Jennifer Wilson salutes an unlikely icon of cinema, still a box-office contender after four decades in the ring...

Most people, I'd assume, take Sylvester Stallone with a pinch of salt.

Admittedly I did too, before a rendezvous at this year's Cannes Film Festival, an hour-long masterclass session with a man that has built his nearly 45-year career around the exercise of recycling characters. It wasn’t until Stallone commented on this himself that it really hit home: "I like to stay within my box, and try to perfect it." That ‘box’ being the likes of Rocky and Rambo, underdog characters and their indestructible stories that have spawned dozens of sequels and spin-offs. On more than one occasion he recalls how people in the industry like Ryan Coogler insisted that Rocky die in Creed, or how a producer wanted Rambo to die – to all of these he declined. He might be exhausting the life out of these characters, but if that’s what you’ve done your whole life, why not? 

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Watch the trailer for Rambo: Last Blood, due in cinemas this September

It's kind of admirable how he acknowledges his niche, particularly when perfecting it means trying and failing, but getting back up every time. It’s clear that he’s more clued in than he lets on, he’s modest, but righteous in his fighter mentality, "Keep on punching," is his favourite turn of phrase. It’s all neatly boxed up as the hero’s journey, and he clearly loves to project that, aligning his real life with his characters. Life, is two things he says, "a race against time, and a fight against the odds," both of which he examines through his films. He notes how resilience and the nature of man is in many ways a thematic obsession that transcends his career, into his ordinary life. 

Rocky meets Raging Bull: Stallone with Robert De Niro

On the age-old comparison between Raging Bull and Rocky, considered to be the two quintessential boxing formats, Stallone sees only boxing as a similarity. ‘I always thought of Raging Bull as a fantastic biography on a man and the ups and downs in his life. Rocky’s about the battle.’ It’s easy to forget the environment Rocky was borne out of, released against the odds in 1975 along with classics such as All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network, all cutting, and artistic anti-establishment films. Stallone walked away with the Oscar that year, a feat he owes to his naive and optimistic outlook at a time when despair and misery was the norm. In the midst of dark times, he offered up a small beacon of hope that the American public grasped on to. That boxer mentality has lived on, with thanks to Stallone’s inherent optimism and of course a timeless soundtrack that compliments that infamous montage. From the looks of him, in his early seventies, he’ll keep on punching for as long as he can. 

Read more from Jennifer Wilson at her blog Film For Thought.