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For an entire generation of Americans, that group of notorious slackers known as Generation X, Sylvester Stallone was one of an elite crew of larger than life action stars in the '80s with comically large muscles and more quips than Rodney Dangerfield.
Sure, Sly Stallone has done a lot of more serious work that deserves high praise, like the original Rocky, which earned him two Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, and won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for John G. Avildsen. This list isn’t about his roles like that. This is about the movies where his comically large muscles and endless quips are the real stars. So let's have a look at the most badass roles on Stallone's filmography.
5. Tango & Cash (1989)
From the jump, you know that Tango & Cash is going to be pure badass Sylvester Stallone. The movie opens with Stallone, as Detective Ray Tango, dressed in an Armani suit and speeding down a desert highway in Cadillac Allante. Stallone tries to call off his backup as he chases a tanker truck. He's a cop who plays by his own rules and doesn’t need the rest of the department’s help.
As the scene continues, Stallone pulls ahead, creates a roadblock, calmly gets out of the convertible, reloads his revolver for some reason (mostly because it looks cool) and starts taking shots at the truck until it stops. When it does, the local yokel cops ask him If he thinks he’s Rambo. “Rambo… is a pussy,” is Tango’s response. If you are not all-in on this oh-so-'80s buddy-cop flick, Stallone in all his badass glory may not be for you.
But that’s not even the best part, because the movie hasn’t introduced his fellow cop, Gabe Cash, played by the great and awesome Kurt Russell, and everyone knows you don’t tussle with Kurt Russell. Cash is a poorly dressed, long-haired Los Angeles City cop, Tango is a suit-wearing, stock-trading Cadillac-driving detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department. Together Tango and Cash make unlikely partners forced to work together when they are framed by a drug lord played by Jack Palance and sent to maximum security prison. Seriously, how is any of this not totally awesome?
Tango & Cash is like a greatest hits of 1980s movie tropes, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Well, it is bad in a traditional sense, but it’s totally badass because it does the tropes well and does them without shame. There are good guys, there are bad guys, there are drugs, and there is a score by Harold Faltermeyer, the quintessential '80s film score composer also responsible for Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Fletch. Tango & Cash is seriously badass.
4. Rambo (2008)
A sequel 20 years in the making, Rambo exploded onto screens in the winter of 2008 and Generation X rejoiced as their childhood hero, John Rambo, retuned for one more mission deep in the Southeast Asian jungle. Praised and derided for its tremendous amount of violence, Rambo is everything you want from a Rambo movie and much more. With a higher body count than the other three Rambo movies combined, this is Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo and at his most Ramboness.
Vietnam vet and all-around stoic badass John Rambo has left the world behind and is living a subsistence living as a… snakecatcher in Thailand when he agrees to ferry a group of missionaries up river and deep into wore-torn Burma. When the ship is attacked by river pirates, Rambo is forced to do what he swore he would never do again – kill. He saves the missionaries and drops them upstream in a small village, but not before the head missionary rebukes Rambo for his violence. Who does this guy think he is anyway? You’re talking to JOHN RAMBO!
Of course, that’s not the last the missionaries would see from our hero Rambo, because shockingly, they are kidnapped by Burmese soldiers after the soldiers burn the village they are working to help. That’s when a team of ex-military special ops are brought in and hire, who else, John Rambo, to take them upstream as part of a mission to save the missionaries.
Once he gets them to their destination, Rambo offers to help but is roundly rejected by the team’s leader. He doesn’t need some hippie-looking American burnout’s help, this is an elite squad of ex-special forces soldiers! What could a boat driver do to help them?
Well, as you might imagine, the elite team of mercenaries get to the village but find themselves outgunned and not sure what to do. Luckily for them, that lowly boat driver followed them and he knows what to do - kill everything that moves, preferably with a bow and arrow with exploding arrows. Or in ultra-violent hand-to-hand combat.
Spoiler Alert! Rambo wins. Like, he REALLY wins. He kills everything that moves and saves the elite team of ex-military and the missionaries. In the process, Sylvester Stallone and the other creators of the movie made one of the most violent movies in history, violence that is so over the top, it’s impossible to take too seriously, but definitely makes it badass.
