From ‘The Party at Kitty and Stud’s’ to ‘Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2,’ a movie-by-movie breakdown of the action legend’s ever-evolving physique
Sylvester Stallone’s body of work might be long and varied — encompassing everything from soft-core pornography (The Party at Kitty and Stud’s) to screwball comedy (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) — but it shares one common denominator: His impressive body.
That body, however, has been reinvented as often as its owner has managed to revive his own flagging fortunes. In the early 1970s, he was a beefy kid cast in “Italian ethnic” roles, but he bulked up for a star turn in 1976’s Rocky and then got progressively more shredded until he resembled a body-fat-free junior welterweight in 1985’s Rocky IV.
He more or less stayed this way until he went full method for Cop Land (1997), packing on 40 pounds and sporting a notable paunch in order to convincingly portray a hapless sheriff and perhaps gain an Oscar nomination. The movie was good enough, but the transformation didn’t take. After Cop Land, Stallone returned to action movies (Get Carter, Driven, Spy Kids 3) as well as his familiar physique, even if he was starting to look like somebody’s fit, leather-skinned dad.
Then, all Ponce De León like, Stallone seemingly found the fountain of youth. Or better put, his face stayed old, but his body became rejuvenated as he revisited classic characters such as Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008). While he was super-lean in the 1980s when Rocky and Rambo were smashing Communists, the 2.0 versions were thick-torsoed, with heavy veins protruding from purplish, inflated limbs. In this context, his 2007 arrest in Australia for importing vials of HGH into the country made perfect sense. He apparently needed an extra kick to get back in the saddle.
After that, he reunited with a bunch of aging action stars — including old matinee rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, surely chemically enhanced, too, as he struggled to get back into shape after an enervating stint as California governor — in the Expendables trilogy. Lately, though, he’s gone back to being more than just a body, first in the excellent Rocky spinoff Creed (2015) and then in costume as anti-hero Starhawk (or “Stakar Ogord,” as the credits say) alongside a lean, CrossFit-built Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a film in which only ex-pro wrestler Dave Batista resembled the kind of meathead Stallone is used to chewing scenery with.
Of course, the 71-year-old Stallone isn’t about to pass the torch anytime soon. A second Creed, a fourth Expendables and a fifth Rambo are currently in production, plus that long-awaited Edgar Allan Poe biography, for which he claims to have written an incredible script. (He has no plans to play Poe, however.) Stallone’s end goal, as far as anyone can determine, appears to be to go out as he lived — expiring shortly after wrapping one last Rocky or Rambo.
I, for one, will mourn greatly when that day arrives. I grew up worshipping Stallone. Most of the other kids in school loved Schwarzenegger, but I didn’t much care for him beyond Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987) and Total Recall (1990) — great work that owed as much to the directors deploying their mannequin-like action star in the appropriate way as anything Schwarzenegger did. Stallone, on the other hand, was a constant source of inspiration. He wasn’t the biggest guy — even when he’d gotten as big as he conceivably could — and he always played characters who were beaten down yet still prevailed against all odds. And in his own distinctive way, Stallone could actually act; he wasn’t an iron-pumper who later turned to acting (a la Schwarzenegger), he was an actor who pumped up his career by pumping iron.
For the most sweeping of sweeping looks at that transformation, I got together with the two people closest to me (one by proximity, one by marriage) to binge-watch the signature moments of Stallone’s career. My next-door neighbor and friend Ryan Christie, a retired Army cavalry scout and sometime-writer, had already watched nearly everything that Stallone has appeared in, and cited the actor’s portrayals of various laconic he-men fighting to win America’s unwinnable wars as a major reason he enlisted after 9/11. Meanwhile, my wife Bethany, a therapist at a local university, had watched none of the Stallone canon, and thus, offered a fresh pair of eyes that had previously been trained primarily on Colin Firth’s depiction of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice.
Our hope, as we watched and discussed these movies, was to parse not what made Stallone such a bankable star — we figured we’d leave that to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter — but how and why his body kept evolving, and the ways in which that impacted our viewing experience.
‘The Party at Kitty and Stud’s’ (1970), Directed by Morton Lewis
For reasons of decency, this movie — in which Stallone plays a well-coiffed gigolo who pleasures a bunch of women at a party — was the only one we screened via short clips found on DailyMotion and elsewhere, although many other films were fast-forwarded for the sake of brevity (and sanity). It certainly wasn’t one of Stallone’s all-time favorites, but he needed the $200 he’d been offered (or the equivalent of $1,400 today when adjusted for inflation). “I’d been bounced out of my apartment and had spent four nights in a row at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, trying to avoid the cops, trying to get some sleep and keeping my pens and books in a 25-cent locker,” he told Playboy in 1978. “I mean, I was desperate. And the fact that I had to take off my clothes to do it was no big deal. There wasn’t any hard-core stuff in the movie, so what did I care? I got myself out of the bus station.”
