In the last twenty odd years Sylvester Stallone has straddled the action movie scene like some cartoonish muscled colossus, treating undemanding violence hounds to a weighty plethora of cerebrally-challenged, testosterone-charged frolics in the name of entertainment. He's tried the buddy movie (the so bad it's almost good 'Tango and Cash'), the zany comedy (the execrable 'Stop or My Mom Will Shoot') and of course who can forget those two icons of Reaganite America, gun toting man-machine John Rambo and Commie-bashing sporting simpleton Rocky Balboa. Sly's personal life has been almost as explosive as his on-screen persona, with his doomed marriage to the Scandinavian Amazon woman Brigitte Nielsen and the flourishing celebrity career of his mother, the latex puppet caricature that is Jackie Stallone. With the extreme Hollywood media circus that has followed Stallone for the best part of his career (and is gathering up again as Rocky dusts down his walking frame for a sixth instalment), it's increasingly hard to conceive of a time when Sly was actually potentially a serious actor. Produced in 1978 and helmed by respected director Norman Jewison ('In the Heat of the Night'), 'F.I.S.T.' introduces us to a fledgling Stallone, fresh from the critical and commercial success of Rocky, and as yet untouched by the million dollar muscle man roles that would make his name and his fortune but ultimately destroy his credibility. F.I.ST. traces the life story of union leader Johnny Kovak (Stallone), from his humble beginnings as a manual labourer in 1930's America, through his rise to the position of head of one of the countries largest and most powerful trade unions, and ultimately his downfall as he sees his American dream sullied through corruption and betrayal. It's a particular kind of epic tale that only Hollywood can produce, the decade spanning grandeur of one man's existence and the shaping of American history. Of course films with this kind of all-encompassing ambition are notoriously difficult to pull off, and even the greatest of directors are known to stumble (Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York' springs to mind). When judged to perfection ('Once Upon a Time in America', 'The Godfather', 'Goodfellas') these swirling epics are nigh on untouchable, sweeping odes to the American past which cement themselves as all time classic pieces of cinema. Unfortunately, F.I.S.T. fails to fully overcome the challenge of its ambition and the resulting film is a gallant failure as opposed to the heroic epic cinema it strives for. What we are left with is an interesting and brave film, a courageous curio that falls short of its lofty intentions but nevertheless must be applauded for its endeavour in bringing such a complex and thorough exploration onto the big screen. Now Stallone has never set the world alight as an actor to take the breath away, but he's surprisingly credible here in a meaty role as Kovak (and proves he was always the best of the action men actors - imagine Arnie or Chuck Norris in a 2 ½ hour epic drama, a fate worse than death). Of course Sly's star was well in the ascendancy at this point, and he's ably backed up by an absolutely superb supporting cast including Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle and Richard Herd. Top honours however go to character actor Tony Lo Bianco, whose standout performance as slimy Mafioso 'Babe' Milano is a masterclass in restrained menace. Visually too, the movie is a treat. Masterfully filmed by Laszlo Kovacs (who shot Scorsese's 'New York, New York' the previous year), the superb costume and set design really bring the Depression era to vivid life. So if the cast are on the whole superb, and the film looks great then where does it slip up? What ultimately stops the film from attaining the heights of its other ambitious luminary's lies somewhere between Jewison's pacing and Joe Eszterhas' script. It has been rumoured that Stallone's contribution to the final screenplay was to edit Eszterhas' unwieldy epic into a more manageable and concise feature. This can definitely be seen in the final cut which, despite its somewhat mammoth 145minute running time still feels in parts like an unfinished job. Dialogue wise it's pretty much fine, but instead of flowing and building like the best of these films do 'F.I.S.T.' feels more like a series of vignettes stitched together. Years, sometimes decades, slip by without a mention in the script. One minute Kovak is an idealistic hungry young man, the next he's a suited family guy complete with greying temples. Similarly there are problems with characterisation. There are so many important figures vying for screen time around Kovak's centre that no player really gets a chance to develop. Consequently as the movie develops the twists and turns of the script lose some of their lustre as protagonists have been so loosely defined that their motivations and actions lack the power that was no doubt the filmmaker's intention. It's easy to feel sympathy for Jewison. Attempting to forge an enduring classic with such a labyrinthine subject matter, it's clear to see him struggling to hold the whole thing together. There are issues with pacing as he attempts to knit the story into one piece. The opening half is clearly the better, the incendiary battle scenes and fast pace bringing the film to life. The latter half suffers in comparison, and as the director battles with disparate plot threads to attempt some kind of conclusion, the film does tend to bog down in sections. Characteristic of the endeavour as a whole the ending is both brilliant and disappointing at the same time, unflinching and brave yet poorly executed and somewhat anticlimactic. In spite of its faults, it's easy to recommend 'F.I.S.T.' to ardent movie buffs. As one of Stallone's lost films it's a surprisingly eloquent and honourable attempt at crafting an American classic. The fact that it falls short does not in itself make it a bad movie. Despite of it's shortcomings it is never less than intriguing and entertaining, and hopefully it's release on DVD will ensure it enjoys a more favourable legacy in seventies Hollywood cinema than it has done previously.
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