Sly of the Tiger: Sylvester Stallone as Auteur

In the new documentary Sly, its subject Sylvester Stallone declares “Filmmaking, it comes at a great price. There’s no time for anything else”. The quote pointedly positions Stallone not just as an actor or major Hollywood star – one who has headlined number 1 weekend box office victors over six consecutive decades – but as a filmmaker. Stallone is credited as the director of eight features – Paradise Alley and Rocky II in the late 1970s, Rocky III, Staying Alive, and Rocky IV in the early 1980s, and Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and The Expendables in the 2000s – hence has a stronger claim as a filmmaker than many of his contemporaries. Beyond this, he’s undoubtedly the overriding auteur and guiding-to-a-fault creative force of his filmography: even when uncredited as director, Stallone has authored and shaped his projects substantially through screenwriting and performance (including shaping his own physique), as well as ghost directing and micro-managing other filmmakers. This article looks at Stallone’s filmmaking career through his roles as screenwriter, actor/movie star and uncredited auteur, and finally as a credited director.

Stallone as Writer

The success of Rocky in 1976 propelled Stallone – the writer-star who declined lucrative overtures to allow another established actor to headline his script – to superstardom after years toiling as a jobbing actor in films ranging from X-rated The Party at Kitty and Stud’s – later retitled The Italian Stallion to capitalise on Rocky’s success – to the well-liked The Lords of Flatbush, with one-dimensional tough guy roles in Woody Allen’s Bananas, Capone, Death Race 2000, and Farewell, My Lovely along the way.

While the impact of Rocky’s success was most tangibly felt in Stallone’s ascent as on-camera star and celebrity, his screenwriting – for which he was Oscar-nominated on Rocky, along with his acting – would also shape the trajectory of his filmography and star persona. Stallone is credited as writer or co-writer not only on all eight features he has directed, but on all Rocky films (six in total), all Rambo films (five), and three Expendables films, as well as F.I.S.T., Rhinestone, Cobra, Over the Top, Cliffhanger, Driven, and Homefront. Beyond this, he has done uncredited tweaks, rewrites, and dialogue polishes on many of his films. Stallone’s self-identification as a writer is evident in his entrepreneurial designing and selling of luxury pens coinciding with the release of The Expendables.

Stallone’s dual status as both actor and writer, whether credited or uncredited, sees him exert creative ownership over projects he did not direct, an ownership that can manifest in uncomfortable ways. For example, after adapting Paula Gosling’s novel Fair Game into Cobra, he suggested to Gosling he should also be credited as co-author of her novel (side bar: elements of Stallone’s abandoned script for what would eventually become Eddie Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop were folded into Stallone’s screenplay). More recently, Stallone has vilified producer Irwin Winkler for his legal ownership of the Rocky franchise and its offshoots, which he deems should be bequeathed to his own children.      

Stallone’s screenwriting and authorial voice is so closely intertwined with his work as actor and/or director and the filmmaking process itself that it’s difficult to consider it as a separate undertaking. The one exception is Homefront, a vehicle for friend and Expendables co-star Jason Statham which Stallone neither starred in nor directed, and which is perhaps his most forgettable credit. Though his scripts vary in genre – including Capra-esque drama, action thriller, comedy – and consequently tone and verbosity, they are united by Stallone as their recurring protagonist, or a Stallone-shaped variation on Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero in Staying Alive: either a put-upon underdog who punches, arm-wrestles, warbles, or wiggles his way to victory (the Rocky films, Over the Top, Rhinestone, Staying Alive) or a cool, physically decisive loner of few words, with optional haunting by past mistakes and tragedies (the Rambo and Expendables films, Cliffhanger, Driven). In these respects, they are products and mirrors of Stallone’s own rags to riches narrative and ongoing self-fashioning.

Stallone as Actor Auteur

Stallone’s screen persona is dichotomous. One the one hand, he is underestimated and caricatured as a brawny, mumbling, slurring action star, infamously winning Worst Actor four times and being nominated a further 13 times – as well as being ‘awarded’ Worst Actor of the Decade and Worst Actor of the Century – by the low-hanging-fruit-baiting Razzie Awards. On the other hand, he’s a capable actor, twice Oscar-nominated for the same role at different career junctures – for Rocky and four decades later Creed – and indisputably a great marquee movie star like fellow 1980s action star and Planet Hollywood co-conspirator Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though neither star is an everyman, there’s an underdog and masochistic dimension to Stallone absent from Schwarzenegger’s mostly indestructible screen image, which has given Stallone more flexibility onscreen.