Oliver: So there’s this one. I guess it’s the starting point for Stallone in terms of how he looks. Well… he’s shirtless a lot, at least for the two or three days he says he spent filming this. And it’s not like this is PornHub or anything. It’s just some goofy 1970s stuff. It’s nothing scandalous. When I first heard about this, pre-Wikipedia, it had a lurid connotation. But it’s honestly way tamer than when I took my clothes off for that Pitt News college newspaper cover.
Ryan: I’m never going to watch this in full, but yeah, I get it. They’re selling sex, but it’s very soft-core sex. He’s in decent shape. He looks like somebody who works out regularly, does regular Army physical training or something. He looks good, sure, but nothing special — just a young guy who is in shape.
Oliver: Really not all that different from the way De Niro looks when you see him shirtless in the 1970s.
Ryan: But this is a very specific look. Greasy.
‘The Lords of Flatbush’ (1974), Directed by Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona
In The Lords of Flatbush, Stallone still isn’t the leading man, but he looks suitably beefy in a leather jacket and bites into a juicy part as a meathead who’s in over his head as a 1950s Brooklyn greaser gang member who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant. All of the so-called “Lords of Flatbush” are directionless and confused good-time guys, but Stallone’s character Stanley calls to mind a Happy Days version of the dim-witted Ronnie Ortiz-Magro from Jersey Shore.
In a 2006 interview with Ain’t It Cool News, Stallone explained that he and Richard Gere (who was originally cast in the lead role of ultra-cool gang leader Chico before giving way to Perry King) got in a fight after Gere dripped chicken grease on Stallone’s pants and Stallone proceeded to throw him out of the car they were sitting in. “The director had to make a choice: One of us had to go; one of us had to stay. Richard was given his walking papers, and to this day, he seriously dislikes me,” Stallone told AICN. “He even thinks I’m the individual responsible for the gerbil rumor. Not true… But that’s the rumor.”
Oliver: I’ve watched this once before. It isn’t very good, but it’s part of this first great nostalgia wave that was hitting America at the time. Americans in the 1970s were getting nostalgic for the seemingly much more orderly 1950s, thanks to the various domestic and foreign policy crises happening during the 1970s. As for Stallone, he really nails this Greaser look, especially when he’s engaging in hijinks like mixing it up with a bunch of football players.
Ryan: Stallone’s a lot bigger here than he was in the clips for Kitty and Stud’s.
Oliver: At least as big as he was in Rocky, or pretty close. He’s a presence. He chews scenes. He has the appropriate swagger. One thing I don’t know about Stallone is his history in terms of exercise. How was he training? What was he hoping to accomplish, exactly, besides being buff for movies? Because Stallone isn’t from the world of sports or bodybuilding. Usually before this, when a guy on the screen was big, like UCLA football star Woody Strode or bodybuilder Steve Reeves, or super ripped, like martial artist Bruce Lee, it was because they were an athlete who had been recruited to play a tough guy on the screen. And yes, I know what Schwarzenegger was doing in the gym, because there are a million books and even accompanying videos about it, so I’m left to assume Stallone was doing something similar: Lots of bicep curls, leg raises, tons of repetitions of everything.
Ryan: Well, by the time we’re into the 1980s, Stallone is being coached by [ex-Mr. Olympia] Franco Columbu, and he’s training at Gold’s Gym in Venice with Columbu’s buddy Schwarzenegger, so of course he’s undoubtedly doing some version of that stuff. By then it’s all converging. And Stallone keeps up with the trends. Now he’s doing “functional fitness” or CrossFit or whatever you want to call what he posts on his Instagram.
‘Rocky’ (1976), Directed by John Avildsen
You know the story: Low-level southpaw Rocky Balboa is handpicked to give world-beating champion Apollo Creed (ex-NFL player Carl Weathers) an easy tomato can. Instead, Rocky slugs it out with Creed and loses a close decision. There’s supposed to be no rematch, but of course, there will be like seven because no one will turn down a paycheck.
OIiver: I hadn’t watched this in ages. But I guess it doesn’t matter. You watch it, and all the scenes feel like they happened in your brain seconds ago — but also that they’ve been there forever.
Ryan: Watching it so close to Lords of Flatbush, you realize it’s not some departure for him. He didn’t buff up. He looks pretty much the same. He looks okay here, but it’s understated, I guess. He’s solidly built, but he’s not cut up; he doesn’t have the rippling abdominal muscles I remember him having in the 1980s.
Oliver: He’s the underdog, and Carl Weathers’ body is the main event. Weathers is bigger across the shoulders, broader through the back, taller and way more chiseled. Weathers is the much more of the traditional Hollywood big guy, a charismatic talker recruited out of the pro sports world.
