He could have been a contender

Few stars had a bigger, better more starry start than Sylvester Stallone. `Rocky' catapulted him to fame and millions. But, argues Nick Hasted, the man is a failure.

Sylvester Stallone is sorry. In a barrage of publicity for his new film, Copeland, that's all he wants to say. He's sorry for all the bad movies, the indiscriminate violence, the thuggery. He's sorry for wasting his talent. He's sorry for himself, trapped for years in the prison of a "perfect" body, addicted to the punishment perfection required. Cop Land is his atonement, a low-budget film for which he gained 38lb to play an ordinary, hearing-impaired cop. He wants us to forgive him. He wants to be loved. But it may be too late.

No major Hollywood star has ever lasted so long with so little to show for it as Stallone. Since the triumph of Rocky in 1976, his career has stumbled between bravery and cowardice, between films beyond his ability (Oscar) and those beneath it (Cobra). Stallone's is a career of poor choices. The interviews he's now giving would be more convincing if he hadn't attempted a previous change of direction, in 1990. Stallone is the highest paid actor in Hollywood history. And he's a failure. You have to look back 23 years to realise why anyone should care.

It's hard to remember how full of promise Stallone was when he began. Watch Rocky, and the hopes come flooding back. Stallone had written it as a last shot at glory for the scrabbling, Hell's Kitchen boy he was, a three-day typing fit, an explosion for all the desires that people had sneered at in him since he was born. The film, and his performance, turn perfectly from the gritty drama that characterised American cinema then, to the simple emotions that were to consume it. Rocky doesn't win the climactic fight, but, against all reason, he nearly does.

Stallone knew what his appeal was then. There's a definite formula in reaching audiences: provide them with heroes and heroines who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and out of the depths of despair. You can just see the audience saying, "My God, that's the kind of person I want to be." He knew what that appeal was worth. The defining moment of his life was when he resisted all Hollywood's inducements to insist on playing Rocky himself. He was ready to starve, rather than be denied. He would never be so strong again.

In Rocky's aftermath, Stallone tried to seize his chance. He had so many stories, so many ideas. He must have felt he could do anything. Hollywood gave him enough rope to hang himself. He made a decent, big-budget union picture, F.I.S.T (1978); and he was allowed to direct one of his scripts, Paradise Alley (1978). Both films were flops. Hurt, Stallone realised that the public didn't want him as a star. They only wanted Rocky. He was faced with a choice: to struggle on, against the tide of public perception, or to embrace it and swim in comfort. The thought of the first was too terrifying. It was a dread that could be sensed behind everything that followed. He couldn't hold his nerve a second time. He made Rocky II. And his fate was sealed.

For the next few years, Stallone continued to swing the pendulum, making ridiculous films that no one saw (Escape to Victory, 1981, cast him as a goalie; Rhinestone, 1984, co-starred Dolly Parton), then retreating to Rocky's embrace, torn between shame and relief. Until, in 1985, he reached true stardom. It was the moment on which all the millions he has made in the years since are based. He made Rambo First Blood Part 2. And he made Rocky IV. Rambo was endorsed by Ronald Reagan. In Rocky IV, Stallone fought a Russian. Between them they made $500m. It was the worst thing that could have happened to him.

He embraced the basest aspects of the Eighties in ways that should shame him for ever. The first film he made after Rocky IV was Cobra. He wrote it, he proudly claimed, in 16 hours. He shot criminals, for 90 minutes. "The part I play in that picture is what I think audiences enjoy watching me doing," he said happily. Thus, at his commercial pinnacle, he dug a grave for all his future ambitions.

Rocky V (1990) showed what he was still capable of. In it, Stallone seemed seized by regret for the past he'd betrayed. Rocky retires with brain damage, and returns to the ghetto from which he and Stallone thought they had escaped so many years before. As Stallone originally wrote it, a street- fight kills Rocky. He wept when he wrote the scene. He felt ready to vomit. But his paymasters forced him to change it. Rocky lived. The film flopped.

And, as Rocky V died, he seems to have given up. The films he made in the Nineties rarely made sense. Some were disastrous comedies, such as Oscar; the action films, eg The Specialist, were funnier. They seemed like efforts to find something for a fading star to do. Stallone looked on a slow slide to nowhere. Until Copeland.

It's not a great film, but it's a good one. It's worth seeing because, for the first time since Rocky, Stallone acts. And because, as with Rocky, he's acting with the best part of who he really is. The diffident, slightly handicapped policeman Stallone becomes is the Stallone who politely gave up all claims on his talent, as the public pushed him this way and that. It's a fine performance, but one that makes you despair. It shows how much of himself Stallone has buried, over the years. No one knows yet if he'll really have the nerve to put the past behind him. But it doesn't look likely. His next film is Rambo IV.

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