Velcro musles? Sylvester Stallone maintains that the end of the 1980s muscle bound action star happened when Michael Keaton hit it big with BATMAN in 1989.  His argument centers on the fact that due to the costume donned by the Dark Knight, any actor could be a tough guy.  But is that really true?  Maybe it’s the writing that’s to blame.

Although I’ve not heard the full context of Sly’s comments, it seems that he’s selling actors short who, instead of spending hours and hours in the gym working their physical muslces, spend years perfecting their acting ones. And Keaton has frequently pulled off tough regardless of his relative lacking of physical prowess.  While Stallone has hardened action star down, can he play soft and whimpy?  Taking nothing away from those that skillfully sculpt their bodies using the latest fitness technology, the perfect combination of brain and brawn is rare.  And Stallone’s choice to stay within one genre was ultimately his undoing.  His “comeback” was through recylcing his former success.  Instead of adapting to the times, Stallone chose projects that were beneath him–JUDGE DREDD anyone?

Consider that Stallone was nominated for the Oscar very early in his career for 1976’s ROCKY.   Two nominations for best actor and best writing.  The movie won 3 Oscars including Best Picture.  Then as his muscles increased in size the intelligence of his projects seemed to decline.  Sure, he carved out a forever memorable place as an action hero, but audiences came to expect less from the actor Stallone opting to embrace the tough guy.

But playing tough is an art.  Fellow action superstars Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to the top not because of the size of their bulging biceps but because of something often referred to as radiance.  The subtle difference between an actor and a movie star may rest on the level of radiance that person exudes.  Certainly, it is possible to be both a skilled actor in the classical sense and at the same time be a matinee idol–Warren Beatty and Robert Redford are good examples.  However, the tricky balance is almost impossible to achieve. Consider the career of Alec Baldwin.  It wasn’t until Baldwin gained weight, went through a very public and messy divorce, and turned to comedy, often parodying himself, that he truly found both critical and popular success.

But troubling is that Stallone has bowed to popular peer pressure to give the folks what they want while at the same time backhanding Michael Keaton, director Tim Burton, and others for damaging the action star profession.  Of course, I ate up Sly’s last two films and like others will find his upcoming THE EXPENDABLES impossible to resist.  My thought is that Stallone should just tell it like it is: physical appearance is an important part of the acting process.  Consider that Robert DeNiro gained 70 pounds to play Jake La Motta in RAGING BULL or that Stallone himself let his body go a bit for COPLAND.

Playing tough and looking the part matters, but only when the role, as written, calls for it.  Jet Li, who stars along side Stallone and other action tough guys in THE EXPENDABLES is anything but an imposing physical beast.  But his downright intimidating presence in LETHAL WEAPON 4 convinced me and anyone else watching that even at 5 foot 6 inches tall, he was a force to be feared.

To be completely fair to Stallone, audience tastes changed as the 1990s dawned.  The old style action fantasy that dominated the 1980s began to seem hokey and not credible.  As viewers became more informed of movie magic mainly based on emerging computer technologies, audiences tired of stunts that defied the laws of physics.  Films like THE MATRIX were able to narratively explain how the impossible could become actual.  Stories had to explain more and earn our trust before inudating us with spectacular action sequences.

But then nostalgia crept in.  Quentin Tarantino gave us talky but action filled crime stories that seemed to mock with a twisted form of reverence the films of the 1970s and certain 1980s characters and stories.  At one point, there was rumor that QT’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS might feature Stallone and a host of action stars from the past.  And that could still happen in some high-concept future project.  But such a film would not be how things used to be–how they were in the 1980s.  No, modern more sophisticated approaches would trade on the built in audience nostalgia and something of a hybrid would emerge.  Directors like Tarantino know that without the successes and the failure that came before them, their films wouldn’t be nearly as significant or potent.  Stallone is owed the respect and attention he’s earned from his years of toiling in the often trashy underbelly of the action genre–remember that for every RAMBO we had to endure a TANGO AND CASH.

But now, instead of complaining about “Velcro muscles” maybe Stallone, now age 64, should focus more on finding believable and original scripts that take advantage of his fading radiance.  Re-treading the past for a buck wastes the years he’s got left to provide us with something truly special.  The perfect combination of tough writing with a tough actor is what will work.  Hitting the gym alone isn’t enough to convince us you’re a tough guy Sly.  Even after all these years of being tough on screen, you still need to show us how tough you really are.

NOTE: I’ll see THE EXPENDABLES this week and review it on Friday.  My hope is that the negative stuff I’ve heard about the film isn’t true, I want to like this movie.  As a child of the 1980s, watching one of your idols in decline won’t likely make for good viewing.

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