Bethany: How are these guys in the same weight classes?
Ryan: That only gets worse as this series continues, though I guess they fix it in Rocky Balboa because he’s fighting Antonio Tarver, a light heavyweight. But even then, Tarver towers over him.
Oliver: I know everybody loves all the other Rocky films and loves the series, but I never wanted sequels. The original is perfect.
Ryan: But the sequels are interesting because of how Rocky is evolving.
Oliver: That’s right. Everyone gets bigger and bigger, and Stallone stays the same height, 5-foot-7 or whatever he is, until he looks like Little Mac in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
‘Paradise Alley’ (1978), Directed by Stallone
In one of the most underrated movies about pro wrestling ever made, Stallone plays slick-talking second fiddle to his enormous lunkhead brother Victor (Lee Canalito) as Victor challenges a bald, nearly unrecognizable Terry Funk (cast as unbeatable local wrestler Frankie the Thumper) for the wrestling championship of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s to be contested at a club called Paradise Alley (hence the name of the film), and offers enough prize money to get Stallone’s whole family out of the neighborhood for good.
Oliver: Speaking as someone who really knows pro wrestling and has thought deeply about it, Stallone gives an extremely underrated performance as a kind of Jack Pfefer-style wrestling fixer and conman — the old carnival-style sleazebags who were extorting money from anyone they could.
Ryan: Funk and Canalito, a dude I don’t remember from anything else, tower over Stallone. How tall is Stallone anyway? You mentioned 5-foot-7, right? That’s one of those things everybody talks about online, like how tall Schwarzenegger is. There are even tons of websites dedicated to this debate.
OIiver: I once wrote an article about Schwarzenegger in which the editor at The Atlantic, a real stickler for defamation-proof published facts, forced me to use his listed height of 6-foot-2. I still get hate mail about that one from people who think I’m disseminating misinformation, and the comments section is nuts. It’s all dudes railing on me for daring to use the official heights and weights of bodybuilders, even though I was forced by the editor to do so.
Anyway, I’m guessing Stallone is somewhere between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-10. But who really knows? Here it seems like he’s playing small, and the suspenders and long-sleeved shirt he wears make him look even tinier. Same for, like you said, anytime he’s around Canalito, who’s 6-foot-6 at least, and Funk, who’s probably 6-foot-2 — or at least he was 6-foot-2 before his spine got compressed from all those botched moonsaults.
Bethany: Stallone could be the same height as Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s listed as 6-foot-2, but when you’re big and muscular — or even lean and muscular — you look shorter, I think. Somebody could be no taller than a big, heavy tall guy like Hulk Hogan, but if they’re beanpole skinny, with a long thin face, they’ll look way taller. And I say that as someone who is at least 6-foot-1 and has been looking down on people my whole life. In fact, I’ll say I’m 6-foot or even 5-foot-11 if you ask me about my height because that’s less intimidating, especially to men.
But if you’re a man who’s thick, chubby or beefy in any way, you look way shorter. That’s why I think there’s all this debate about Stallone and Arnold, because they do look shorter regardless of whether that’s true or not, and height is this area of horrible masculine insecurity. Like how you [Oliver] are 5-foot-11, maybe, but when we stand together, sometimes it seems to me like you’re 5-foot-5, especially on the rare occasion I’m not in flats.
Oliver: Yeah, I get it. I always tell people I’m 6-foot, though I measure out at 71 inches every single time I go to the doctor’s office. But I say 6-foot and hope I’m framed right in pictures, because if you get me just right in a crowd, I look like a huge, wide grizzly bear of a man. I’m sure that’s Stallone’s mindset when he’s directing, or at least it seems to be when you get down to his post-Rocky Balboa movies, given how wide he’s become.
Now, I also need to say here that we didn’t watch F.I.S.T., which has the great Norman Jewison directing and a solid Joe Eszterhas script. But I watched it years ago and recall that Stallone is a somewhat imposing presence as this tough-talking Slovak or Polish union leader on the rise. He always has his shirt sleeves rolled up and while he looks manly enough when he’s mixing it up with the police or motivating his union brothers, it’s also a pretty straight-up dramatic role where he’s in dress clothes the whole time. And as to the Slovak or Polish part… well, I don’t get that. Could any actor be more characteristically Italian-meatball than Stallone?
‘Rocky II’ (1979), Directed by Stallone
The whole “no rematch” angle of the first film is undone by a cheesy plot in which Creed forces Rocky to fight him again so he can embarrass him. Instead, Rocky, who has been dealing with an eye injury since the first match, somehow manages to knockout Creed in the last round.
Oliver: Stallone directing his own movies is something Schwarzenegger can’t say. Stallone writes the movies, appears in them and directs them.
Ryan: He directs all kinds of stuff. He directed the Saturday Night Fever sequel in which John Travolta is as jacked as Stallone was in Rocky IV. Don’t know the story there, but Travolta is just ripped to shreds.
