Arnold vs. Sly: King of the Action Heroes (part 1 of 4)
While there have been numerous action heroes in the history of cinema, probably the two men most closely associated with the genre are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Who’s the better of the two? Well, since I have a fondness for the films of both men, to say nothing of absolutely no shame at all when it comes to ripping off ideas from ESPN’s Bill Simmons, I’ll give it a shot.
There are pros and cons to both men. Both are up there in the pantheon of action stars. If there was a Hall of Fame for that genre, they’d be first ballot inductees, along with Clint Eastwood and Bruce Lee.
My personal favorite is Arnold, mainly because I grew up on a steady diet of his movies. That being said, I dig Stallone as well, which makes naming one as better than the other a pretty hard task. I think the best way to go about this is to simply break it down into categories.
1. Early Work:
Coming out of a career in bodybuilding, Arnold’s first role was the amazingly bad Hercules in New York, in which he was dubbed over, due to his accent being about as thick as his biceps. Bit parts in various movies followed (including a Robert Altman movie [!]), and in 1976 he won a Golden Globe for his work in Stay Hungry, a dramedy starring Jeff Bridges in which Arnold stretched his acting talents to their absolute limit by… playing a bodybuilder. He also had some roles on TV, the most notable being Mickey Hartigay in a TV movie about Jayne Mansfield.
His first real exposure to the general public was the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron in 1977, and he followed this up with a role in one of the few Hal Needham movies that doesn’t star Burt Reynolds. The Villain is a comic western that features Arnold, Kirk Douglas, and Ann-Margret, with the usual shitty cameos one expects from a Needham project. I haven’t seen it, but I can pretty much guarantee you that it’s an absolute pile of crap.
Stallone’s early stuff is a little bit more interesting, even if you don’t count that softcore porn flick he did. In addition to the usual bit parts in films and TV, Sly did a little screenwriting (some dialogue in The Lords of Flatbush), and also had a great role in a little movie called Death Race 2000. Arguably the best thing Roger Corman has ever put his name on (though a case could be made for Piranha), Sly just about steals the show with his hilariously over the top performance as gangster Machine Gun Joe Viterbo.
It’s pretty damn hard to argue with one of the greatest B-movies of all time. Death Race 2000 is, in its own way, a rather brilliant bit of satire/exploitation, and Stallone helps things considerably with a full-throated, over the top performance. I especially love when he tells his girlfriend, “Some people might think you’re cute. But to me, you’re a very large baked potato!” I believe Stallone actually came up with that line himself.
Granted, Arnold did win a Golden Globe, but it was for “Best Debut by a Male Star”, and it wasn’t even really his debut. (Though, to be fair, it was the first time audiences were hearing his real voice in a movie—and more than likely wishing for subtitles—so I guess it slips by on a technicality.) Arnold also loses points for being in a Hal Needham movie. I don’t give a damn how much he was hurting for work, it’s Hal Needham. Nobody should ever be that goddamn desperate!
2. Breakthrough Role:
In the summer of 1982, Conan the Barbarian was released into theaters, and audiences took note of the lead actor with the funny name, weird face, and thick accent. I don’t think I really need to sell you on the movie. It’s arguably John Milius’ best (Red Dawn is great for all the wrong reasons), and amazingly enough, it features a good performance from Arnold. Think about it. What is he required to do here? Look good, say a few lines of dialogue, and fight! Say what you will about the director, but he knew his star’s limitations and turned them into positives.
As for Sly, do I really need to tell you why Rocky kicks ass? It’s only the best boxing movie of all time, the Best Picture winner of 1976, and maybe the best sports movie ever made, period. Stallone made a name for himself as both a writer and an actor in this one, and pretty much got carte blanche to do whatever the fuck he wanted after its success (for better or for worse).
I can’t really make a definitive pick here, because both movies are great, and appeal to different sides of my brain. On the one hand, Rocky is an iconic, moving drama with a great main character, stellar supporting work (even from Burt Young, who I normally can’t stand), and is just about perfect as a motion picture.
Conan works in a similar way, but with more of an emphasis on the fantastic. It’s got a better script than the movie probably needs, and some decent performances, and good action scenes. It’s pretty much the perfect sword and sorcery movie.
Basically, both movies stand up well to the “if I see it while flipping channels, I’ll stop and watch it” test.
3. Glory Years:
Arnold’s acting career started in 1970, and went until 2003 when he was elected Governor of California. His best stretch was 1982-1991, which encompasses roughly 27% of his career. In that time, he knocked out iconic movies like Commando, Predator and the first two Terminator films. He had a mini-comeback after Last Action Hero that went from 1994-1996, but since that only covers four movies, one of which is arguably the worst thing he ever did, it’s a little hard to give him much credit for that period in his career. To be fair though, True Lies and Eraser are kick-ass movies.
Stallone started roughly around the same time as Arnold, but has had a lot more peaks and valleys. First off, you have Stallone’s 1976-1985 stretch, when he first took off. Then you have his resurgence from 1993-1997, which had a few decent hits. And then you have his second resurgence from 2006 to now, with Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and The Expendables so far.
Stallone has made more movies than Schwarzenegger, but in this category, I’m grading on quality, not quantity. If you look at Arnold’s peak nine year stretch, you have twelve movies, with only Conan the Destroyer, Raw Deal, Red Heat, and Kindergarten Cop standing out as disappointing.
In each of Stallone’s good runs, you have some strong stuff like the Rocky films, the first two Rambo films, and Demolition Man, but you also have some real stinkers like Staying Alive, Rhinestone, and Daylight. It’s not much of a contest, really. In terms of quality, when both actors were in their prime, Arnold beats out Sly fairly handily.