Sly review – dull Stallone Netflix documentary pulls every punch

As told by the new documentary Sly, the biography of Sylvester Stallone plays a lot like one of the Rocky pictures he shepherded to the screen as writer, star and eventual director: the rousing underdog story of a gutsy neighborhood kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to win everyman glory, then did it again when everyone counted him out.

Related: Joan Baez: I Am a Noise review – intimate doc about the folk legend and activist

He busts through these cliches of triumph by virtue of really having lived them, an authenticity evident in his exquisite blue-collar brogue and meathead-philosopher manner of speech. Born in Hell’s Kitchen back when it still deserved the nickname, growing up an unflappably confident jock despite or perhaps because of his father’s constant abuse, he muscled his way into showbusiness through sheer force of will. Casting agents didn’t see leading-man material in this slab of ground chuck, so he crafted himself the role of a lifetime in the people’s boxer Rocky Balboa, who overcame his hard-luck lot in life with fancy feet and fists of fury but mostly heart. Oscar gold and box-office windfalls followed, dried up with some misbegotten gig in the 90s and aughts, then came thundering back once The Expendables reintroduced Stallone as macho-man elder statesman.

It’s a pleasing narrative, but it’s also a dull and incomplete one that betrays a hindering obsequiousness in director Thom Zimny. Puff pieces don’t get much puffier than this, a Netflix-approved profile in resilience for the executive producer of their flagship reality show Ultimate Beastmaster. Any rough edges that threaten to make Stallone into a more complicated – and, ultimately, compelling – figure have been dutifully sanded to a nub. As the closest he comes to allowing himself to be portrayed in anything less than a flattering light, he divulges that he regrets pouring so much time that could’ve been spent spent with family into his work. (Who among us doesn’t?) The favorable portraiture does a disservice to a genuinely fascinating anomaly in his industry, reducing a sui generis movie star to an admirable yet thinly drawn role model.

To the credit of talking-head cultural commentator Wesley Morris and Stallone himself, the film does evince an astute understanding of the unique properties in his acting style and screen presence. Morris explains Stallone’s primary talent as the clarity and insight to give the people what they want, crafting parts that played to his strengths: namely, lugnut charisma and scarred masculinity that displayed his sensitivity without turning him into a pansy, the perfect combo of oiled-biceps power and knocked-around heart for the Reagan era. Stallone also shows an exceptional self-awareness about his limitations, having accepted that his skill lies in application of his ossified type rather than sophisticated versatility. He shrugs that he wasn’t built for Shakespeare, and gives the film a morsel of levity as he ruefully grumbles about the concept of farce while recounting 1991’s ill-considered screwball comedy Oscar.

That savviness about image management works against the film as Stallone cordons off the aspects of his persona that he finds uncomfortable or disagreeable. No reasonable viewer would expect a project produced with the subject’s cooperation to address the multiple accusations of sexual assault marring his brand as an all-American workhorse. But Zimny could have mined some more intimate profundity from Stallone’s determined political fence-sitting, the reluctance of a born entertainer to alienate any faction of his fandom with vocal partisanship. Though he talks about the strain of his bodybuilding during his heyday, he glaringly omits any discussion of the physical toll exacted by the steroids he took to keep up with a looks-dependent profession – if he did, he might have to get into his 2007 arrest for possession of illegal human growth hormones. And we don’t even get a passing wink in acknowledgment of The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, his pre-fame softcore porno cult classic lumped into a vaguely outlined lean period in his early years.

The most conspicuous structuring absence may be Creed, however, the logical concluding point for the comeback arc Zimny traces with firm guidance from Stallone’s hand. The Rocky quasi-reboot was a monster hit, earned him career-best plaudits from critics, and netted him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. And for Stallone, that’s the issue – he plays second banana to nobody, and he evidently sees Creed as the anointing of a new top dog in star Michael B Jordan. The choice exposes the egotistical streak at the core of so many softball bio-docs made with rather than about their subjects, slavering tributes passing themselves off as warts-and-all considerations. In her report from a Netflix-sponsored exhibition of Stallone’s paintings at this past September’s Toronto international film festival, Chloe Lizotte describes seeing the artist’s face “plastered all over the elevators, lobby, and an enormous cube at the center of the room” in “an immersive environment that so nakedly, seamlessly merges art and advertisement”. Sly condenses that spirit of brazen self-promotion while cloaking it with faux circumspection, pitching a sanitized, often convincing commercial for Stallone as product in place of the man himself.

  • Sly is available on Netflix on 3 November