Moreover, Stallone’s evolution as an action star was more gradual than Schwarzenegger’s, whose superhuman physique narrowed his screen acting options early. Though routinely filed in the action category of VHS and DVD stores and today streaming catalogues, Rocky and its sequels were not action films. Nor were F.I.S.T. or Paradise Alley, Stallone’s immediate follow-ups to Rocky. Nighthawks was Stallone’s first action vehicle, but his role could feasibly have been portrayed by an actor like Al Pacino or James Caan. Victory erred to Rocky’s inspirational sports movie mould. First Blood initiated the Rambo series, but this original entry was more survival thriller than action film, and was followed by a broad comedy in Rhinestone. It was ultimately Rambo: First Blood Part II, its poster showcasing a bare-chested Stallone brandishing a bazooka against a background of flames, which announced Stallone as a fully-formed action star shorn of niceties. The Dirty Harry-esque exploits of Cobra and more cartoonish Rocky IV in quick succession irrevocably sealed Stallone as an action star following this 9-year period where his career could have diverged in other directions, perhaps alternating between action thrillers and dramas in the vein of Pacino or Michael Douglas, or even action thrillers and comedies in the vein of Burt Reynolds.

Though the directors he worked with and opportunities he was afforded shaped his star persona, Stallone was and is indisputably the guiding auteur of his career. The notion of actors as auteurs is well-established, and by no means limited to actor-writer-directors: see, for example, mainstream stars Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington or, in the arthouse, Isabelle Huppert or Jeremy Irons (though the latter has become a carpetbagger supporting actor, I concur with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assessment of him circa the 1990s as a powerful auteur). However, unlike Cruise, Washington, Huppert, and Irons, Stallone has rarely worked with other directors of clout, class, or consequence. To illustrate, prior to his own heavy leaning into action heroics, Cruise worked predominantly with directors of consequence, including Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley and Tony Scott, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, Neil Jordan, Brian De Palma, Cameron Crowe, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo, Steven Spielberg, Edward Zwick, and Michael Mann. Action rival Schwarzenegger similarly worked with strong directors in his prime – John Milius, James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, John McTiernan, Walter Hill – as did fellow action rival and business partner Bruce Willis, who similarly worked with De Palma, McTiernan, Hill, Zwick, Tony Scott, as well as Blake Edwards, Robert Benton, Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, Luc Besson, Rian Johnson, and Wes Anderson.

Of course, Stallone has worked with quality directors too, such as John G. Avildsen (Rocky; Rocky V), Norman Jewison (F.I.S.T.), John Huston (Victory), Ted Kotcheff (First Blood), John Landis (the delightful Oscar), Richard Donner (Assassins), James Mangold (Copland), Walter Hill (Bullet to the Head), and Ryan Coogler (Creed). However, he is more prone to working with competent journeymen – Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Driven), John Flynn (Lock Up), Roger Spottiswoode (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), Rob Cohen (Daylight), Simon West (The Expendables 2) – or new or unknown directors who have shown promise but lack professional cachet, hence are malleable to his creative guidance.

Many accounts of Stallone’s director domineering are presented in Nick de Semlyen’s entertaining book The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage, dating back even to the production of Rocky when Stallone had no industry clout. For example, according to de Semlyen, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra director George P. Cosmatos “rolled over on every argument [with Stallone], so much so that crew members nicknamed him ‘George Comatose’” (p. 131) (Kurt Russell’s claims of ghost-directing Cosmatos’ Tombstone have further diminished his posthumous reputation). A director who did not roll over automatically, Australia’s Russell Mulcahy, was dismissed from duty on Rambo III, subsequently completed by Peter MacDonald. Stallone and Mulcahy have offered competing accounts of the latter’s dismissal. According to Stallone:

I thought [Mulcahy] did a brilliant job on several music videos and eventually Highlander. I remember calling him from an editing room and telling him what a wonderful job he had done. He answered back in a bored fashion “Why thank you darling.” So I hired him. He went to Israel two weeks before me with the task of casting two dozen vicious looking Russian troops. These men were suppose[d] to make your blood run cold. When I arrived on the set, what I saw was two dozen blonde, blue-eyed pretty boys that resembled rejects from a surfing contest. Needless to say Rambo is not afraid of a little competition but being attacked by third rate male models could be an enemy that could overwhelm him. I explained my disappointment to Russell and he totally disagreed, so I asked him and his chiffon army to move on.

