“An actor is what he looks like,” Sylvester Stallone told The New York Times in 1976, and more than most stars, Stallone has been viewed as an action figure come to life. In “Sly,” the director Thom Zimny excavates the acts of self-creation behind a career that minted two indelible titular characters in “Rocky” and “Rambo” — whose underdog narratives proved highly influential.
“Sly” kicks off with Stallone, now 77, lamenting how life whizzes by, followed by a montage set to Gang of Four’s sizzling “To Hell with Poverty.” Made in collaboration with Stallone’s production company, Balboa Productions, the film doesn’t go on to become an exposé. But it does dwell on his being the son of a violently abusive father, growing up in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan before a series of moves.
His resulting desire for approval is par for the course among star biographies, but that hurt and his father’s vicious jealousy become the most poignant aspects in the film’s increasingly predictable path. Stymied in the 1970s by stereotypes about his looks and voice, Stallone essentially became his own hero by writing screenplays, soon manifesting success when “Rocky” (1976), which he wrote, won the best picture Oscar over “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men,” “Network” and “Bound for Glory.”
What ensues in this documentary is largely a pop-psychologized tour through the “Rambo” and “Rocky” sequels, with the odd outlier. Quentin Tarantino, a Stallone superfan; Frank Stallone, Sylvester’s brother; Talia Shire (Adrian herself); and Wesley Morris, a Times culture critic, offer commentary — with Arnold Schwarzenegger (who also recently got the Netflix documentary treatment) playing hype man.
But Stallone’s flair for words — and his references to Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” and the 1968 dynastic drama “The Lion in Winter” — make one wish he’d talked about much more than his greatest hits and misses.
Rated R for tough talk. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Netflix.