‘Sly’ is a Thorough and Eye-Opening Look of Sylvester Stallone-AFI Fest Film Review

‘Sly’ is a Thorough and Eye-Opening Look of Sylvester Stallone-AFI Fest Film Review

Most actors are lucky to achieve one distinguished role over the course of their career or to have a steady stream of work. It’s rare to headline more than one franchise at a time and then start a new one decades later. But there’s not much that’s typical about Sylvester Stallone, who was determined early on to ensure both his voice and his presence in the work that he was doing. The new Netflix documentary Sly offers an overview of his life and his career, presenting someone who may not be exactly what fans of his films might expect.

Stallone, who celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday this past July, reflects eagerly back on everything that led to his success, ready to pause to acknowledge difficult moments and challenging setbacks. He talks about being raised by a very tough and physical father, and how his first forays into acting were stunted by being typecast as a thug with few lines of intelligible dialogue. He cites an early friendship with Henry Winkler following their work in The Lords of Flatbush, and how everything changed when he successfully lobbied to star in his first big script: Rocky. That’s just the beginning of the story, as his next few flops and later attempts at comedy represent low points in an otherwise invigorating and remarkable straight shot to the top.

Courtesy Netflix

Stallone’s willingness to talk to the camera and to answer any question feels very appropriate, especially due to the many mentions by others of his tendency to offer notes on the screenplay of any film he didn’t write. It indicates both a commitment to character and authenticity and a desire to be in charge, something that evidently doesn’t always work given the fact that someone else is supposed to be the boss. It’s ironic, therefore, that it feels like he’s being allowed to shape and tell his own story here, one peppered with interruptions by collaborators and fans like Talia Shire and Quentin Tarantino. But this is the all-access Stallone story that he wants told, which necessarily means it will have a particular focus to it.

There’s not a dull moment in this ninety-five-minute retrospective, and it’s very worthwhile to see and hear Stallone react to tapes of himself recorded years earlier, much more aware now of what he should have done or said that he couldn’t have processed then. The film touches on his personal life in looking at his father, his brother, and his son, Sage, who died in 2012 and the age of thirty-six. There’s barely any mention of his wife and daughters, who take center stage in the Paramount+ reality series The Family Stallone, suggesting that he’s an open book but that his family is off-limits for this project. It feels like a strange oversight given how important family seems to be to him.

Sly. Sylvester Stallone in Sly. Cr. Rob DeMartin/Netflix © 2023

For someone who is best known for playing action heroes, it’s enlightening to see the perspective and lived experiences Stallone has that contribute to his storytelling style. The real Stallone, as presented in this documentary, feels most like his Tulsa King character, Dwight Manfredi, who uses intellectual words that don’t always match the persona he has, minus the mob connections, of course. Stallone is well aware of how his physical appearance and the way he speaks have shaped the roles he’s been given, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing what he wants to do in the business. His latest franchise, The Expendables, is the best example of him tweaking and fine-tuning a situation to his advantage, reuniting aging action heroes for a new adventure fitting to where they all are now in their careers.

Sly is an accessible and entertaining look at its subject, and fluctuating levels of viewer familiarity with Stallone shouldn’t affect the enjoyment level all that much. Stallone is open and blunt, returning to his New York City birthplace to comment on how the neighborhood has changed and never afraid to confront a controversial aspect of his public persona. There’s still more to be gleaned since 95 minutes can’t possibly capture the entire career and phenomenon of a man like him, but it’s a productive and energizing showcase that makes good on its promise to get to know someone who, nearly fifty years after his big breakout, shows little sign of slowing down.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Sly screened in the Documentary section at AFI Fest 2023 and is now available exclusively on Netflix.

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