Biography Documentary

Manifesting a Champion: A TIFF Review of ‘Sly’

September 18, 2023Ben MK

Best known for his enduring portrayal of one of cinema's most memorable underdogs, Sylvester Stallone's life journey has been full of as many ups and downs as some of his most famous big screen characters. Yet, no matter how many times he's fallen, the now-77-year-old actor, writer and director has always managed to get back up. It's a quality that seems to be hardwired into Stallone's very DNA. And in the aptly titled Sly, director Thom Zimny puts that DNA under the microscope, as he takes audiences behind the scenes and into the mind of the legendary Hollywood heavyweight.

Born in 1946 to hot-tempered parents Frank and Jackie, Stallone was never a likely candidate to become a major Hollywood player. Suffering from the aftereffects of facial paralysis as a result of complications from birth, he was looked down upon so often by casting agents that his only recourse was to become the author of his own destiny. After the success of the first Rocky movie, however, Stallone found that duplicating that success was trickier than he could have imagined. Yet, although some of his followup efforts couldn't quite garner the same amount of praise as his breakout role, he could usually fall back on his most reliable, staple characters. Whether it was Rocky Balboa or John Rambo, there was something about these roles that helped Stallone endear himself to moviegoers. And in what follows, Zimny examines precisely that phenomenon. From the appeal of Stallone's on-screen persona and his rivalry with the future Governor of California to his tumultuous relationship with his father, viewers are given fascinating insight into what makes him tick. And while Stallone's career achievements are most impressive indeed, it's the present-day importance he places on family that proves the most striking.

Featuring interviews with Stallone himself, along with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Quentin Tarantino and Stallone's younger brother, Frank Jr., the result is a portrait of an action icon who's been overlooked, underestimated and stereotyped his whole life. What makes Sly so interesting, though, is not simply the story of the man behind the myth, but how Stallone seemingly manifested this myth into reality himself, out of sheer willpower. Suffice to say, you don't have to be a fan of Stallone's acting to admire his principles and his perseverance. After all, everyone loves a good underdog story. And that fact that his is real just makes it all the more compelling.

Sly screens under the Gala Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 35 min.

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