‘Sly’ Review: Sylvester Stallone Documentary Is a Portrait in Restlessness

Toronto Film Festival: Thom Zimny’s Netflix documentary finds the iconic actor pacing his halls and rummaging through his memories

Sylvester Stallone in Netflix's "Sly"

“Do I have regrets?” asks Sylvester Stallone at the beginning of “Sly,” the Thom Zimny documentary about him that served as the closing-night film at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday. “Hell yeah, I have regrets.”

Putting that quote up front is a smart way to introduce a film about the man whose career sometimes seems to have resulted in equal parts iconography and mockery. The actor, screenwriter and director created the classic characters Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, but struggled to find respect and made more than his share of terrible films.

Another smart move: New conversations with Stallone run throughout the film, but these are not the usual talking-head interviews in which the subject sits in a chair and runs through his life. Instead, Stallone almost always talks to the camera while standing up and moving around.

Zimny’s camera stays on the go, bobbing and weaving like a prize-fighter as Stallone walks down the hall or simply shifts his weigh in mid-sentence. It’s a dance of sorts, one that creates an image of a restless man in motion – and for a star whose physicality is a big part of his success, it makes perfect sense. (In one of the few interviews done with him sitting down, he’s in a moving car.)

Much of the Netflix film takes place in a lavish home that Stallone is leaving, and the boxes he’s packing serve as a central metaphor for “Sly.” He rummages through his memories and packs away countless sculptures of his most iconic creations, Rocky and Rambo.  

(There are also three Academy Award statuettes on a shelf in the house, which is curious — the original “Rocky” won three Oscars, but they went to producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, director John G. Avildsen and editors Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad. Stallone himself was nominated for two Oscars for “Rocky” in 1976 and one for “Creed” in 2015, but he never won.)

Some of the film plays like mythmaking while some of it, particularly when it’s dealing with Stallone’s father, plays like confessional. There’s a certain grandeur to the way the actor carries himself, but also enough of a sense of humor that the grandeur doesn’t become overbearing.  

For Zimny, this is relatively new territory. The director and editor has worked on shows like “The Wire” and “Independent Lens” as an editor, but as a director he’s best known for his work on music-related films, including “Willie Nelson & Family,” “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” and almost 30 documentaries, music videos and concert films with Bruce Springsteen.  

Stallone, though, is not about the music — as the few who’ve seen his lamentable teamup with Dolly Parton in the 1984 flop “Rhinestone” can attest. His story is that of a kid from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City who somehow got into acting, then discovered that if he wanted good roles, he’d better write them himself — or at least rewrite his lines, as he did in “The Lords of Flatbush.” That was the first movie for which he received any real attention. (Quentin Tarantino shows up in “Sly” to sing its praises.)

Stallone headed to Los Angeles in search of a movie career, but his car broke down at the corner of Hollywood and Vine as soon as he got there — so he called the only person he knew in L.A., his “Flatbush” co-star Henry Winkler. The famously kind Fonz actor helped Stallone get settled.

And then he struggled to find work, until he wrote a screenplay about a down-on-his-luck palooka who, after a few rewrites, became a boxer named Rocky Balboa. “He was a bum, he was Terry Malloy in ‘On the Waterfront,’” Stallone says of the character, which he famously insisted on playing himself.

“Rocky” made Stallone a star, but it also typecast him as a loveable but inarticulate thug. It was a hard act to follow until he wrote, directed and starred in its 1979 sequel, then took the role of an embittered Vietnam vet in the 1982 drama “First Blood,” which launched the John Rambo character.

At the time, Stallone’s mother, astrologer and promoter Jackie Stallone was often in the news. But in “Sly,” Jackie is far less of a presence than her husband, Frank Stallone Sr., a barber who according to the film was competitive with and brutal toward his son.

“I know I got a certain kind of ferocity from my father,” says Stallone. He goes on to describe the original Rambo character as a homicidal maniac and then says, “My father was Rambo in reality.”

Stories of his father run throughout the film and provide many of its saddest moments. After “Rocky” was a hit, his dad approached Stallone’s friend, director John Herzfeld, with a script he’d written for a boxing movie. “He was still competing with his son,” says Herzfeld.

And at the height of Stallone’s success, he once again took up polo, a sport he’d excelled in as a child, and invited his dad to participate in a match. During the action, his father hit him in the back with his mallet, knocking him to the ground and out of the game. Afterwards, Stallone sold everything — horses, trucks, ranch — and never played again.

Frank Stallone Sr. is an uncomfortable if revelatory presence throughout “Sly,” but he’s not the only obstacle his son faced after making it big.

“I always tell people, don’t watch the second half of any biography of a star,” Stallone says, and his bio has some of that rise-and-fall arc as he tries to figure out if viewers are interested in him playing anything other than an action hero. “Don’t sit there and try to do Shakespeare,” he concludes, “if you look like me.”

But Stallone managed to honor his legacy and gain respect with 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” (his proudest achievement) and then with “Creed” in 2015. These days, it seems, the physical toll of all those action movies has slowed him down, and his priorities are visibly shifting. When the conversation turns to his third wife, Jennifer Flavin, and his five children, he actually sits down at the kitchen table to talk about making time for family.

And then, of course, he stands up in the middle of a sentence. Because if “Sly” shows us anything, it’s that Stallone can’t be a talking head unless he’s also a walking head.

Mixing familiar stories with fresh insights, Zimny’s film is a portrait in restlessness, a picture of a man who has been both wildly successful and thoroughly dismissed — sometimes simultaneously. It won’t change your mind about the guy either way, but it’ll show some of the heart and the brain behind the muscles.

And it’ll let Stallone restate the case he’s been making for decades, sometimes in the strangest of ways. “I’m in the hope business, and I just hate sad endings,” he says. “Sorry, shoot me.”

“Sly” will be released by Netflix.