Halfway through Sly, the new Netflix documentary on action-movie icon Sylvester Stallone, New York Times critic Wesley Morris sums up why Rocky was such a blockbuster crowd-pleaser: “I mean, the movie is rigged to make you feel like he’s won.”
You can say that about all of Stallone’s films, including the documentary you’re watching. Way before Marvel/DC movies regularly gave us outcasts who eventually become superheroes who save the day, Stallone spent a huge chunk of his career playing heroic palookas, brawny, street-smart, damn-near-bulletproof warriors who no one believed in. And yet, he obsessively fought the good fight —for him, for us, for the good ol’ U.S. of A!
It’s an image he once again leans into proudly in Sly. Released just a few months after his longtime box-office rival/frenemy Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped that three-part docuseries Arnold on Netflix, Sly gives us a brief, full-length version of the star’s history. (Just as Stallone appeared in Arnold to talk about their prime years, Schwarzenegger pops up a few times in Sly to do the same thing.)
Sly is a talking-head doc, but it’s a doc where the subject practically refuses to sit down. Director Thom Zimny (who has directed several films on Bruce Springsteen, another emblem of A-list, working-class heroism) captures Stallone in a perpetual state of full attention. Whether he’s dropping accumulated pearls of wisdom or watching clips from his filmography on a projected wall in his house, he’s usually standing up, practically showing that the battered-and-bruised 77-year-old still has some life in him. (I’m surprised the movie isn’t called Sly Still Standing.)
Filmed while movers cleared out his California mansion for a move to his Palm Beach mansion, Stallone gives a condensed tour of his life. He constantly reminds us that his father was the one that drove him to be an unstoppable force. As you would expect, the old man was an abusive, competitive prick, pulling such jealous, heinous shit as attacking his son on horseback and crushing his dreams of being a polo player not once, but twice. And when Rocky was a box-office, Oscar-winning success, his father started shopping around a script for his own boxing picture — “the real Rocky,” as his other son Frank remembers him calling it.
A heavy amount of Sly is devoted to saluting Stallone’s skills not just as an actor or a director, but also as a writer. As a movie star who notoriously rewrote nearly every film he starred in, Stallone mostly reminisces about all the work he put in making the story work even before cameras rolled. Morris, Talia Shire, Quentin Tarantino, and friend/filmmaker John Herzfeld are just some of the handful of heads who also speak on Stallone’s pen game.
Sly predictably keeps many embarrassing, low points from his life and career out of this. Although we get a few respectable clips from The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, the no-budget softcore porn he did in his early days (of course, after Rocky hit big, it was re-released and renamed The Italian Stallion), no mention of that is made. Even though he admits to making misfires that were either too ambitious (like his Rocky follow-up F.I.S.T., a quasi-biopic where he basically played Jimmy Hoffa) or too over-the-top (remember Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot?), his more infamous cinematic disasters (like directing the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive or Rhinestone, aka that rom-com where he sang country with Dolly Parton) are also ignored.
Perhaps the most surprising omission in Sly’s life story is the Creed movies. I mean, the first got him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and he directed the second one. I know that everything that happened with Creed III left a bad taste in dude’s mouth, but this looks bitter and petty.
He’s also quite limited on the family life. He talks about the ups-and-downs he had with his late son Sage, whom he cast as his son in Rocky V. However, he doesn’t bring up his second son Seargeoh, who played Rocky’s newborn son in Rocky II and was later diagnosed as autistic. He would rather have you concentrate on the family he currently has, a gorgeous clan you can also watch on Paramount+.
It’s quite clear Sly is another cinematic example of Stallone manipulating the narrative to make himself look like a man who, despite all the lumps he’s taken, is not down for the count just yet. But I’d be lying if I said he didn’t take me on an engaging, feel-good journey. For a guy who’s “in the hope business” and hates “sad endings,” I gotta admit that Stallone’s still got it.
“Sly” streams on Netflix Friday.