In contrast, Mulcahy claims he was fired because said models were all taller than Stallone and because he did not shoot enough close-ups of his star. Whatever the cause, Mulcahy’s firing was consistent with Stallone’s history of managing, micro-managing, and mis-managing his collaborators. It’s also revealing that while working with a major star on a big-budget production should be the ticket to the proverbial big time, many of Stallone’s promising new directors subsequently faded into obscurity or transitioned into other mediums, such as Marco Brambilla (Demolition Man), Luis Llosa (The Specialist), Danny Cannon (Judge Dredd), and Jim Gillespie (D-Tox).

While his vanity as actor-auteur and movie star-auteur is well-documented, it’s worth noting Stallone can be generous with co-stars, perhaps best exemplified by his ongoing onscreen work with Burt Young and Talia Shire over the Rocky films (admittedly, this may be because they’re character actors who do not challenge his star status). Also, contrary to Mulcahy’s account of his firing, Stallone was not afraid to look small against the likes of Hulk Hogan, Mr T, and especially Dolph Lundgren across Rocky III and IV. Their casting engenders sympathy for Stallone as Balboa, as a David up against Goliaths, and evokes the films of Buster Keaton, where the slim 5ft 5 Keaton was frequently contrasted with taller and heftier players onscreen. Stallone has also been a generous patron to protégé Lundgren, later casting him as a villainous turncoat in The Expendables and then deciding to redeem his character at film’s end and keep him on staff for sequels.

Stallone as Director

Stallone is not the only action movie star who directs, but he’s unique in this sphere. Clint Eastwood has directed an impressive 40 feature films compared to Stallone’s eight, but Eastwood did not write any of their scripts, did not appear in fifteen, and helmed only one franchise entry, the Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact. Stallone, in contrast, starred in all but one of his eight directorial features (Staying Alive, where he nonetheless cameos), scripted all eight, and all but one (Paradise Alley) were sequels or franchise entries. Burt Reynolds is closer to Stallone in volume, having directed five features – most notably Gator, Sharky’s Machine, and Stick – but only one is a sequel (Gator) and none were scripted by their actor-director. Of his class of 1980s/1990s Hollywood action contemporaries, Steven Seagal directed – infamously – one film, On Deadly Ground; Jean-Claude Van Damme directed two features, The Quest and The Eagle Path; Dolph Lundgren has directed seven films; and all three have writing credits, as does Chuck Norris on Invasion U.S.A.. However, none of these productions achieved the same mainstream exposure or impact as Stallone’s directorial work. Moreover, if we treat Stallone simply as a matinee idol rather than action star, his debut as a director followed shortly after Warren Beatty’s (Heaven Can Wait), and preceded the likes of Robert Redford (Ordinary People), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), and Mel Gibson (The Man Without a Face), not to mention the self-incubated outputs of producer-stars like Michael Douglas and Tom Cruise.

In his overtly commercial work, namely his sequels and franchise-starters, Stallone’s directorial style has evolved with both shifting eras and his own shifting physique; in turn, these films have shaped and anticipated mainstream commercial aesthetics. Rocky II is arguably Stallone’s most conventional film as director, an earnest attempt to replicate the style and beats of John G. Avildsen’s Oscar-winning original. In contrast, Rocky III, Staying Alive, and Rocky IV are glossy and stylised, montage-driven, and like their stars (Stallone and John Travolta) are lean, honed, and 0% body fat. This video presenting all the training sequences from the Rocky films showcases Stallone’s progressive slickening of the raw foundations laid in Avildsen’s original, alongside the progressive sculpting of Stallone the actor’s musculature (in fairness to Avildsen, he too would adopt a slicker aesthetic in his Karate Kid films of the 1980s).

Roger Ebert’s pan of Staying Alive encapsulates this style:

Staying Alive is a big disappointment. This sequel to the gutsy, electric Saturday Night Fever is a slick, commercial cinematic jukebox, a series of self-contained song-and-dance sequences that could be cut apart and played forever on MTV – which is probably what will happen. Like Flashdance, it isn’t really a movie at all, but an endless series of musical interludes between dramatic scenes that aren’t there. It’s not even as good as Flashdance, but it may appeal to the same audience; it’s a Walkman for the eyes.

In a 2021 documentary on re-editing Rocky IV, Stallone laments the ruthlessness of his editing in the 1980s: “I think the biggest problem I had as the younger filmmaker was lack of patience and confidence … I was always very cognizant, okay, well, the audience is going to get bored, jump ahead, instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt and let the emotion sink in, I would rush right through it.” Nonetheless, along with the likes of Alan Parker’s Fame and Adrian Lyne’s abovementioned Flashdance, their rapid cutting and narrative propulsion helped popularize the MTV and advertising aesthetic in mainstream film, predating the use of this slick aesthetic in action films like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Bad Boys.

