THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for April 2012

Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Sylvester Stallone

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First off, I’d like to take this opportunity to extend congratulations to my co-blogger Anthony Castle. Anthony is the co-screenwriter of a film titled Justice Squad which has just completed post-production. You can read about the film’s origins, production, post-production, and first unveiling on his blog. I haven’t seen the film, but it looks like a smart, savvy, funny superhero comedy, and I’d recommend keeping your eyes peeled on the film festivals in your area in case it plays there. So congrats and kudos Mr Castle (and while I’m slightly miffed I was not invited to bring my super-character Speedo-Man back to vivid, pale, pastey, flabby, unflattering life as part of your production, I anticipate that should a sequel materialise I’ll be near the top of the casting, or indeed counselling, call sheet).

Anyway, onto business. Coriolanus and Timon of Athens are not exactly headliner tragedies – where plenty of people would recognise the names Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth to some degree, these chaps are a bit more obscure – and to be frank neither the plays nor their titular heroes are especially endearing. However, they’re fascinating plays and – somewhat uniquely for Shakespeare, an author whose works are more akin to Whoppers and Big Macs than plain old cheeseburgers – are sustained meditations on single important themes: in the case of Coriolanus pride, and in the case of Timon of Athens vanity. Coriolanus believes he is above the feral hordes and refuses to play nice with them, or anyone else for that matter, while Timon is intensely egocentric, failing to see his friends are just brown-noses and later cutting himself off from others completely.

In many ways, these character portraits got me thinking about Sylvester Stallone. That’s not a hard thing to do – I’m a fan, and most things get me thinking about Stallone, from people wearing sunglasses (hey, Stallone wore sunglasses in Cobra) to people wearing reading glasses (hey, Stallone wore reading glasses in Tango & Cash) to people with beards (hey, Stallone had a beard AND sunglasses in Get Carter). But the particular catalyst for this association was reading the news (or old news… yes, we’re a bit behind schedule with our blogging) that Walter Hill – the great director of The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders et al – had been relieved of active duty overseeing the editing of Stallone’s latest star vehicle Bullet to the Head, and that Stallone – the generally good director of Rockys II-IV, Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, The Expendables, and Staying Alive – was now overseeing the editing. It was later announced that this was all empty hyperbole, and that Hill was still in charge, but it still got me thinking about the way Stallone has managed, sometimes micro-managed, and sometimes mis-managed his career and his collaborators over time in ways that conjure up imaged of Shakespeare’s foolish and flawed tragic heroes.

While today we tend to think of Stallone as a fully fledged action hero, as the condom full of walnuts to borrow Clive James’ term of endearment, Stallone did not begin as a fully fledged action hero, but evolved into one over time. Rocky was released in 1976, and although today you’ll find it (and its sequels) in the action aisle of 99% of video stores, it’s not an action movie per se. Neither are F.I.S.T (1978) nor Paradise Alley (also 1978, which I’ve never seen), though they both have fisticuffs, nor Rocky II (1979). Nighthawks (1981) is in some respects his first action vehicle, but it’s a whole lot more grounded than the super-heroic escapades that followed, and it’s the sort of role Al Pacino or James Caan could easily have played at the time. Victory (1981) sticks close to the inspirational sports movie mould, as does Rocky III (1982). First Blood (1982) is certainly an action movie of sorts, but it’s really more a survival thriller, and while I can’t imagine Pacino or Caan in that role it’s still got a strong dramatic core. Rhinestone (1983): fuck Rhinestone. It’s really Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) where Stallone became the roided-up warrior of the unwashed masses, and the superhuman heroics of Rocky IV and the Dirty Harry-wannabe escapades of Cobra in quick succession afterwards compounded and irrevocably sealed the deal. But there’s that 9 year period between Rocky and Rambo: First Blood Part II where hypothetically Stallone’s career could have gone either way, though he was increasingly playing to his strengths, namely physicality and decisiveness. Had Rambo: First Blood Part II not been made, or had it been closer to the team-of-mercenaries-on-a-mission movie envisioned by original screenwriter James Cameron (yep, the same one who made Avatar and just journeyed deeper into the ocean than anyone has before), Stallone’s career might’ve gone in a different direction, maybe alternating between thrillers and more dramatic tides in the vein of, say, Al Pacino or Michael Douglas. Ultimately, though, I think Stallone enjoyed looking ripped, holding a gun, and being cheered on by the audience too much not to take that ultimate plunge into action stardom. There’s something very Timon-esque about that.

