Stallone’s follow-up to Rocky was a bizarre, salami-filled tale of Depression-era pro wrestlers. And it still didn’t succeed.
By Daniel Kraus

Have you ever seen Sylvester Stallone on a TV talk show? It’s sort of a complex experience. There’s Sly, sitting on some late-nite sofa, using words like "extrapolate" and "malaise" and talking about his expressionist paintings.

At first, you feel bad: "Oh, I’ve misjudged this guy. He’s smarter than a mofo."

Then, you start to get suspicious: "Looky here, what’s with all them ten-dollar words? He’s just trying to look smarter than me. The bastard."

But then, you start to doubt your suspicion: "Ah, poor guy. He knows how it looks, but what can he do? He’s a classic example of an actor who is nothing like he is on camera. Oh, the humanity of it all."

And then, finally, you blame Sly for the whole mess: "If he’s so damn smart, then how in the hell do you explain Cobra?"

Therein lies the big old conundrum that is Sylvester Stallone. Despite how insightful his dissertation on glucose photosynthesis becomes, he has been in complete control of his career since 1976, when Rocky went haywire and made him a pop icon and critical darling. His subsequent choices on how to portray himself on film have been, to put it nicely, fascinating.

The year 1978 brought us a one-two punch of follow-up projects, Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T., and Sly had his pen dipped deeply in both of them. He co-wrote F.I.S.T with Joe Eszterhas and the result was a mediocre 1930’s trade union drama drowned by Sly’s performance, or lack thereof.

But the first one out of the gate was Paradise Alley, a terrible classic that’s not really all that terrible—it just has some of the most memorably audacious gaffes ever attributed to a sudden cinematic superstar.

Paradise Alley was Sly’s baby—he wrote, starred, and directed the tale of three brothers trying to make it in 1930’s Hell Kitchen, New York. He also sings the opening theme song "Too Close to Paradise", the less said of which, the better. (He amazingly also used it as the occasion for his debut novel, which I sadly have not read) Since he sort of "did" the whole boxing thing in Rocky, here Sly takes on the entirely different sport of professional wrestling.

Sly plays Cosmo Carboni, a motor-mouthed wise guy who makes his living pretending to be a blind beggar on the street. (Somehow this pays the rent. True, he shares a small apartment with his two brothers, but still.) The big problem with Cosmo is not the hard financial times or his absurd job, it’s the adjective "motor-mouthed." Sly playing an extroverted trash-talker is like Keanu Reeves trying to play a "charismatic" lawyer, a la The Devil’s Advocate. The end result looks a lot like a high school play, except with better set design and minus the supportive parents in the front row.

Nonetheless, Sly gives it the old college try, and runs his mouth so fast that not only can we not understand what he’s saying, it doesn’t even look like he knows what he’s saying—rehearsed words pour out of his mouth with little acknowledgement that they represent actual thoughts.

Anyhoo, Cosmo stumbles upon "Paradise Alley," a bar that includes a wrestling ring (why they don’t have these kind of establishments any more is beyond me), where any challenger can win $100 by beating the current champ. Always ready to make a quick buck, Cosmo convinces his gentle giant brother Vic to get in the ring, despite the warnings of somber older brother Lenny (Armande Assante). Chaos and brotherly suspicions ensue.

As the quiet-yet-ripped Vic, actor Lee Canalito spends most of the movie giving a performance not unlike Andre the Giant’s in The Princess Bride—awful, but you can’t help but love the guy for trying. Strangely, by the end, his spacey vacancy is more endearing than ever, and you really don’t want him to lose the big match against Frankie the Thumper.

In his big motion picture debut, Assante sticks out like a red thumb—he seems to be acting in some other, much better film that probably doesn’t include any characters named "Cosmo." Still, his presence makes more sense than Tom Waits, who plays a piano player who occasionally waves at the camera before disappearing again into the smoke.

If you think that’s weird, try the scene where Cosmo wakes up to the sound of Vic singing "Frara Jacqua" to his bird, grabs a handy baseball bat, and starts smashing the hell out of cockroaches everywhere.

And if you think that’s weird, a few moments later Cosmo goes into his closet to reveal a small monkey that has been bound and gagged like a POW. Cosmo rips the tape off of the monkey’s mouth, then takes him to the street where Cosmo, suddenly dressed in a cute organ-grinder outfit, attempts to teach the monkey to dance. Only the monkey won’t dance. Monkey no like dance! Monkey is a naughty monkey!

Abandoning the fascinating but ultimately dead-end "monkey" subplot, Paradise Alley gets down to the good stuff with a wrestling montage straight out of Rocky, complete with kinetic shots of punches, blood, sweat, money, bells ringing, and shots of Sly and Assante in the Burgess Meredith role, shouting things like "Use the ‘Ice Clamp’!"

The "Ice Clamp", by the way, is the signature move of Kid Salami. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Vic’s wrestling name is "Kid Salami," which is, as far as I can tell, meant without humor. For added effect, Kid Salami wears a vest adorned with dozens of salamis. Go on, see it for yourself if you don’t believe me.

This salami-flavored hilarity reaches a surreal climax during the rousing final battle, when the crowd bands together to chant "Salami! Salami! Salami!" While perhaps not as effective as "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" it definitely makes you look forward to lunch.

Paradise Alley is not a complete disaster. Much of the movie is competent and interesting—usually the scenes without Cosmo. There are even a few nice directorial touches, including a beautifully-shot scene of Vic symbolically tossing a large chunk of ice down a stairwell; also, the concept of having the bar ceiling leak during the final wrestling match, resulting in dramatic splashes each time a body hits the tarp.

The failure of Paradise Alley and his performance in it may have led Stallone to mumble his way through over two decades of understated performances, from the good (Copland), to the so-so (Driven), to the bad (Rambo III), to the unspeakable (Over the Top).

But if you have the hankering to see the only movie featuring Sly Stallone dressed as Santa Claus beating the pudding out of two street beggars with his Christmas sack, Paradise Alley might be right up your alley. Good luck.