Oliver: Stallone looks a little bigger here, yet still so much smaller than Weathers. That said, Weathers himself looks slightly smaller, probably because he’s a few years further removed from playing pro football. Was that an adjustment Stallone made? As for Stallone the director, he loves these back-and-forth close-ups that I hate, especially with slow-mo. Admittedly, though, it’s a great way to showcase his body and how it glistens and shakes under the punishment it’s absorbing. It’s almost a bunch of still frames of a greasy, sweaty man taking hard hits.
Bethany: The final round is in so much slow-motion it’s like 15 minutes long. Stallone knows how to drag these fights out. It’s the kind of directing where you’re almost having tears dragged out of your eyes — the cheesy, just-for-men equivalent of Love Actually, you know? Where you can’t help feeling bad, because of how manipulative it is, even if you know how trite it is and there’s no reason for you to be sad or moved.
‘First Blood’ (1982), Directed by Ted Kotcheff
A PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet, John Rambo, arrives in a small town in Washington State and is tormented by the local sheriff there. A bloodbath ensues.
Oliver: Honestly, I’m not sure I ever realized this movie wasn’t called Rambo. But that title doesn’t appear until the next one.
Ryan: People absolutely need to read the book by David Morrell, which is awesome. Rambo, who is just called Rambo in the book, is much more screwed up, much less capable and much more mentally unwell. Nor is he described as looking anything like Stallone. He’s just this tall, long-haired drifter, closer to Clint Eastwood than Stallone. There’s a lot more critique of the U.S. in Vietnam, too. Book Rambo takes his torture in the local jail lying down until he snaps and rips somebody’s guts open, kills a dozen people, runs off into the woods and finally dies after a shootout with a Korean War hero cop. He’s brought down as much by his own madness as the hayseed cops who mistreat him. That’s the way the movie should have ended as well, because it captures how complex and confusing war and its aftermath is.
Oliver: Speaking just for the movie, it’s another one where the bad guy, Brian Dennehy’s wicked sheriff, towers over Stallone. I mean looms over him. Dennehy is a huge guy; he has to be almost as big as Lee Canalito. But Stallone is starting to appear more ripped here, even if he seems small at times next to Dennehy. He looks lean and capable. We’re well on the way to the shredded Stallone we’ll get in Rocky IV.
Bethany: Eventually, we get Stallone’s arm flexed while holding an automatic rifle. That’s a signature 1980s shot. I also had no idea this movie wasn’t set in Vietnam. It’s almost like a wilderness movie.
Ryan: That doesn’t happen until the next one. In that one, they let him go back to Vietnam so “we can win this time.” Really upping the ante, you know. But in the book, he just dies and there are no heroes. That’s best.
‘Rocky III’ (1982), Directed by Stallone
Rocky is now a rich and famous boxer who has been beating up tomato cans much like his predecessor Creed had when he decided to fight Rocky. But when the street-tough, far-from-tomato-can “Clubber” Lang (Mr. T) pushes Rocky’s trainer Mickey and causes the old man to have a heart attack, Rocky decides to get revenge.
Oliver: This movie opens with one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history: Stallone against Hulk Hogan. I mean, this is peak Hogan. He’s this totally swole giant and probably one of the biggest bodybuilder-types ever seen in a major Hollywood movie to that point. One of his legs looks like it’s as big as Stallone’s whole torso. I can’t even imagine the impact of seeing someone like Hogan on the screen in 1982. He’s more visually impressive than Chewbacca, honestly, because you hadn’t ever seen anybody with such a huge, steroid-inflated body getting 10 minutes of screen time in a production like this before. And given the size differential between him and Stallone, where Hogan outweighs Stallone by a good 100 pounds, it’s even more striking.
Ryan: Hogan before Hulkamania.
Oliver: That’s right. Because of this movie, Hogan gets temporarily pushed out of the WWE, where he’d been working as a big bad guy who would lose matches to the even bigger Andre the Giant. He ended up going to Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, where the “Hulkamania” good guy gimmick would be born. But that opening scene, where he towers over Stallone and ragdolls him around with hip tosses and an airplane spin — that’s nuts. Hogan was, and is, a very tall, big guy, but it’s more than that. He’s a visual smorgasbord, truly the glitzy “Gorgeous George” style wrestling villain on steroids.
Ryan: Stallone is always really good on wrestling stuff, come to think of it. But why would he consent to being manhandled like that?
Bethany: It really is a fun scene. It’s the best-directed scene in any of these Rocky films so far. There’s a lot of humanity, and it sets up what’s coming next: Rocky is the world champ, and he’s messing around with charity matches like this. I really liked it.