But what about Coriolanus, you ask? Coriolanus despises the unwashed masses, while Stallone plays to them because they flatter his ego. What Stallone shares with Coriolanus is his destructive pride, and I think that’s reflected in the sorts of people he’s made movies with. I’ve spoken before about the fact Stallone’s rarely worked with filmmakers of any class or consequence. If you look at the career of Tom Cruise, love him or hate him, you can see he’s worked predominantly with directors of class or consequence: Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ridley and Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Neil Jordan, Cameron Crowe, Brian De Palma, John Woo, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Edward Zwick, Paul Thomas Anderson, and so on. Say what you will about those directors – some are clearly better than others – but they’re all either directors with strong voices and authorial signatures or simply directors who make solid, sturdy films. Stallone’s action colleague Arnold Schwarzenegger has similarly worked with fairly distinguished folks – James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, John Milius, John McTiernan in his prime, and indeed Walter Hill – though he’s also worked with a few lesser filmmakers. Same goes for Bruce Willis, who’s worked with McTiernan, Hill, Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, and Luc Besson. Stallone, though, with a small handful of exceptions – John Huston, Richard Donner, John Landis – has worked largely with competent journeymen, or unknown or underling directors without the clout to stand up to him. The fact that many have faded into obscurity since working with him is revealing. What happened to Marco Brambilla, director of Demolition Man? He went on to do the Alicia Silverstone comedy Excess Baggage and episodes of Dinotopia. Luis Llosa, director of The Specialist? He made Anaconda and produced a whole lot of TV. Danny Cannon, director of Judge Dredd? He went on to make horror sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and a whole lot of CSI. Basically, Stallone’s too proud to get along with anyone who might question his authority or his judgment, in much the same way Coriolanus fails to get along with his peers and his people, which lead to him leaving Rome. Moreover, due to his ego and difficult ways, Stallone surrounded himself with yes men only to find himself on the outside of Hollywood rather than the inside when his career began falling apart in the late 90s and early noughties. Timon anyone?

When Bullet to the Head first entered my radar, I was excited to hear that Stallone would be working with Walter Hill. Hill’s one of the most consistently good and most underrated directors of action films, thrillers and Westerns of the past few decades, and a guy who could use a break commercially and critically: his last major theatrically released film was 2000’s Supernova, from which he ultimately removed his name (replaced with the pseudonym Thomas Lee) due to creative differences, and while he’s directed some television (including the superb pilot to Deadwood) since then, things have been far too quiet on the Walter Hill front. Seeing Stallone working with a talented filmmaker seemed a win-win situation, and in some ways seemed too good to be true, so naturally the rumblings of post-production kerfuffles were a concern. Had Hill been shafted yet again? Had Stallone’s Shakespearean flaws of ego, pride and vanity led to clashes with the director and, based upon his successes with his last three self-directed films (Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, The Expendables), had he taken on creative control? Had the studio failed to see the merit in Hill’s famously minimalist, spartan style, and in a panic sought to flesh out proceedings with more action noise and trite character moments? Thankfully, that doesn’t seem the case, and I hope it stays that way. Stallone’s an icon and a self-made success, but one who would benefit from strong directorial handling from time to time. He does good stuff when he’s calling the shots, as his recent trio of successes attests, but I want to see what other filmmakers – in particular, good filmmakers – do with him when he relinquishes authorial control. Working with Hill is a good step in that direction, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll continue working with filmmakers like Hill, or second-tier journeymen like Simon West, who’s currently overseeing The Expendables 2. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic that Bullet to the Head will make its way to the screens with minimal fuss and maximum impact, and that Stallone will not meet the same tragic ends as Coriolanus and Timon due to pride and ego, but will persevere to make friends and influence people.

The morals of this story? Pride and vanity equal social death, Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies are thematically fascinating, Stallone is a Shakespearean tragic hero, and fuck Rhinestone.

Ben

Written by THE SLINGS AND ARROWS...

April 6, 2012 at 3:07 am

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