.
In the novel, which was first published as A Running Duck and then retitled four years later as Fair Game, the cop hero was Mike Malchek, which didn’t come close to matching the badass cool Stallone was intent on giving the character. Instead he gave the character the last name of Cobretti, which supplied him with both a dangerous sounding nickname and the title for the film, Cobra. Interestingly, he then gave the character a feminine sounding name in Marion, which added a touch of much-needed humour to the film and served as a specific reference to the man who famously turned down the role of Dirty Harry Callahan—John Wayne (whose given name was Marion Morrison).
From the novel he took the elements of a cop protecting a woman who witnessed a violent crime and the mole who constantly leads the criminals to them, but from there he let his own imagination run wild. In the place of Gosling’s hitman, he came up with a hulking, monstrous serial killer who commands a cult of similarly insane maniacs (some of whom appear to be everyday businessmen in suits), and he turned her attorney heroine into a glamorous foreign model, which allowed for a fabulous posing/investigation montage (easily the film’s best scene) and the casting of his wife, 6’0” Danish goddess Brigitte Nielsen.
(In fact Stallone changed the plot of Gosling’s novel so much that virtually no one noticed when the same book served as the basis of the Joel Silver-produced Cindy Crawford starsploitation flop, Fair Game, just 9 years later.)
Possibly exhausted after taking on the directing chores of Rocky IV, Stallone handed over the reigns to Cobra to his Rambo: First Blood Part II director, George P. Cosmatos—a Greek born Canadian who would later direct the cult western Tombstone and who was previously responsible for the man-vs-rat Canuxploitation classic, Of Unknown Origin. In the end, all of Cobra’s virtues—eye-pleasing style, interesting mise-en-scene, exciting action—can be credited to Cosmatos’ influence and direction. Unfortunately he was working with a script and a star with two absurd agendas.
There’s a great moment in the documentary The Hamster Effect, where Terry Gilliam is talking to Bruce Willis on the set of Twelve Monkeys about a scene where his character is supposed to be knocked out by co-star Madeleine Stowe. Gilliam tells Willis how he wants to film it, but Willis argues with him, insisting that a woman Stowe’s size could never knock out a man the way Gilliam is suggesting. The argument is long and passionate and it quickly becomes clear that Willis’ reluctance has less to do with the integrity of the film than his desire to not be seen as a pussy.
It’s an insight into the behind the scenes process that explains many a terrible film (fortunately for Gilliam, he finally got what he wanted and Willis benefited by giving a great performance in one of his best movies). Many movie stars, especially in the action genre, want to be perceived as the most cool, awesome people alive and they do this without any irony. Therefore they force changes upon any script featuring moments that might humanize or lessen the awesomeness of their characters. Go back to my first B-Movie Bull-Sh*t review and you’ll find a film where Chuck Norris kills dozens of commies without so much as a scratch to show for it.
Now imagine what happens when a star who is very much of this persuasion actually writes the script himself! That’s Cobra, a film so dedicated to promoting the awesomeness of its title character (and the actor playing him) that the film instantly devolves into unintended self-parody.
I mentioned Dirty Harry before and the comparison is extremely apt (although the film’s plot more closely resembles another Eastwood picture—The Gauntlet). Like Callahan, Cobretti is a gun fetishist (his weapon has a cobra pictured on its handle and we watch him clean it with loving care the first time we see him in his apartment) whose tough stance against criminals is harshly criticized by his liberal, namby-pamby superiors (one of whom, in the film’s biggest Dirty Harry homage, is played by Andrew Robinson aka The Scorpio Killer, Callahan’s original nemesis). But if Don Siegel’s film wore its conservatism on its sleeve, than Cobra dons it like a three piece suit, culminating in the truly hilarious moment where the Night Slasher taunts Cobretti by telling him how as a lawman he’s obligated to take him in and be tried by the courts, which will find him not guilty by reason of insanity.
Cobretti’s response to this is to
impale him on a large metal crane hook.
And whereas Callahan chose to throw his badge into the water after gunning down Scorpio vigilante-style, Cobretti is congratulated for his actions and gives the audience a thrill when he punches Robinson’s character in the face for being such a left-wing fag.
The two films also depart significant in the depiction of their two villains. In Dirty Harry, Scorpio is a pathetic hippy whose big plan to stop his adversary is to hire a black man to beat him up and pin his bruises and injuries on Callahan—getting him thrown off the case and earning the sympathy of liberals concerned more about so-called “police brutality” than keeping the public safe. In Cobra, the Night Slasher is played by Brian Thompson, a 6’3” monster of a man whose craggy face invokes a strange kind of handsomely charismatic monstrosity. Rather than acting alone, his character is shown to be a leader of a cult dedicated to the creation of a “new world” where the hunters rule over the hunted, but we’re never shown any reason why he would have such a following or why they would be so dedicated to him. We’re simply supposed to take their existence at face value.
And just like Cobretti’s gun, the film fetishizes the Slasher’s primary instrument of terror, a large menacing knife with sharp spikes along its bearer’s knuckles. The absurd bigness of the villain is clearly meant to prove the badass amazingness of Stallone’s character. Any wimp with .45 Magnum can kill a hippy—it takes a real man to take down a monster straight from Hell.
As frequently (and unintentionally) funny as this all is, there’s a clear sense of desperation that saturates the entire film. It would have seemed impossible after Rocky IV that Stallone could pander any lower to the public’s desire to see the clearly good battle the obviously evil, but with Cobra he managed to do just that and deliver a movie so pathetically geared to get morons to shout out “FUCK YEAH!” he might as well have ended it with a group chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
That said, for all his lack of subtlety and willingness to pander to the public’s most basic impulses, his scripts almost always feature an interesting character detail or two that suggests the highly intelligent, articulate man he frequently comes across as in interviews and making-of documentaries. In Cobra I enjoyed a moment between Cobretti and Knudson at a local truck stop diner where we see her purposefully dump half a bottle of ketchup on her French fries. It's completely extraneous but reminded me of Paulie’s paintings in Rocky Balboa—another touch that suggested the work of a much better filmmaker.
Cobra ended up doing relatively well at the box office (but not enough to warrant a sequel, even though the creation of a new franchise was its clear intention), but his next film for Cannon—for which he earned the then-shocking payday of $12,000,000—was Over the Top, an arm-wrestling melodrama directed by Golan. It flopped so spectacularly that Cannon bought the rights to Stallone’s second biggest franchise in a clear bid to recoup their costs with a sure thing. The resulting Rambo III was—at $60,000,000—one of the most expensive movies made up to that time and proved to be another costly flop. The one-two punch of these costly failures resulted in Cannon’s bankruptcy.
Since then Stallone has famously spent his career starring in major flops (Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!, Oscar, Judge Dread, Assassins, An Alan Smithee Movie: Burn Hollywood Burn, Get Carter, Driven, D-Tox, Avenging Angelo) and the occasional modest hit (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist). After killing his top franchise with the humdrum and disappointing Rocky V, he waited 16 years before doing the one thing that kept his career going in the 80s—returning to the two characters people loved the most. The results, Rocky Balboa and Rambo, managed to earn money and even some good reviews largely on the basis of nostalgia alone. Sensing this, Stallone decided to capitalize on Gen X’s fondness for the no-nonsense action pictures of old and created The Expendables, which marked his first successful attempt at a franchise in over two decades.
For all of its many faults, I found Cobra fascinating for its part in such a tumultuous Hollywood career. Made for all of the worst reasons possible, it’s a textbook example of what happens when a superstar aims for the lowest common denominator and still manages to miss.