By Doug Brunell | October 9, 2003

My friends and I were recently discussing movies. “What’s the best Sylvester Stallone film?” I asked. They all agreed it was the first “Rocky.” I argued that “Copland” was a much better feature. Since this is my column, I’m right, and if more than thirty people would’ve seen “Copland,” Stallone wouldn’t be considered a joke by audiences.

As we discussed the worst Stallone movies (which was an incredibly long list where we kept coming up with films to surpass the ones we thought were the most horrible), I realized that these crap piles of American cinema weren’t really the Italian Stallion’s fault. After his performance in “Copland,” the bad movies suddenly made sense. Stallone wasn’t a bad actor, he was doing the best with what he got, and what he got were bad scripts and bad representation.

If you haven’t seen “Copland,” stop reading this column and go rent it. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll really have no understanding of how good Stallone can be in the right role. The Rambo character, as popular as it was, could’ve been done by anyone. Same deal with Rocky. Stallone’s “Copland” role works because it’s him.

People (and Hollywood) have dismissed Sly as a has-been action star, a casualty of the Cold War. Those people are partially right, but “Copland” should’ve revived his career. He should’ve won multiple awards for the film, but when it came out, people didn’t think he could pull it off despite what the critics were saying. Audiences said Stallone had his moment in the sun, but could no longer do his job. They wanted him to entertain, and when they grew tired of his antics, they cast him aside. When he tried to show them he was more than a steroid abuser with a machine gun, they turned their noses. “We had enough of you, monkey. Dance somewhere else.”

Never underestimate the stupidity of the American movie going public.

I thought “Rocky,” while a good film, was predictable. I knew what was going to happen going into it, and I wasn’t really taken by surprise. Sure, the film took chances, but “Copland,” which came much later in Stallone’s career, took bigger chances. Here Stallone was slow, a pushover, a never-been and never-will-be. Stallone was vulnerable, unsure, and honestly heroic. He was a loser, trying to survive surrounded by people whose respect he so desperately wanted, but never really got. It was a moving performance, and it was one that showed me just what the man was capable of with the right role at the right time with the right cast. (And what a cast. Keitel. De Niro. Liotta. Rappaport. Jesus, how good is that?)

My friends liked “Copland,” but they liked “Rocky” better. “Rocky” is an easier movie to stomach, I’ll grant them that. “Copland” just makes you feel like s**t because it exposes how corrupt our police can get in the right circumstances. Easy should never be better, though. When taken to its extremes you get the “Rambo” sequels, and you know how good they turned out. Stallone stepped up the plate with “Copland” and hit the ball out of the f*****g state. “Rocky” was just a home run from a first-time hitter.

Stallone may never get a chance to appear in a film like “Copland” again, and that’s a shame. Film fans, at least the ones who have forgiven him for the truly atrocious movies, will remember him for “Rocky” and sing its praises long after he has shoved off this mortal coil. I’ll always point to “Copland,” however, for what he could achieve. He took a role you could never picture him in and made it believable. You could buy him as Rocky. A partially deaf cop relegated to chastising speeders who are above the law because they are the law? I’d like to see Arnold pull that one off.

It’s my column. I’m right. “Copland” was Stallone’s best. Here’s to hoping he’s got another one in him.

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