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Netflix’s Sylvester Stallone Documentary – The Hollywood Reporter

Does Netflix have some sort of stealth ownership stake in Planet Hollywood?

Just a couple of months after giving Arnold Schwarzenegger a three-hour puff piece documentary, the streaming giant is set to release Thom Zimny’s feature-length Sly, a documentary in which Sylvester Stallone is exactly as candid and introspective as executive producer Sylvester Stallone wants him to be.

Sly

The Bottom Line

Moments of insight mixed in with moments of avoidance.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Director: Thom Zimny

1 hour 35 minutes

With Schwarzenegger, the documentary had the feeling of a quid pro quo to accompany the former California governor’s series FUBAR, but Stallone’s current television series Tulsa King is on a different service and isn’t so much as mentioned in Sly. It doesn’t need to be. It’s not as if, in the big picture, Tulsa King has cemented its place as a key piece of Stallone’s resumé, but it’s just one of many little and not-so-little parts of his career and life that don’t come up in Sly.

Ultimately, when Sly succeeds, it’s because Stallone is a rather tremendous observer of his own work. When it falls short, it’s because Stallone observes other aspects of his life in platitudes that sound revelatory, but really represent evasiveness that Zimny has to obscure with careful editing.

Sly is structured around the actor-writer-director’s decision to move out of his opulent Los Angeles house, a shrine to Stallone’s art collection, his troves of memorabilia and, based on the way the documentary is shot, a property with a disproportionate number of rooms designed for staring out into space and contemplating your career. Why is he leaving the house? It has something to do with how Stallone detests complacency and needs the creative rejuvenation from a change of location.

Stallone’s personal candor peaks with his discussion of his childhood as he and brother Frank address — separately — their abusive father and, in much more nebulous terms, their eccentric mother. Accompanied by scenes of Stallone revisiting the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of his youth, the documentary lays a foundation for his early relationship with movies as an escape, his admiration for classic cinematic heroism — both the Stallone and Schwarzenegger documentaries put a premium on Hercules films as a formative influence — and his early struggles in acting. The Lords of Flatbush is discussed in depth. His softcore debut in The Party at Kitty and Stud’s isn’t mentioned. It isn’t that I required an hour on The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, but its absence is reflective of the reality that when Stallone wants to talk about something, he’s great, but his version of his struggle is the only version that appears in Sly. It is a film characterized by frequent elision.

On the personal side of things, that means Stallone mostly wants to talk about his family in terms of the choices he had to make in prioritizing work. He admits the regrets, and Zimny occasionally slips in pictures of his family, but I’m pretty sure none of his three wives — two ex, one current — is mentioned by name; of his kids, only his late son Sage is referenced, and mostly in the context of Rocky V. This is a choice and not one I begrudge — though the possibility that Paramount+ has exclusivity on the family Stallone because of, well, The Family Stallone crossed my mind — but Zimny’s attempts to paper over and edit around Stallone’s reticence doesn’t really work.

I think there’s a version of Sly that’s more like Sylvester Stallone: The King of the Franchise, in which Stallone breaks down the Rocky, Rambo and Expendables franchises, explaining how each of the films represented his life and his view of the potential of cinema at that moment. Because when he’s doing that, he’s astonishingly good.

The rest of his career too frequently is just boiled down to “phases,” whether it’s the comedy phase that he regrets (but not with any depth) or the monosyllabic action-star phase, which is responsible for the fact that it’s always initially surprising how smart and introspective Stallone is capable of being. A few other movies get slightly more than cursory attention — F.I.S.T. gets a couple of minutes as a Rocky follow-up; Copland gets some time, but he views it as having been a failure, for some reason. And then some movies are weirdly ignored, like Creed, which he very obviously doesn’t view as connected to his own Rocky films, a distinction that plays weirdly.

When Stallone is good, he’s so good that you understand why Zimny doesn’t over-populate Sly with additional talking heads. Frank Stallone and John Hetzfeld carry most of the pre-stardom weight. Henry Winkler and Talia Shire do the duties as representative co-stars. Schwarzenegger appears and says, close to verbatim, the exact things Stallone said about him in HIS documentary, which is cute if you’ve watched both documentaries, but… like… why? I can understand why Zimny would have been pleased to have Quentin Tarantino — apparently a HUGE Lords of Flatbush fan — and Wesley Morris as his outside observers, but once the initial, “It’s cool that Quentin Tarantino and Wesley Morris have enthusiastic feelings about Sylvester Stallone!” reaction passes, I wouldn’t say either adds much.

By the end of Sly, the star proves to be a good enough explainer of his legacy that the documentary finds effective insight and poignancy — despite however much he’s an overly protective custodian of that legacy, and however hesitant Zimny is to shake him off of his preferred course.