Rushes

Looking at Judge Dredd star Sylvester Stallone these days, with his bulbous physique, his imploding face, and his orangeish, rubbery-looking skin, it's tough to recall that he once seemed rather charming, and that he was a pretty good actor to boot.

He made his starring debut in the self-written 1976 Rocky, his tribute to the heroes of On the Waterfront and Marty; like them, Rocky Balboa was sweet, decent, and kind. Stallone branched out in subsequent years, playing diverse parts in such interesting but uneven pictures as F.I.S.T., Paradise Alley, and Nighthawks. And of course, he kept playing Rocky, who, with each increasingly mechanical sequel, got trimmer and richer, but no less human.Then came First Blood, his only smash outside of the Rocky series. As John Rambo, an unhinged Vietnam vet, he was paranoid, sad, scary, and memorable, and so was the movie. But after looking at the picture's box office returns, Stallone retooled, dumbed down the character. Two moronic se-quels showcased a cartoony superwarrior whose simplistic exploits could be exported to bloodthirsty viewers the world over. Like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, he became an international product; the more generic he was, the more safe he looked to studio investors. It didn't matter that he was starring in Cliffhanger or Demolition Man; he was still playing that homicidal sourpuss Rambo.

Stallone thinks the failures of Rhinestone, Oscar, and Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot! proved viewers didn't want to see him in comedies. They actually proved that viewers didn't want to see him in boring, unfunny comedies. His mistaken conclusion is unfortunate. Besides Eastwood, who among current movie he-men has a self-deprecating sense of humor and a real sense of comic timing? Van Damme used to, but he lost it. Seagal never did; he spends every film scowling as if he just smelled a fart. Schwarzenegger only pretends to self-deprecation, and he doesn't have innate comic timing. He doesn't rehearse for comedy--he trains for it.

Stallone, however, is genuinely charismatic and funny, as his talk show appearances attest. And anybody who's read his interviews knows he's smart. So considering his obscene salaries these days, what's stopping him from doing a Bruce Willis--taking small, offbeat parts in small, offbeat movies to prove he can still act, and that he's still a human being? If Stallone wasn't such a greedball coward, he could do it. If he could crawl out from under those free weights for a minute, he could still be a contender.

--Matt Zoller Seitz (reeling@aol.com)

 
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