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Case Number 08339

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MGM // 1978 // 145 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Neal Masri (Retired) // January 13th, 2006

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All Rise...

Judge Neal Masri would give this early Stallone flick a thumbs down, except union goons threatened to break both his thumbs if he did.

Editor's Note

Our review of F.I.S.T. (1978) (Blu-ray), published February 5th, 2015, is also available.

The Charge

"A story about a man, the woman he loved, and the men he fought for."

Opening Statement

F.I.S.T. is a largely forgotten, early Sylvester Stallone film about the rise of a regular guy to the pinnacle of the most powerful labor union in the nation. Don't let the title fool you though. There is no boxing in this movie.

Facts of the Case

Johnny Kovak is a regular working guy who rises, Jimmy Hoffa-like, to the presidency of a powerful truckers' labor union. Like Hoffa, Kovak eventually makes a Faustian bargain with the Mob in order to give his union the muscle needed to get over on powerful companies. F.I.S.T. tells the story of Kovak's rise and fall against the historical backdrop of the American labor movement.

The Evidence

Believe it or not, there was a time when Sylvester Stallone (Rocky, First Blood) was hailed by Roger Ebert as "Perhaps The Next Marlon Brando." F.I.S.T. was made in the afterglow of Stallone's triumph at the box office and the Oscars with Rocky (believe it or not, there was also a time when a Rocky movie did not need a Roman numeral after it). F.I.S.T. tells the story of humble laborer Johnny Kovak (Sylvester Stallone) who rises to become the leader of the Federation of Interstate Truckers (F.I.S.T.).

The film begins in the mid thirties during the birth of the powerful US labor unions. Kovak's story is a fictionalized version of the life of Jimmy Hoffa and his rise up the ranks of the Teamsters Union. The screenplay was the first screen credit for Hollywood's future Hack-in-Chief Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls, Sliver). Eszterhas co-wrote the screenplay with Stallone whose main contribution seems to be the emphasis on the regular-guy-makes-good aspects of the story.

The movie's reach unfortunately exceeds its grasp. This is rich material also mined with limited success by Danny DeVito in his film, Hoffa. F.I.S.T. unfortunately tells its story in very simplistic terms. As you might expect, labor issues are handled from the "rich people bad/poor people good" point of view so popular in movies. The shades of gray are reserved for Kovak's shadier dealings, with a pretty clear message that Kovak's ends justified his means.

Even though one can tell this is a big budget production, it has a movie-of-the-week feel at times. It's rated PG, but if ever there was a place where an R rating would be warranted, it's the rough and tumble world of union thugs and the mob. Instead, language is a bit too clean and violence a bit too sanitized to be believable. There is a fine supporting cast that includes Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein, Taxi Driver), Rod Steiger (In The Heat of the Night, Doctor Zhivago) and Melinda Dillon (Slap Shot, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). None of the performances are bad, but the actors are not allowed to shine due to some poor storytelling choices and a clichéd screenplay. F.I.S.T. does deliver a bit of drama and an interesting story. It could, however, have been much more.

Video is decent for a release of a film of this age. Picture quality shows some source issues from time to time (especially early in the movie). Colors are pretty rich and the image is acceptably sharp for a nearly thirty-year-old source.

Audio was another story. This is perhaps the worst sounding disc I have ever heard. Dialogue was so muddy and faint that I had to turn my system up to a level that would have been deafening with any other disc I own. My system indicated that the signal was Dolby Stereo Surround, but I never heard anything from a speaker other than the center channel. The packaging indicates that the audio is mono. This is truly a terrible audio presentation.

There are absolutely no extras. Not even a trailer. F.I.S.T. has the distinction of getting the first 0 I have ever awarded in any category.

F.I.S.T. and Stallone's next film, Paradise Alley, received lukewarm receptions both critically and at the box office. Stallone then retreated to comfortable territory with Rocky II. In the wake of the successful Rocky sequel, Stallone went on to make twenty years worth of films of declining quality that kept him in familiar action/adventure/Rocky territory (with the notable exception of the excellent Cop Land in 1997). I won't even mention his ill-fated excursion into comedy.

Sylvester Stallone's predicament is a shame really. He's an actor of great presence and some undeniable talent. Remember, he won a Best Picture Oscar for Rocky and was nominated for Best Actor. If F.I.S.T. had been more of a success, perhaps Sly's career would have taken a different route. As it stands, the picture represents a brief stopover on Stallone's climb to international superstardom and subsequent descent into direct-to-DVD features.

An interesting postscript to this review: Stallone intends to rise Rocky-like from the Hollywood backwaters and regain his previous popularity. He is currently filming Rocky VI and is in preproduction for Rambo IV. Be very afraid.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

If one is a Sylvester Stallone fan, F.I.S.T. represents one of his best performances. He stretches his range in a way he has rarely done in a very long acting career. I grew up on Sly's movies and have a soft spot for the guy. I really hope he can pull off a Travolta-style comeback.

Closing Statement

F.I.S.T. is a little known catalogue title that probably doesn't have much revenue potential, and MGM treats it that way. All in all, a pretty sub par presentation for a movie with promise that turns out to be a bit of a misfire.

The Verdict

F.I.S.T. is found guilty by this court and sentenced to burial in the end zone of the Meadowlands.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 25
Extras: 0
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
• French
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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