‘Sly’ Review: Sylvester Stallone Hits Hard in Intimate Documentary That Still Pulls a Few Punches

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, November 3.

Appropriately enough, Thom Zimny’s latest star-driven documentary, “Sly,” comes out swinging. Well, its subject certainly does. Regrets? “Hell, yeah, I have regrets!” Sylvester Stallone bellows at the camera. Not only does he have them, he’s ready to tell you all about them, what they are, where they came from, how they motivate him, how often he thinks of them, and what he plans to do about them. From the start, Stallone is remarkably open and wonderfully self-aware, though as is so often the case with celebrity-driven docs, even his candid nature comes with some caveats.

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For its roughly 90-minute running time, “Sly” covers plenty of ground and should please both Stallone aficionados and those interested in learning more about the iconic star beyond “Rocky” and “Rambo” (and, never fear, both of those iconic roles get lots of screen time). But Zimny sets up a number of narrative structures — initially, the film seems to be framed around Stallone’s move back east before giving over to scattered segments in which Stallone listens to old interviews and tries to correct his former self in real-time, and then letting the star walk us through the highs and lows of his career — that ultimately don’t amount to much. Just put the camera on Stallone and let him go, he’s got plenty to say.

Really, there’s enough here for an entire miniseries, or at least a three-part docuseries (hey, kind of like the one Netflix recently gave to Stallone’s most famous competitor, Arnold Schwarzenegger!), because there’s little question Stallone has stories enough to share. And while Zimny and company have also assembled a compelling lineup of talking heads to round out those stories — including Arnold himself, plus Sly’s younger brother Frank, his early co-star Henry Winkler, long-time collaborator John Herfzeld, and critic Wesley Morris — “Sly” is the rare doc that would benefit from even more voices weighing on the seeming enigma that is Sly.

Zimny tracks Stallone through his early years — at one point, present-day Stallone even returns to his old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and scenes of him simply strolling around and chatting up disbelieving New Yorkers are joyous and fun — in an effort to explain how Stallone became, well, Stallone. Much of “Sly” is spent trying to distill the star’s essence and appeal, with his upbringing (his parents were, as Stallone delicately puts it, “unpredictable”) proving to be a major touchstone.

While Stallone’s fraught relationship with his father Frank emerges as the key to perhaps Stallone’s entire life and career, most of his other relationships are only lightly referred to. His current wife Jennifer appears in the documentary, as do their three daughters, though they don’t speak (fans eager to know more about the ladies in Stallone’s life do, at least, have the option to check out their recent reality series, “The Family Stallone,” to learn more). His first two wives (including “Rocky IV” baddie Brigitte Nielsen) are not mentioned, nor is his second son, Seargeoh. And while the tragic life of his son Sage becomes central to the doc’s second half, viewers who don’t know what happened to Sage (who passed away in 2012) might miss some of the resonance of his story.

Surely, Stallone had things he didn’t want to share within the context of “Sly,” and while that leads to a certain unfinished quality to the film, it also makes the things he does share feel more resonant. One gets the sense that any ruminations on the pains and pleasures of fame wouldn’t faze Stallone in the slightest, mostly because he’s clearly spent decades running them over in his own head (in the first act of the doc alone, Stallone tells us about his “insatiable” need for the attention of strangers, a revelation he seems to have come to long ago).

And when Stallone offers up his current take on his career — be a specialist within the things you’re best at, because no one wants to see a guy like Stallone do Shakespeare — damn if you won’t find yourself thinking, “Hell, maybe I do want to see this guy do Shakespeare!” So much of the doc hinges on Stallone’s journey to stardom, a truly self-made star who started acting because he loved it, who started writing because he needed it, and who is still very genuinely grappling with his legacy, and there seems to be no end to his creativity.

Mostly, it’s Stallone who impresses here, as a disarmingly open and self-aware icon whose hardest lessons have left a mark on him. As Sly loves to tell people, “Keep punching!” And while Zimny’s feature could have hit just a touch harder, when it lands, it’s a winner.

Grade: B

“Sly” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release it later this year.

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