Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 9, 2016


The modern conception of Sylvester Stallone is mostly as the star of meat-headed action flicks. This, however, was not the case in 1978. Instead, he was primarily known as the Oscar-nominated star and screenwriter of “Rocky.” This context makes “F.I.S.T.” easier to understand. Like many award-seeking flicks, the film was based on reality, telling a fictionalized version of the life of controversial union organizer Jimmy Hoffa. Director Norma Jewison had previously made critically acclaimed pictures like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” (And, of course, “Rollerball.”) Though screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is now associated with Hollywood trash like “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” this was his first screenplay. And it was reportedly book-length too, being greatly rewritten by Sly. The film had all this going for it but failed to recreate “Rocky’s” success.

Laborer Jimmy Kovak is disgusted by the abuse his fellow workers suffer at the hands of the bosses. His struggle to right these wrongs only succeed in getting him fired. It does, however, catch the attention of the Federation of Inter-State Truckers. The truckers union soon hires the passionate Kovak as an organizer. Kovak leads strikes and riots against the corporations, quickly rising through the ranks of F.I.S.T. He’s willing to partner with organized crime to get things done. Years later, when Kovak is an old man, this association threatens his organization and his life.

Casting Sylvester Stallone as a great orator must seem odd in retrospect. Sly’s ability to simply talk, much less deliver long-winded monologues, is often questioned. Yet casting Stallone as a famous union organizer also makes a certain amount of sense. In “Rocky,” he brilliantly played a common man who united the people. “F.I.S.T.” is a similar role, as Kovak is motivated by his need for justice and worker’s rights. Throughout the film, Kovak plays on the sympathies of a crowd by telling stories of men injured at work, which the company felt no need to compensate for. Later, he gives impassioned speeches to packed rooms while campaigning for leadership of the organization. While Stallone’s English can never exactly be called clear, he certainly packs these moments with a lot of passion and power. The most successful moments in “F.I.S.T.” are the ones focused on Stallone’s performance.

“F.I.S.T.” has an interesting two part structure. The first half, set in the 1930s, is devoted to Kovak’s rise from ordinary worker to organizer. Moments of violence are set against “Rocky”-style slice of life sequences. We see Johnny court the woman that will become his wife, taking her to a carnival, awkwardly talking to her mother, and celebration their engagement at a Christmas party. We also see Kovak and his friends violently beaten by corporate thugs. A striker’s camp-out is interrupted when union breakers smash a truck through a gate. This sequence concludes with a cop shooting a striker in the head. Afterwards, Kovak and his men meet the corporate enforcers with bats and axe handles, demonstrations exploding into full-on violence. Considering the violent threats they’re facing, it’s no surprise when Kovak teams up with gangsters. The montage devoted to the criminal underground striking back against the companies are oddly satisfying, for these reasons.

The second half of “F.I.S.T.” leaps ahead four decades, to the mid-seventies. A late scene in the first half shows Kovak’s best friend spying on him as he takes a shady deal from a jukebox company. By the time the seventies have rolled around, Johnny and the Federation he leads are very used to taking bribes, favors, and under-the-table deals. This section of the film is generally less interesting, as it shows Kovak’s passion being traded for complacency. As the government begins to close in on illegal operations, he attempts to protect his friends, family, and preserve his own sense of honor. It’s a too little, too late moment, the film attempting to redeem its morally ambiguous hero. Having said that, I do like Stallone’s passionate speech at the Senate hearing and the freeze frame aided ending is certainly memorable. Oddly, despite the character being forty years older, the only old-age make-up Sly wears is some grey streaks in his hair.

Some reviews have questioned Sly’s acting abilities, as critics do from time to time. If you’re not a fan, “F.I.S.T.” also includes a solid supporting cast. David Huffman’s turn as Abe, Johnny’s closest friend, is probably the second most important performance in the film. Huffman is fine, if a little too willing to follow the script beat-for-beat. Peter Boyle is memorable as another high-ranking official in the Federation, bringing the expected amount of bluster to the part. Kevin Conway is likably sleazy as the gangster that helps the Federation. I like Melinda Dillion as Kovak’s wife, who somehow seems to go the entire film with out being aware of her husband’s criminal activities. Tony Lo Bianco, as another organized crime figure, and Rod Steiger, as the U.S. Senator leading the case against Kovac, are both memorable despite being late entries into the film. Also watch for future Red Hot Chili Peppers front man Anthony Kiedis, in a brief appearance as one of Kovak’s sons.

Norman Jewison’s direction is handsome, with cinematographer Kaszlo Kovacs making good use of shadows. Bill Conti’s score can’t compare to his “Rocky” soundtrack but provides some decent themes. “F.I.S.T.” is not interesting enough to sustain its overly long two hours and five minutes run time. Stallone gives a good performance but the second half is too much of a bummer, dragging down many of the positive aspects the film showed in its first half. If the public was expecting another inspiring story like “Rocky,” I can understand why they would be disappointed in this one. Stallone would rarely try straight-on drama again throughout his career, preferring to mix in action, thriller, or comedy elements. [6/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[] Social Outcast
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

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