Oliver: Again, who knows why Stallone scripted himself to get pounded from pillar-to-post, but it’s cool. It was the right move, too. Because I don’t think it would make much sense if Stallone somehow beat the hell out of Hogan in the center of the ring. That wouldn’t have any impact, or comedic value. On the other hand, Mr. T as a nemesis for Stallone makes a lot of sense, since they’re much more evenly matched size-wise, and T’s build was maybe only slightly broader and wider than Stallone’s. In this regard, he’s a fair bit smaller than Carl Weathers.
Ryan: The last fight here is perfect, too. It’s not 15 rounds, but it’s just enough. T is a solid amateur boxer, and Stallone can do his Rocky thing pretty well by this point.
Oliver: The end of the film tease where Weathers as Apollo Creed is going to fight Rocky reminds me a little of that moment in Predator where Schwarzenegger and Weathers join arms and have a flex-off after Schwarzenegger sees Weathers and announces, “Dillon, you son of a bitch!”
Bethany: All of this stuff runs together, but it’s pretty remarkable how you can associate Hogan, Stallone and Mr. T with a time period without ever really knowing them at all. I mean, body-wise, the way they look. There’s almost a nostalgia factor in that — you know, glistening hardbodies, spandex, big rounded biceps. It seems light years away from the guys who did a modified CrossFit routine to get ready for 300. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it reflects different attitudes about training and makes the bodies we see from back then almost like “period” clothing.
‘Rocky IV’ (1985), Directed by Stallone
Scientifically-engineered Soviet behemoth Ivan Drago (6-foot-5 Swedish renaissance man Dolph Lundgren) kills Apollo Creed in the ring and then sets his sights on Rocky. But after a memorable training montage spent chopping wood and working out in a barn, Rocky’s American ingenuity proves too much for Soviet science.
Ryan: Speaking of nostalgia, this movie, the look and feel of it, is like an injection of 1980s nostalgia.
Oliver: The Rocky movies all break down to signature scenes, and this one has three: 1) the crazy entrance and death of Apollo Creed; 2) the contrast between Drago’s scientifically-managed training montage and Stallone’s montage where he chops wood; and 3) the final fight that’s easily the most overwrought in the series.
Ryan: Another tremendous size disadvantage, but it’s clearly on purpose here. Lundgren is almost as tall as Hulk Hogan, and he’s sporting this amazing flat-top haircut and this totally dead expression. Can the American stop the emotionless Soviet superman before he kills us all?
Oliver: Stallone is so ripped he looks like he should be fighting at welterweight or something. He keeps hitting the gym between films, getting progressively more cut and defined for each role, but he’s yet to get any bigger or wider. He’s almost like a lighter version of [former Mr. Olympia] Frank Zane, with that similar narrow-waisted aesthetic. Meanwhile, Weathers and Lundgren actually match up well in the ring, though this is about as big as I remember Lundgren ever being.
Ryan: He’s pretty big in The Expendables, but yeah, he’s generally a lanky, well-built guy. With a background in karate and an advanced degree chemical engineering, he’s a strange character. Yet despite his gifts, he was always in these C-level action movies, like the one he did with Brandon Lee.
Oliver: Showdown in Little Tokyo, which I always confuse with Big Trouble in Little China with Kurt Russell, a much better movie with a much better action star.
‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ (1985), Directed by George Cosmatos
Stallone spent 1985 winning the Cold War four years before the Berlin Wall fell: As Rocky, he smashed the USSR’s Drago, and then, as Rambo, he waged a second Vietnam War, this time ensuring America won. In First Blood Part II, Stallone goes back to Vietnam to rescue POWs and kill a bunch of Soviets — true wish fulfillment for the Reagan era.
Oliver: You can watch this entire movie in fast-forward. It’s hard to believe this is the same era as Predator, an action movie that still looks good.
Ryan: But it’s everything the first movie isn’t. There are so many explosions. It’s not just an ex-soldier versus a small-town police force, it’s an ex-soldier going back to Vietnam to fight an entire war.
Bethany: He holds a gun, flexes, runs and runs while flexing and holding a gun.
Oliver: Yeah, there’s plenty of gun love when Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood are gunning down unlucky street punks, but the camera doesn’t linger on their massive muscles while they’re holding down the trigger of an M16. That’s a new phenomenon.
Ryan: It’s a terrible movie. But you can’t argue with all the explosions, or all the shirtless running. But in the physical sense — the ripped, veiny body glistening with sweat and coated in dried blood, the chaotic action that never lets him stop running and shooting — this is probably peak Stallone, honestly.
‘Over the Top’ (1987), Directed by Menahem Golan
Stallone plays a truck driver who needs to win a big arm-wrestling tournament so that he can honor his dying wife’s wishes, impress his son Michael and teach his nasty, controlling former father-in-law Cutler (played by the grizzled Robert Loggia) that he can be a good provider for Cutler’s grandson.
