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It's been more than 40 years since Sylvester Stallone shot his last death scene — and that fatality never even made it into the movie. Since 1982's First Blood, the action star has made a point of being the last man standing, ensuring that signature characters like Rocky Balboa, John Rambo and Marion "Cobra" Cobretti live on in moviegoers' memories. Stallone was still defying death as recently as this year's fourth Expendables movie, which seemed to kill off his alter ego, Barney Ross, only to reveal in the final scenes that he was still kicking butt and taking names.
Clearly, the director of 1983's Staying Alive has taken that titular advice to heart. In the past, Yahoo Entertainment has asked some of Stallone's regular collaborators about the actor's penchant for declining to play death scenes. Now, Stallone is answering the question himself in the revealing documentary Sly, which is currently streaming on Netflix after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. During the film's closing moments, director Thom Zimny gets the famously guarded actor to go on the record about his desire to have his characters... well, stay alive. And that explanation can be summed up in one word: Hope.
"That moment happened organically," Zimny tells Yahoo Entertainment. "It was based on me chasing the idea of hope in our conversation, and then he explained what hope meant to him as a person and as an artist. He talked about how he used the theme of hope throughout his depiction of these characters. And he felt it was the responsibility of the filmmaker to leave an audience with that desire to change and to experience hope. Killing a character would end that conversation."
"When he said that, I suddenly understood why Rocky and Rambo haven't died," Zimny continues, adding that Stallone deliberately tweaked the original ending of the 2019's Rambo: Last Blood to indicate that his Vietnam veteran might have survived what seemed to be his final, fatal battle.
"He realized it was more powerful to leave that to the viewer's imagination. Ever since the first Rocky, he's been having a conversation with audiences where characters change and find a feeling of hope and being loved. All of those themes are part of his writing and, as I came to discover, all of them are themes that were missing his childhood. Within that, he's created this cinematic journey that inspires people and inspires him as an artist."
During the course of the documentary, Zimny — who has also directed nonfiction profiles of Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson — also got as close as anyone has gotten to having Stallone open up about a real-life death close to the star's heart: the loss of his son, Sage Stallone, in 2012. The younger Stallone starred opposite his father in 1990's Rocky V as Rocky Jr. and continued to act in other movies over the years. He died of a heart attack at age 36.
In the intervening decade, Stallone has rarely talked about his son's death publicly and he pointedly never mentions Sage by name in the film. But juxtaposing archival footage of father and son with Stallone's emotional words, Zimny makes it clear who his subject is thinking about when reflecting on what his hyper-focused attention to his career might have cost him.
"I approached all the details of Sly's life — whether it's the loss of his son or the successes that he had — in terms of how it affected his journey as an artist, and not the sensational side of the details," Zimny explains, noting that he and Stallone had a "no boundaries" rule in place during their extensive interviews.
"There's a balance that's going on where I'm chasing moments that he could reflect on honestly. It was much more interesting to me to understand how he dealt with loss and how he poured time and thought into that, as well as how he changed as a person and a father. Those themes are more universal than getting bogged down in the details of a celebrity's life."
Stallone's action heroes may not always have a way with words, but as evidenced in Sly — as well as the Paramount+ reality series The Family Stallone — the actor himself can be quite loquacious given the opportunity. And Zimny confirms that his general strategy as an interviewer was to let Stallone set the pace while he tried to keep up.
"I use the word 'jazz' to describe our conversations," the director says with a laugh. "The first time I met Sly was in his office, and we didn't sit down — we moved around the room as I tried to hold onto the train that is Sylvester Stallone. We never did a traditional talking-head interview: I would get in a room with him with a cameraperson and just let him go. The most important thing when you're talking with Sly is just to listen. The sessions would go five or six hours, and he didn't take a break."
Zimny's listen and learn approach yielded one of the documentary's most surprising moments: Stallone's confession that he's ambivalent about James Mangold's 1997 drama Cop Land, which seemed poised to reignite his career after a run of disappointing mid-'90s action movies like The Specialist and Daylight. The actor gained 40 pounds for the movie, and went toe-to-toe with a heavy-hitting cast that included Robert De Niro and the late Ray Liotta. But as he muses in Sly, that didn't seem to be the kind of performance that fans wanted to see from him, at least not at the time.
"What I sensed from the interview is that he was frustrated that Cop Land didn't connect to a wider audience," Zimny says, noting that it's one of his favorite Stallone performances. "He's not the physical Rambo or Ricky that's empowered in the world — he's a broken-down character and he shows that physically. What I took away from my conversations with Sly is that he always took acting seriously, and took on the challenges of what he was trying to do, whether it was action, comedy or Cop Land."
(Not for nothing, but Cop Land's stature has grown in recent years; while it was only a moderate box-office success at the time, the film has attracted new fans during its long afterlife on DVD, cable and streaming services.)
Now 77 years old, Stallone ruminates about wanting to prioritize family over career throughout Sly. But Zimny says that he can't imagine a world where Stallone permanently retires from his many creative pursuits. "He's constantly working, thinking and developing projects, whether it's a painting, a film script or a TV series. You step into his office, and he'll say, 'I was just working on a script late into the night.' There's always something he's in the middle of, you feel him in the throes of trying to solve his next work. He's an artist on a journey — and he's actively pursuing his art."
Sly is currently streaming on Netflix.