You’ve got to hand it to Stallone. While he’s no Robert De Niro, he’s created a boxer more famous than any but Muhammad Ali. He also stars in the ultimate Vietnam revenge fantasy, Rambo, and almost makes arm wrestling cool in Over the Top. Oh, and that’s before you get to the fact that he’s arguably the greatest action star of all time. During the eighties and early nineties, Stallone perfected the art of looking cool, showing off the guns, and blowing up stuff, all while delivering a clever quip. But which of these numerous movies is his greatest? Here’s the countdown.
Stallone stars as a contract killer who wants to settle down to whatever sort of quiet life a retired assassin has. Unfortunately, there’s mischief afoot, and he ends up with upstart hit man Antonio Banderas hot on his heels. There’s an incredible amount of violence here — which the director reportedly requested to be toned down — and not a lot of plot. Nevertheless, the showdowns between Stallone and Banderas are enough to sneak this one into the top ten, in the final slot.
9. Judge Dredd
In this sci-fi pic, Stallone stars in the title role, with the word “judge” meaning tough dude with a cool visor and a license to kill. When Stallone’s framed for a murder committed by the chief justice (think the president with a futuristic gun), he has to fight his way back from a hellish prison and prove his innocence. As expected, this results in a lot of killing and Stallone doing cool Stallone things. Unfortunately the movie feels very nineties, so it can’t climb higher than number nine.
8. The Specialist
And you thought Assassins was the first time Stallone played a contract killer. Shame on you. Sly stars as Ray Quick (how awesome is that name?), a former CIA bomb expert freelancing as a hit man. Eventually, he gets into a war with his former partner, and you know what that means: lots of explosions. The Specialist has some fun twists (no spoilers here), as well as enough action to propel it to a respectful number eight, despite a typically ridiculous plot.
Cliffhanger‘s full of breathtaking vistas — not to mention scene after scene of Stallone hanging from perilous ledges and being quietly tormented by the memory of letting his lady die. We prefer the scenes of him outwitting a hilariously evil villain played by John Lithgow. If you think this sounds as though it’s all taking place in Sly’s wheelhouse, you’d be right. Only a lack of crazy, the hallmark of a true Sly classic, keeps this one from reaching the summit of the list.
6. First Blood
Despite spawning three sequels, First Blood actually fared poorly at the box office. Nevertheless, the movie has a lot going for it: in some ways, it’s Death Wish with Stallone as the man who kills everyone. Better yet, there’s actual drama, which is icing on the cake when you’re watching a Stallone action movie. Despite its influence and sequels, First Blood settles for closing out the first half of the top ten because there are just so many other great movies ahead.
Nighthawks is in many ways both the great lost Stallone flick and the great lost eighties buddy-cop movie. In the decade that gave us Lethal Weapon, Stallone sports a sweet beard and teams with the incomparably cool Billy Dee Williams as an NYPD detective chasing down an international terrorist. Despite some dated details, Nighthawks holds up well enough to gain entry to the top half of the list, but its complete, if inexplicable, lack of success keeps it from rising any higher.
4. Tango & Cash
Infinitely more celebrated than Nighthawks, Tango & Cash backs up the hype. How? For starters, in the eight years between these two flicks, Stallone perfected the art of looking tough. Kurt Russell and Stallone work fantastically well together and make Tango & Cash perhaps the greatest movie of its kind. (Suck it, Lethal Weapon.) Plus, the unintentional comedy of Sly cruising around in an old Cadillac and listening to songs by groups like Bad English does not hurt this movie at all. In fact, it only helps.
3. Demolition Man
Demolition Man adeptly extracts laughs out of a cop who’s cryogenically frozen in the nineties and revived in a utopian society he doesn’t understand. Of course, the main thing is the action, as Sly battles Wesley Snipes, who has hair like Dennis Rodman and spouts delectable villainous nonsense. Demolition Man was one of the first action movies to go meta by not taking itself seriously. Plus, Sly’s showdowns with Snipes are too cool to drop it any lower. This one’s a winner.
1. (tie) Cobra
If someone told you a higher being had created the perfect Stallone movie and that the movie was Cobra, you would probably believe them. Sly plays a supercop battling criminals who call themselves the New Order. This allows for Stallone to single-handedly kill the entire group, use a machine gun, show off his muscles, wear cool eighties sunglasses, and even engage the group’s leader, Night Slasher, in a climactic hand-to-hand battle. Cobra is Stallone at his absolute best.
1. (tie) Rambo: First Blood Part II
The second Rambo flick picks up where First Blood left off, both plot-wise and in terms of elevating the carnage to the next, glorious level. This time, Sly heads to Vietnam to rescue POWs and kills more Soviet and Vietcong than we can count. The killing is kicked up a notch, as are the number of shots of a bandanna-clad Sly using an oversize weapon to kill all the bad guys. For upping the ante (and showing Stallone at his most iconic, outside the Rocky franchise), First Blood Part II also checks in at number one.