Oliver: For starters, this movie is directed by Menahem Golan — the Cannon Films guy who was responsible for all those shitty B and C level movies, of which Dolph Lundgren’s turn as He-Man in Masters of the Universe is probably the crowning achievement, at least in my opinion. There’s a good documentary about their cheesy, low-budget operation. And until the arm-wrestling documentary Pulling John about the career of arm-wrestling legend John Brzenk, who also appears in Over the Top and whose hands, biceps, and forearms all dwarf Stallone’s, it was arguably the best movie about that sport. I mean, it’s a terrible movie in the sense that the plot is hackneyed and the dialogue is beyond clichéd, but I loved it as a kid solely for the colorful arm-wrestling action.
Ryan: Don’t forget about the rogue’s gallery of dudes in here either. I mean, there’s Loggia, who has a great leathery face. Then there’s cameos from guys like Brzenk and Stallone’s buddy Terry Funk as Loggia’s henchman. Then the villain is just a big fat arm-wrestling champion himself.
Oliver: Rick Zumwalt, who had a pretty nice career in arm wrestling. He wasn’t, however, Cleve Dean, Gary Goodridge, Devon Larratt, or a Hall of Fame-level guy like that. But yeah, all these big thugs — plus, a nonexistent plot, Samurai Cop-style ham acting…
‘Rocky V’ (1990), Directed by John Avildsen
A down-on-his-luck Rocky begins training a promising new boxer, played by then-Great White Hope Tommy Morrison (as Tommy “Machine” Gunn), only to have him corrupted by a Don King-style promoter. Gunn wins the world championship that Rocky had vacated because he believed boxing had gotten too corrupt. Rocky later proceeds to kick Gunn’s ass in a street fight after Gunn chooses big money and his sleazy promoter over Rocky’s blue-collar ethics.
Oliver: Another very on-the-nose movie, like the previous Rocky and Rambo offerings. Here, Rocky fights back against the corrupt boxing establishment, which everybody knew about because Don King had gotten tons of attention while promoting all those Mike Tyson fights. But it’s funny because King was far from all-powerful, and he fell from grace eventually too, just like the Soviet Union. But to viewers, the “Don King Type” was this great evil, and when Tommy Gunn embraces the Don King character, Rocky has to put him in his place.
Ryan: This is one where they acknowledge Stallone’s age — he’s 44 — and the fact that the guy he’s fighting is indeed this legitimate athlete who’s way bigger than him. Also, the beating Gunn initially gives Rocky triggers all these flashbacks of the past beatings he’s endured from guys like Drago.
Oliver: He can only beat Morrison by fighting dirty, since they’re not in a ring with a referee, and thus, there are no disqualifications. They’re out on the streets, which is Rocky’s element because he grew up as a street fighter, not a boxer. His body might be breaking down, because when isn’t Rocky’s body breaking down, but this time he’s able to win because he’s willing to slam Gunn into walls and knee him below the belt.
So in this Rocky at least, Stallone doesn’t prep for the big bout via a training montage; he’s duking it out with his gray sweatshirt and black motorcycle gloves on. We’re not supposed to be concerned about what kind of shape he’s in anyway. He’s just an old dude determined to win at all costs.
‘Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot’ (1992), Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Stallone, again playing a dude with an Eastern European surname (“Joe Bomowski”), is saddled with the care of his elderly mother Tutti (Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls, who was only 69 at the time but didn’t look a day over 100). Hijinks ensue as they work together to solve the murder of a gun-runner and help Joe romance his boss, Lt. Gwen Harper (JoBeth Williams). Stallone told Ain’t It Cool News that he thought this was the worst movie he ever made, and Schwarzenegger told a panel in 2017 that he had feigned interest in the film so that Stallone might wind up saddled with the terrible script. It worked. And it is indeed unwatchable.
Oliver: Stallone just kind of hangs around on the sidelines, getting henpecked. You see his signature Stallone body in a shower scene briefly when his mom walks in on him, but this film is all about lame shootouts and lamer wisecracks.
Bethany: He looks huge compared to Estelle Getty, though — finally he’s bigger than someone. It seems like the early 1990s were when every star who was winding up their 1980s sitcom career got a shot at the movies. Getty, Bill Cosby, all of them…
Ryan: It’s also the era when Stallone and Schwarzenegger, who was doing pretty much the same thing but better in Kindergarten Cop, decided they could do lighter films, PG-13 films and not have to take their shirts off as much.
Oliver: Which was really upsetting to me, because I wanted both of them shirtless and coated in dried blood, standing atop piles of corpses in hard-R films. But here, as in Kindergarten Cop, there’s not much beyond some light police action and back-and-forth joking.
