Iconic Roles: The Best Sylvester Stallone Action Movies

A few actors instantly spring to mind when discussing great 80s action icons. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains king, but coming in at a close second is Sylvester Stallone, who enjoyed quite the blockbuster career between Rocky (1976) and Tango & Cash (1989). Since then, the actor has endured peaks (Cliffhanger) and valleys (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) but always seems to deliver the occasional bit of popcorn entertainment (Creed and 2008’s Rambo, for example).

A few actors instantly spring to mind when discussing great 80s action icons. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains king, but coming in at a close second is Sylvester Stallone, who enjoyed quite the blockbuster career between Rocky (1976) and Tango & Cash (1989). Since then, the actor has endured peaks (Cliffhanger) and valleys (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) but always seems to deliver the occasional bit of popcorn entertainment (Creed and 2008’s Rambo, for example).

This week, Sly returns to the lucrative Expendables franchise with Expend4bles, which looks like another silly, explosive, high-octane good time with the grandfathers of action cinema. I’m always down for more adventures with this motley crew — and Megan Fox! — and this looks like a throwback to those equally goofy — but incredibly awesome — throwaway thrillers that dominated cinemas in my youth.

Now, just in case you younglings only know Sly as the old guy from Creed, I’m going to shed a little light on the man’s career and highlight some of the best Sylvester Stallone action movies — just in case you feel the need to head to your dad’s movie collection in search of more thrilling entertainment.

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Cliffhanger (1993)

Grab your rock climbing shoes and hold on tight for a wild action romp that will make anyone with acrophobia squeamish. Packed with big set pieces, big stunts, big emotions, and big stars, Cliffhanger throws everything it can at the screen and then clings to dear life as the enormous enterprise nearly crumbles under its own weight.

Thankfully, Sly skillfully carries the production on his back, delivering a solid performance as Gabe Walker, a rescue ranger with a tormented past tasked with guiding the ruthless Eric Qualen (a delightfully maniacal John Lithgow) and his gang through treacherous mountain terrain in their pursuit of the stolen money.

Director Renny Harlin stages exciting action beats and squeezes the most out of this absurd concept that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats — so long as they ignore the silly script.

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Cobra (1986)

If Cliffhanger represents a more heroic side of Stallone, Cobra unveils the gritty, violent monster lurking within. Make no mistake, Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti is as hard as they come — a grumbling, snarling badass working for Los Angeles Police Department’s elite “Zombie Squad,” tasked with bringing down a ruthless killer known as the “Night Slasher.”

Stallone didn’t give a f*** at this stage in his career and just did what he wanted, including casting his spouse (and Mrs. Drago) Brigitte Nielsen in a crucial role far beyond her acting capabilities.

No matter. You’re here to watch Stallone murder arrogant street punks and spout lines designed for a grindhouse movie poster — “You’re a disease. And I’m the cure!” Sure, it’s revenge-thriller schlock, but Cobra delivers the type of blood-soaked action that defined the 80s.

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Demolition Man (1993)

Stallone teams with Wesley Snipes for this science fiction action film that thrills as much as it induces laughs. Where the hell else are you going to find a straight-faced epic about two battle-hardened warriors from the 20th century who are frozen and then unthawed in a future utopia where crime is nonexistent and sex involves specialized helmets and suits to promote a sterile environment? I’m not kidding.

Here, Stallone is the good guy (in trailer guy voice), a cop with unorthodox methods, and Snipes is a violent criminal with ties to his past. The rivals must continue their conflict in a futuristic battle Royale while Sandra Bullock effortlessly steals the movie.

Part satire, part explosive action extravaganza, Demolition Man arguably stands as Stallone’s best effort to emerge from the 90s era. Its visuals haven’t aged well, but this is eye candy for action junkies and makes our list of the best Sylvester Stallone action movies.

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Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

When I think of Rambo, I typically think of Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots Part Deux, who was poking fun at Sly’s performance in Rambo: First Blood Part II. So, I guess that makes this overblown but extremely entertaining sequel the most memorable of the entire franchise. Where the original Rambo is a powerful war drama that explores the difficulties Vietnam veterans faced when they arrived home to a politically divided country, Part II is an out-and-out assault on the senses, a live-action cartoon with extraordinary stunts, endless rounds of ammunition, and nearly 100 people die in gruesome fashion.

This is the one where Rambo reluctantly heads back to Vietnam to verify the existence of American prisoners of war (POWs) and teams with the badass Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) to take down Steven Berkoff’s loathsome Lt. Col. Podovsky and Cobra Kai’s esteemed owner. Through it all, Rambo riddles enemies with countless bullets, leaps out of planes, boats, and helicopters, endures tumultuous torture, and battles all over Vietnam without breaking a sweat. I can’t get enough of this stuff.

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Rocky IV (1985)

Yes, Rocky IV is an action film — fight me! One could say Rocky became an action franchise following the introduction of Mr. T in part three and failed its fans by retreating to its grounded roots in the later entries.

Not Rocky IV. Shot like an 80s music video on crack, this boxing tale punches its way to fame and glory, this time pitting everyone’s favorite unbreakable Italian Stallion against the almighty Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Blood-soaked boxing brawls ensue, intermittently broken up by exciting training montages set to noon of the 80’s greatest rock albums. The film dips its toes in the Cold War and admittedly gets a little preachy at the end, but this is good old-fashioned American cinema at its finest — a gleefully absurd underdog tale seen through the eye of the tiger. Rocky IV is and always will be a glorious punch of dopamine, which is why it caps off our list of the best Sylvester Stallone action movies.