Rocky Versus Rambo: We Rank Sylvester Stallone’s Best Roles of All Time
5: Nighthawks (1981)
The premise: Originally planned as The French Connection III, the reworked thriller — Stallone’s first major action film — follows two NYPD sergeants, Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, 85)
as they try to track down a deadly European terrorist named Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) who’s intent on causing chaos in the city. What ensues is a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game through the Big Apple that sees them dashing around everywhere from subway platforms to discos to the Roosevelt Island Tram.
Stallone dials it back for this underrated gem, which Janet Maslin of The New York Times summed up as “clumsy but fast, and very vividly etched, with plenty of excitement and spark.”
4: Cop Land (1997)
The premise: Stallone holds his own opposite acting legends Robert De Niro (79), Harvey Keitel (83) and Ray Liotta in this “urban Western” from Walk the Line director James Mangold (58).
He packed on 41 pounds to play Freddy Heflin, a schlubby New Jersey sheriff who has long admired the NYPD but can’t join their ranks because he’s half-deaf after nearly drowning.
His town of Garrison is populated by crooked New York City cops with mob connections, and when one of them is involved in a racially motivated shooting, Heflin makes the tough decision to investigate the men he previously idolized.
The best part: For a taste of Stallone’s underrated acting prowess, check out the scene in which he goes head-to-head with De Niro’s Internal Affairs agent as he begs for help on the case.
3: First Blood (1982)
The premise: This 1982 film introduced the world to Stallone’s second big franchise hero, John Rambo, a veteran with impressive fighting skills who’s left traumatized by his time in Vietnam.
In the first installment, Rambo travels to Hope, Washington, to see an old military buddy, who he learns died from Agent Orange–induced cancer. Upon Rambo’s arrival, the sheriff (Brian Dennehy) harasses him for being a drifter and kicks him out of town.
Rambo snaps and heads for the hills, where he reverts to the brutal guerrilla tactics he learned overseas in his escalating battle with the authorities. In future films, the elite fighting machine headed to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Burma and Mexico on deadly missions.
The best part: Though First Blood is rightfully remembered for its brutal action sequences, Stallone is at his most effective in an emotional breakdown scene that sees him melting into a puddle of tears and recounting his terrible experiences during the war and the awful ways he’s been treated since coming home to America.
2: Rocky (1976)
The premise: When Stallone wasn’t getting the acting roles he wanted in the mid-1970s, he took matters into his own hands and created one of the most indelible characters in film history: underdog Philly boxer Rocky Balboa,
whom the American Film Institute ranked seventh on its list of the 50 greatest heroes in American cinema history. Costarring Talia Shire (76) as Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian; Burgess Meredith as his trainer Mickey;
and Carl Weathers (74) as his rival Apollo Creed, the film was a sleeper hit that went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1976 and a three-time Academy Award winner,
including for best picture. It also kicked off a decades-spanning franchise that has taken in more than $1.7 billion at the global box office and counting.
The best part: There are perhaps more iconic scenes (those museum stairs!), but the film reaches its emotional peak when Rocky and Adrian finally profess their love for one another after his bout with Creed.
1: Creed (2015)
The premise: OK, we know this might sound blasphemous to Rocky diehards, but Stallone bested even his stellar debut in this heartfelt reboot from director Ryan Coogler. Balboa returns to train and mentor Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan),
the son of his former rival Apollo, but the elder boxer has to battle a life-or-death fight of his own when he’s diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The role saw Stallone at his most vulnerable and introspective,
and he was rewarded with best supporting actor wins from the National Board of Review Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, plus his first Oscar nomination since 1977. It’s a full-circle moment that combines decades of nostalgia with flat-out great acting.
The best part: Try not to get choked up when Adonis and a visibly frail Rocky ascend the Philadelphia Museum of Art staircase and Rocky quips, “I think they added a few more steps.”