The mature Stallone would slow down with Rocky Balboa two decades later, giving the film’s dramatic moments room to breathe and adjusting his filmmaking and editing just as his aging character has to adjust his boxing style. Rocky’s trainer Duke instructs him:

To beat this guy, you need speed – you don’t have it. And your knees can’t take the pounding, so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck, and you’ve got calcium deposits on most of your joints, so sparring is out. So, what we’ll be calling on is good ol’ fashion blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-driving punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it’s gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs!

Duke’s lesson on “good ol’ fashion blunt force trauma” would be carried over into Rambo two years later, the only entry in its franchise directed by Stallone. The film adapts to the limitations of its lower budget and slower star, focusing on CGI-augmented gore – taking a leaf from Saw and its thriving sequels – over the spectacular set pieces of its predecessors. Though disparate – one thoughtful, the other gratuitous– both Rocky Balboa and Rambo are intriguing character studies calibrated to their star’s strengths and savvy re-contextualisations of 1980s icons in the 2000s. Moreover, in these and The Expendables – a men-on-a-mission throwback film evoking The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch and uniting past and emerging action stars – Stallone was ahead of the curve of nostalgia-driven fetish films and legacy sequels, remakes, and reboots, anticipating the likes of TRON: Legacy, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Blade Runner 2049, Spider Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick, The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and television series Cobra Kai.  

Stallone’s first feature as director and only non-franchise-based effort, Paradise Alley, ishis least acknowledged and seen directorial work but is noteworthy for its autobiographical detail. The film is set in the period and place that Stallone was born and raised, the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York in 1946, and as highlighted by Quentin Tarantino – who devotes a chapter to it in his recent book Cinema Speculation – the film is infused with Stallone’s personality:

The film is Stallone’s vision and aesthetic, unfiltered, undiluted, and delivered full bore in your face. Sly’s good ear for writing funny dialogue, his collection of larger-than-life Damon Runyan-type characters (especially his rogues’ gallery of villains), his Irish-like face-on-the-barroom-floor sentimentality, the film’s mean streets milieu and its stylised poetic flourishes set against fire escapes and garbage cans, all amount to a passionate artist’s vision, who if he doesn’t really have anything to say, for sure has something to express. Without that limiting, demanding structure that Rocky forced him to adhere to, Stallone can do everything he always wanted to do (p. 295).

Tarantino’s characterisation of Stallone as a filmmaker with things to express rather than say is illuminating. Collectively, Stallone’s eight directorial works constitute mass media self-portraiture of their artist spanning three decades. This is most explicitly felt in the four Rocky films he directed, which mirror their star’s grappling with newfound celebrity, career highs and lows, professional setbacks and comebacks – little wonder Stallone thanked his “imaginary friend Rocky Balboa for being the best friend I ever had” in his Golden Globe acceptance speech for Creed. However, Stallone’s self-expression is also recognisable in Staying Alive, in which he remakes the style of Saturday Night Fever, the pre-existing character Tony Manero, and the body of star John Travolta in his own image, dramatizing his own professional trials and tribulations via Manero.

Next Blood?

Stallone has not served as credited director on a film since The Expendables, and it’s unclear whether he’ll direct again. Over the subsequent decade and a half, he has co-scripted and starred in the second and third Expendables films and Rambo: Last Blood, and revisited Rocky Balboa in Creed and its sequel. In a post-movie star era, he remains one of the most recognisable of movie stars, albeit with diminishing returns. Consequently, he has increasingly pivoted with the times, headlining prestige television (Tulsa King) and reality television (The Family Stallone) and pursuing geeky superhero IP via Samaritan and his small roles in the James Gunn-helmed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Suicide Squad, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. His career of recent years, then, is a combination of relinquishing control in some respects (via small and potentially silly roles in Marvel and DC films under a marquee director in Gunn), re-affirming control in others (via continued involvement in the Rambo and Expendables series), and even contesting ownership in his participation in the Creed films and fraught interactions with producer Winkler over the Rocky franchise.

However, Stallone remains the guiding creative force of his filmography. While the above article breaks down Stallone’s career according to his roles as writer, actor, and director, these divisions are far from neat. As the article illuminates, these three roles are closely intertwined and difficult to parse: Stallone as writer frequently serves the interests of Stallone as actor; Stallone as actor frequently writes and either ghost-directs or micro-manages his directors; and Stallone as director writes and mostly acts in his own material. He is indisputably an auteur with a body of work that is both personal and mainstream, and which has shaped, and in turn been shaped by, popular cinema.  

BD Kooyman

Ben Kooyman lives, works, and writes in Canberra. Most of his collected writings can be found at

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