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The Movies/TV 8 Ball: Top 8 Sylvester Stallone Roles

November 24, 2015 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Creed II - Rocky

Top 8 Sylvester Stallone Roles

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

Sylvester Stallone is back on the big screen this week as Creed makes its way into theaters. The Rocky spinoff returns the action star to one of his most memorable roles in a length career filled with great characters. It’s not often that stars so closely associated with action manage to sustain their career for decades, but Stallone has managed it through his presence and charisma. This week in honor of the man, we’re going to take a look at the best film roles of Sly’s career.

Caveat: For the purposes of this list, I considered all of Stallone’s fictional narrative performances. Any appearances in documentaries and the like were not considered, as they are not “roles” in the same fashion. His cameo and supporting performances got much less weight than leading roles, since he’s not carrying the film or usually getting the same level of development, but they were considered.

Just Missing The Cut

• Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Death Race 2000)
• Johnny D. Kovak (F.I.S.T.)
• Ray Breslin (Escape Plan)
• James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo (Bullet to the Head)
• Gabe Walker (Cliffhanger)

#8: Lieutenant Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti (Cobra)

First up on our list is a great role from a film that…isn’t as great. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Cobra. It’s very entertaining for what it is. But it also takes itself more than a wee bit too seriously. That being said, I love the central character of Marion “Cobra” Cobretti and Stallone’s performance’s is pretty fun to watch. The film came about because Stallone wanted to make Beverly Hills Cop as a more serious and action-oriented film, which the studio balked at. So instead he took his ideas and slid them into a film adaptation of the novel Fair Game. The film didn’t go over well with critics but it made quite the profit for Warner Bros. and no small part of that is Stallone’s work as Cobretti, who may be the most perfect example of an ’80s action character. He’s hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners type who is often behaving little better than the criminals he’s throwing knives and shooting bullets into. Stallone’s commitment to the genre tropes plays well and largely makes what could have been an empty series of explosions and gunfire an enjoyable film.

#7: Det. Sgt. Deke DaSilva (Nighthawks)

Stallone’s 1981 action-thriller Nighthawks is most well-known for its production problems and the enmity between the actor and Rutger Hauer during filming, but all of those problems added up to a very solid film even if it did disappoint financially. The film stars Stallone as Deke DaSilva, an NYPD detective who is on the trail of Hauer’s British terrorist. There’s a lot to like about this film, including Bruce Malmuth’s effective staging of some of the action scenes. But the highlight has to be Stallone and Hauer’s performances. Stallone has said in the past that he turned down bigger roles to make Nighthawks because of his appreciation for it, and it shows with the care he puts into DaSilva. There are some funny moments in here but by and large it is an exciting and tense thriller, and Stallone’s work in the protagonist role really helps sell that.

#6: Lt. Raymond Tango (Tango & Cash)

Tango & Cash really should have been a bigger hit than it was at the time. The 1989 buddy cop action-comedy was a moderate box office success but really had all the tools to be a blockbuster hit and stands as one of Stallone’s more underrated films. Stallone and Kurt Russell have fantastic chemistry with each other as the two rival LAPD narcotics detectives who are forced to work together after being framed for murder, and Stallone in particular does great playing against type as a yuppie cop in glasses. Perhaps the film’s biggest problem is its adherence to the Lethal Weapon formula a bit too much, but it works and the actors have a lot of fun with it. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great movie but this is about the characters and Tango is a particularly fun addition to Stallone’s repertoire.

#5: Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Cop Land)

The mid-1990s to early 2000s were not very kind to Stallone, who found himself starring in a series of bombs including The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, D-Tox, Get Carter and Driven. While Cop Land was also not a blockbuster success, it stands as easily the best Stallone-led film of that era and it’s also one of his best pure acting performances in his career. The crime drama stars Sly as Freddy Heflin, a sheriff in a corrupt police department in New Jersey. As the corruption grows out of control, Freddy has to decide how long he can stand by and do nothing. Stallone stretched his acting muscles and surprised many people with his performance here; he holds his own with an impressive cast including Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel. There’s a level of nuance and depth to this character that you don’t often see in Stallone’s work; he enjoys the action stuff and we certainly aren’t complaining. But with Cop Land, he proved that he doesn’t have to just flex his muscles and bellow one-liners; he can also bring compelling work to an appropriately well-written role.

#4: Barney Ross (The Expendables films)

The Expendables is Stallone’s signature film series since he made his big comeback, without question. The action-throwback franchise helped mark the actor’s return to a greater stage after Rocky Balboa and Rambo showed that his action career wasn’t as dead as people thought. And while there are a lot of memorable characters in this series, Stallone is the driving force behind the Expendables both behind the camera and on-screen. Barney Ross is the leader and co-founder of the team. Stallone’s performance is exactly what it needs to be; he fits into the skin of Barney Ross like a glove and takes each film forward. Barney’s skills as a tactician are unparalleled within the franchise and his quick draw is something to be truly feared. Whether you think of the franchise as an all-time great or a failed nostalgia trip, it’s difficult not to imagine Barney Ross as one of the true great characters in Stallone’s career.

#3: John Spartan (Demolition Man)

Demolition Man is a concept so goofy that it really shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. The last successful film in Stallone’s filmography before the mid-’90s saw him start to spiral downward, this sci-fi comedy saw Stallone play the hilariously-named John Spartan, a stereotypical hard-nosed cop who is cryogenically frozen after his vendetta against Wesley Snipes’ sociopathic Simon Phoenix results in disaster. Spartan is awakened in 2032 after Phoenix escapes, leaving him as a tough guy in a pseudo-pacifist society that has left his ways behind. There is a lot of great humor in this film and Stallone plays Spartan perfectly, reacting with bemused frustration and often disbelief at the way society has neutered itself. The action sequences are quite well-done but this really soars because of Snipes and particularly Stallone. Everything works in this and John Spartan is a classic Stallone character for the ages.

#2: John Rambo (First Blood films)

There’s really only two possibilities for the top two choices, and the only difference is which is more to your taste. Both of them are great though, and there’s no shame in Stallone’s work as John Rambo in the First Blood series taking the runner-up spot. One of his most iconic roles, Stallone earned rare critical raves from the early part of his career with his work as a bitter Vietnam veteran in the first film. From there, Stallone pushed the character into the status of ultimate badass in Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. Sure, it gets cartoonish as it goes on but Stallone is always fun to watch in this role and he redefined the characters as a beast who was not to be trifled with in the gloriously violent 2008 Rambo. John Rambo is one of the most famous action characters for a very good reason and he stands as truly one of the best characters in the actor’s career.

#1: Rocky Balboa (Rocky films)

As much as John Rambo made Stallone one of the biggest stars in the history of action films, Rocky Balboa will forever be his greatest role. The ultimate underdog boxer established Stallone’s persona in mainstream culture and features great performances from the man no matter how cheesy or even lackluster (hello, Rambo V) the films themselves may have become. The first film is a great in every sense of the word and even the cheesier of the later films are really fun, with the exception of the aforementioned fifth film. Rocky Balboa is everything that you could want in a Stallone character; he makes us cheer for him and is one of the more inspirational film characters of all-time. On just about every level, he is Stallone’s greatest role.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.