‘Judge Dredd’ (1995), Directed by Danny Cannon
A century into some generic dystopian future, noted cop and on-the-spot executioner Judge Dredd (Stallone) and Judge Hershey (Diane Lane) work to clear Dredd’s name after he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
Ryan: Why didn’t we watch Demolition Man? That’s two years earlier, Wesley Snipes and pro-wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura are in it, and it’s pretty decent sci-fi.
Oliver: Well, first off, I couldn’t find a decent stream of it to watch. But I also thought Judge Dredd was a better example than Demolition Man because Stallone is in a costume throughout Demolition Man, just like he’s mostly in street clothes in Daylight.
Bethany: And you have Rob Schneider to fluff up Stallone, I suppose, and really date the movie as this mid-1990s artifact that’s tied to that crappy era of SNL. Then there’s the helmet he wears, which highlights how he talks out of the side of his mouth, literally.
Oliver: Honestly, I thought this was it for Stallone. I thought he was going to be going down and down and down, gradually getting phased out the way Charles Bronson and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal and all those guys were. But then…
‘Cop Land’ (1997), Directed by James Mangold
Stallone, aware that Miramax-produced art-house releases were getting lots of attention, gained a bunch of weight to play a fat sheriff in a town where corrupt city cop Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) is orchestrating all kinds of nasty police misconduct. Stallone gets wise to the scheme, and with the help of Ray Liotta, saves the day by navigating his newly-developed potbelly through an exciting final shootout. Many critics enjoyed the film, with Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers proclaiming, “Stallone isn’t just back in the [movie ring], he’s a winner.”
But even though the movie made back its budget, Stallone said in a radio interview that “this was the beginning of the end” and the weight gain “set me back for about eight years” because he’d gotten away from the bread-and-butter roles that sustained him throughout the 1980s.
Oliver: I’ll never forget the media attention surrounding this movie and Stallone’s weight gain. It was unlike everything I can recall.
Bethany: More than Renée Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Diary?
Oliver: I think so, even though it was a guy getting fat, which we usually don’t care about. But it’s such a radical departure for a man known for being so ripped and his amazing abs. He reminded me of my dad when my dad was in his late 40s, because my dad had these very muscular arms but this round beer gut. It was a strange look. He didn’t, for example, get all-over fat, the way De Niro did when he gained weight for a few late-life Jake LaMotta scenes in Raging Bull.
Ryan: I mean, Stallone was just fizzling out at this point. I don’t know that he was ever a good or a bad actor, he was always Stallone. Sometimes he looked more ripped or less ripped, but he was Stallone. And here he was trying not to be, which is all you end up thinking.
Oliver: Growing the gut seemed stupid to me, honestly, because that’s the De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis “look at me” stuff. I hate that kind of practice. “Wow, what an actor, he starved himself for The Machinist and got fat for American Hustle.” Who cares? He’s still Christian Bale. He’s Patrick Bateman and Batman. And Stallone is Stallone. I think that’s what his relaunched career ends up being about: “Here I am, but bigger than ever.”
‘Rocky Balboa’ (2006), Directed by Stallone, and ‘Rambo’ (2008), also directed by Stallone
In his late 50s, Balboa (played by a then-60-year-old Stallone) comes back to avenge a simulated video-game loss to Mason “The Line” Dixon (ex-light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver); fights a heroic match by relying on his increased size; and still loses. Increased size, though, is maybe an understatement: This is the widest, thickest version of Rocky in the series. Meanwhile, John Rambo abandons his career as a PTSD-afflicted boat operator in Thailand after riverboat pirates abduct the missionaries he’d been paid to take to a village where they’d been hoping to provide medical services. To make things right with the world again, Rambo and a few mercenary colleagues team up to massacre the pirates.
Oliver: Rocky Balboa, like the other Rocky flicks, is a pretty great movie. But it’s great in another way because we got Stallone’s body back — and then some.
Ryan: That’s really the appeal of both of these movies. How is John Rambo, skinny in Rambo III and First Blood Part II, more jacked than ever? How is old Rocky somehow bigger than any previous versions of Rocky? It doesn’t matter because we’re just ready for this.
Oliver: This iteration of Stallone is him serving us himself on a silver platter: “Look at my body, what I’ve done for you.” Human growth hormone isn’t precisely the fountain of youth, because your face still shows your age, but it can certainly turn back the clock on physical decline. I’ve done some work with Brian Mehling, a doctor in New York who prescribes it as part of his practice, and the results are striking with rapid gains in bone density and muscle mass. You look at the physicians who are prescribing HGH, and most of their patients end up looking like Stallone. I profiled one such dude, a 50-year-old Wall Street bro who used HGH to reset his body clock in a matter of months.
Bethany: I mean, Stallone looks impossible now. This kind of fatless purple body — purple with all the veins.
