Tom Jolliffe goes back in time to a year when Sylvester Stallone was the king of the box office…
It might shock some of you to know that it’s now 35 years past 1985. During lockdown time has become an abstract concept to me, but regardless, the fact that a time that and era that still feels somewhat clear in my mind, is now long distant past, is a little disturbing. Time really does fly. Just last year we had a fifth Rambo film. The year before we had Creed II, which marked an eighth outing for the old slugger Rocky Balboa. Old he is. Sly Stallone, still kicking asses all over cinema, is well into his 70’s now, with no signs of slowing down. Stallone’s career has had many twists and turns, many ups and downs and a long line of hits that do just enough to eclipse some of his more disastrous misses.
If you could say there was a peak in Stallone’s career, you’d have to say it was in 1985. He was on a pretty good run by this point. So good that even a few turkeys like Staying Alive and Rhinestone couldn’t stop the Stallone juggernaut. Despite those, he’d still begun the 80’s with First Blood and a third Rocky film which had both done great business. He at least knew that Rocky was a money spinner. After experiments fail you tend to go back to the tried and tested formula and boy did Rhinestone fail. Stallone hit 1985 with the decision to turn John Rambo into a franchise-able character. From this haunted, PTSD suffering vet in a classic thriller in First Blood, to becoming almost the ultimate icon for the one many army, run and gun film. Chuck Norris had actually beaten Stallone to it with Missing In Action, whilst Schwarzenegger also brought out Commando in 1985 too, but Rambo with head band and M-60 would become the ultimate icon. Turning Rambo into a franchise worthy action titan was a gamble, but one which paid off handsomely.
Rambo: First Blood Part II was a huge hit. Just one film outgrossed John J in the US box office in 1985, and that was a family friendly film with a time travelling car. Sly’s second outing as Rambo was a monster hit. $150 million in the US and $300 million worldwide. In today’s reckoning that’s a huge amount. Accounting for inflation that’s around $900 million. Almost a billion dollar film right there. For most stars that would mark a hell of a year. Stallone however, wasn’t quite finished. He’d had a summer smash and the thanksgiving season left a tantalising gap to be filled by a fourth Rocky film.
Whilst the idea of the long running franchise was firmly established, the general rule of thumb seemed to be that by 3/4 films in, the appeal starts to wane. Again, high off a hugely successful run of smash hits as Balboa, Stallone went back to the well. The decision proved to be fruitful again. Rocky IV was the fifth highest grossing film of the year in the US and worldwide pretty much matched First Blood Part II’s gross. Stallone was a one man money making machine, approaching an astronomical amount of money for the year. From a box office point of view he could do no wrong. From a critical standpoint, by the mid 80’s, Stallone was well established as a target of critical scorn. He’d already been the recipient of two Razzie nominations for Rhinestone the previous year (winning for Worst Actor), and despite so much financial success in ’85, those two films were met with largely mediocre reviews. The Razzies set their targets on both, and Stallone. Both films were hit with Razzie nods and Sly won a dual award as worst actor for both roles, and a worst director win too. Stallone was laughing all the way to the bank.
From a personal point of view, I love both films. I grew up on them. Both are so unabashedly of their time and simple too, that perhaps understandably they were my favourites in earlier days. Rambo was just wall to wall action and explosions. Rocky IV was a soundtrack from the Gods combined with visual dazzle, a villain who looked like a walking comic book creation and the most epic fight of the whole series. Subtlety was nowhere to be seen in either, and that just felt like a mid 80’s stamp of quality. Regardless, even now, both are so easy to watch, particularly Rocky IV.
With Stallone on top of the world, he was probably being thrown offers from all corners. He chose to become the highest paid star in the world and do two films for the Go Go boys, Golan and Globus, tearing up the rule book at Cannon. It would prove to be a mistake. The following two years saw him release Cobra and Over the Top to savage reviews and mediocre box office. Cobra did reasonably well financially, but only just over half of what each of Sly’s last Rocky and Rambo had made in 1985. No surprise then, that his next choice was to make Rambo III. It was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. Sadly the box office return didn’t come close to the second film. The interest had waned, and the film felt a tired retread. Of course, Sly’s career didn’t entirely falter. He had a back and forth of hits and misses over the next decade, until the late 90’s brought a lull and string of misfires until his renaissance and return to Rocky and Rambo in 2006 and 2008 respectively.
Still, for that one year, in 1985, Sly wasn’t just a superstar – he was on another stratosphere.
What did you think of Rambo II and Rocky IV? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.