3. The Expendables (2010)
Sylvester Stallone followed up Rambo with another over the top throwback to the '80s with The Expendables, which follows a ragtag team of badass ex-military special forces soldiers-turned-mercenaries led by Stallone’s character, Barney Ross. The team is hired to overthrow a dictator of an island country off the coast of Mexico.
If the plot doesn’t sound completely ridiculous and awesome, the cast certainly is. In addition to Stallone, the cast is a who’s who of '80s and '90s action film stars, including Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke and MMA star Randy Couture. Not to mention a couple of sweet cameos by Bruce Willis and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who yes, was actually still in office when the movie was filmed and released.
So this bunch of nothing-like-the-Dirty Dozen ex-soldiers embark on their mission, and in spite of a convoluted plot that doesn’t really matter, inner conflicts amongst the team, and being badly outnumbered, the crew of expendable soldiers manage to shoot, stab, and fight their way into the dictator/drug lord’s compound, blowing up everything they don’t shoot, and saving the damsel in distress while making the world safe for democracy again. It’s freaking badass.
2. Rocky IV (1985)
Think back in time to the mid-1980s. The Cold War dominated the geo-political world and patriotism was at a zenith under President Ronald Reagan’s zeal to take down those pesky commies in Eastern Europe. The film landscape is filled with pro-America, anti-Soviet jingoistic films like Red Dawn and The Day After, and bookstore shelves strain under the weight of a whole stack of books by Tom Clancy like The Hunt For Red October and Cardinal Of The Kremlin.
That’s when the world asked the question, what would Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa do? Rocky IV answers that question decisively by having Rocky’s best friend get killed in the ring by a humorless, steroid-filled communist from the USSR called Ivan Drago which forces Rocky out of retirement to get revenge on behalf Apollo Creed and the US of A. The fate of the free world rests on the muscular shoulders of a formerly downtrodden over-the-hill boxer from the cradle of American democracy, Philadelphia named Rocky Balboa.
Rocky IV is filled with all kinds of completely ridiculous scenes of Rocky training on a farm in the Siberian winter contrasted with high tech, state of the art steroid injecting by Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren, and an epic climactic boxing match that would have left two real boxers both brain damaged and, well, probably dead.
It’s even got a full-on YAY AMERICA music video in the middle of the movie featuring James Brown being completely awesome while he sings and dances his patriotic ass off, performing his song “Living In America.” Rocky IV is Rocky in peak form and walking proof that in the mid-'80s, Rocky and America were completely badass.
1. First Blood (1982)
The first of the Rambo movies, First Blood is actually a different kind of Rambo movie. It also helped launch Sylvester Stallone’s career as a badass '80s action star. It’s also a more serious movie than the others on this list, but that doesn’t make it less badass.
Co-written by Stallone himself and based on a novel by David Morell, First Blood is the story of the forgotten Vietnam vet in general and vet John Rambo specifically.
Stallone’s character, a Vietnam vet with a serious case of PTSD, is stopped by an overzealous small town cop named Teasle, played spectacularly by Brian Dennehy, as he walks through town looking for old members of his platoon in ‘Nam. Teasle is a no-nonsense American patriot who doesn’t like the cut of Rambo’s jib, so he drives him out of town and tells him to get lost. Rambo is hungry and wants to find a diner in town, but because he ignores Teasle’s directive to stay out town, Teasle arrests him for being a bum.
Boy, was that a mistake that Teasle would come to regret! Rambo, a Medal Of Honor winner for his badassery in Vietnam, promptly escapes the small town jail by overpowering the entire police force, including one cop played by a young David Caruso, and flees into the dense mountain forest surrounding the small Washington town.
From there, Rambo refights the Vietnam War against local and state officials, taking them out one by one using his jungle warfare knowledge and expertise. Teasle and the cops in town drew first blood, but Rambo was going to draw the last drops from all of them. Finally, his old commanding officer, played by the great Richard Crenna, flies in to talk Rambo off the cliff and eventually Rambo turns himself in, but not before he gets the ultimate revenge on Teasle like a total badass.
There are other Sylvester Stallone movies that could get squeezed onto this list. For instance, Stallone’s exploration of the world of arm wrestling as trucker trying to earn his son’s love and enough money for a new truck in Over The Top, or the totally awesome Cobra where Stallone plays a cop that plays by his own rules and doesn’t need the rest of the department’s help to take down the city’s biggest criminal organization. But they just missed this list.