Oliver: Impossible? I don’t know. He’s very possible. He wants to tell us he could do this forever. If it takes this kind of regimen, so be it. At this point, Stallone is almost buying himself a few more years, a few more turns as Rocky Balboa. And isn’t that worth some HGH injections under a physician’s supervision? Even suddenly buff Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has apparently partaken of this miracle drug.
‘The Expendables’ (2010), ‘The Expendables 2’ (2012) and ‘The Expendables 3’ (2014), Directed by Stallone, Simon West, and Patrick Hughes, respectively
The first of these movies teams up a bunch of action dudes (everyone from Lundgren to Chuck Norris to Jet Li to Randy Couture) to engage in R-rated fighting against some bad guys. The second one does more of that but adds Van Damme as the villain (named Vilain). And the third one adds so many people that Kelsey Grammer has a supporting role, yet manages to compromise the entire guns-and-ammo enterprise with a lame PG-13 rating.
Oliver: What you’re struck by is just how many people are in here, and how huge some of them are. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin has a good turn as a meathead bad guy in the first one. Couture, who is much taller in person than you’d think, always gets in some good MMA work. The ex-NFL player Terry Crews is probably the biggest guy included, although he’s always criminally underutilized. Schwarzenegger makes his appearances, too, and he’s getting progressively more jacked each time: muscle-engorged forearms, a dense torso and minimal body fat. Yet he’s facing competition from other old timers who are turning back the clock as well. Case in point: By the time Mel Gibson appears in the third movie, he’s arguably bigger than Stallone and definitely nothing like the way he looked back in those Lethal Weapon films from the 1980s and 1990s.
Ryan: Diminishing returns, though. The Rocky Balboa comeback was nice, heartfelt almost, but I can’t care about this gimmicky franchise the same way.
Oliver: Yeah, there’s even a fourth in production. But how can Stallone, who is supposed to be the baddest of them all, keep this up as he enters his 70s? Some drop-off is inevitable, HGH and all. I think that’s what we’re seeing in these other roles he’s doing now: He has to realize there’s going to be at least a slight decline. He dug himself out of a hole and got rejuvenated, but can you imagine Rocky Balboa at 80? It’s an interesting thought, to be sure, but I believe Stallone, as a very well-conditioned guy, is aware that there are limits to how far this leading-man action stuff can go.
‘Creed’ (2015), Directed by Ryan Coogler and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ (2017), Directed by James Gunn
In Creed, a genuinely aged Rocky Balboa doesn’t reenter the ring but instead mentors a pumped-up Michael B. Jordan (as Adonis Johnson, son of the late Apollo Creed) as he prepares for a fight against light-heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan. (Spoiler: He loses, just like Rocky did.) And in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Stallone (playing “Stakar Ogord”) shows up in a Fallout-looking costume to trade hard-edged dialogue with fellow badass space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), against whom he holds a grudge.
Oliver: Stallone in Creed makes perfect sense, because he’s in a gray sweatshirt the whole time and he moves and looks like an old man. He’s pretty great in this understated way, which I guess is the kind of understated performance he was aiming for in Cop Land, only his belly got in the way.
Ryan: Sure, and as much as you like the way Stallone does these heavy-duty close-up, slo-mo jobs when he directs his Rocky flicks, you have to be glad there’s a genuine auteur behind the camera in Creed. I mean, Coogler basically depicts Stallone as this mumbling old man in a sweatsuit, and we’re free to look at his wrinkled face and limping walk. His body definitely does the work here — in a completely different way than usual.
Bethany: But why was he even in Guardians of the Galaxy? I guess it makes Yondu’s sacrifice and death more significant, maybe, but who cares? There are so many characters in there. Kurt Russell as a planet? Goodness gracious. Stallone’s just a face in that confusing crowd… You’ve already got a ripped, hot-looking Chris Pratt, a huge pro wrestler in Batista and a talking racoon.
Oliver: Yeah, that’s weird. I mean, with The Expendables, Stallone’s the alpha dog, or at least presented as such, even when he’s obviously so much smaller than, say, Terry Crews. But by the time Expendables 3 rolls around, that’s making less sense, no matter how heavy the dumbbells he’s tossing around on Instagram are.
Ryan: So what’s the takeaway of all this? Like when you step back and try to derive some significance from it?
Oliver: To borrow a phrase from my friend Broderick Chow, who has written extensively about this stuff, I think it’s safe to say that Stallone, for all his fame and success, is primarily a “professional body.” And no matter how much he trains going forward, there’s going to be a decline, and he’ll eventually have to quit just like Sean Connery did. I mean, it’s remarkable he pushed his decline way out into his late 60s, admittedly with some chemical help. But we’re reaching a point where there’s not much more life to live.
Ryan: Eventually the body that adds to the body of work just stops working, right?
Oliver Bateman is a journalist who lives in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in Matter, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Teen Vogue and elsewhere. He last wrote about how the pro wrestling physique as we know it is all because of Bruno Sammartino.