Editor’s Note: This is part of our week-long tribute to the films of Sylvester Stallone. You’ll find links to several more reviews of his films, within. If you don’t see your favorite mentioned, enter the title into the search box to your left; chances are, we reviewed it.
Okay. Let’s get this out of the way: F.I.S.T is not a boxing film and the title is an acronym for a fictional, blue-collar labor union based on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (stylized as “Teamsters Union”), known as the “Federation of Interstate Truckers.” Stallone’s eventually casting as the Jimmy Hoffa-inspired Johnny Kovak was purely coincidental and not intended to dovetail the film’s marketing into Stallone’s previous, leading man debut of Rocky.
Kovak is a regular blue-collar guy working the loading docks for a trucking company who, fed up with the abusive treatment of his fellow workers, becomes a social activist whose organization of protests and riots transforms into a full-fledged labor union. As the labor union’s membership and influence grows, along with gaining political power, Kovak’s initially honorable intentions are corrupted by organized crime influences. When he tries to break the union free from its mafia ties, he and his family lose their lives.
Written by Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance and Basic Instinct), Stallone, as is his custom for most of the films he acts in, rewrote the script alongside Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof and Rollerball). The film is produced by the younger brother of Roger Corman (Night of the Blood Beast; part of B&S About Movies upcoming reviews of Mill Creek’s Pure Terror 50 Film Box Set) and shot by Laszlo Kovacs (Hells Angels on Wheels, The Savage Seven, Psych-Out, Blood of Dracula’s Castle, and Easy Rider. I can go on and on with Mr. Kovacs’s resume).
Outside of Stallone, the names of Gene Corman, Joe Eszterhas, and Laszlo Kovacs may mean nothing to you. But for this film geek, I see it as one of the oddest quartets in film that you don’t see very often collaborating on a film. And it worked. They made one hell of an entertaining film.
If you’ve seen the Danny DeVito-directed biographical crime drama Hoffa starring Jack Nicholson, then you’re up to speed on what to expect from F.I.S.T with its homage to one of America’s most infamous organized crime figures. And while it all seems a bit The Godfather-familiar, only with trucks and loading docks instead of mobsters and gambling, many will say that analogy stretches the threads of story and characterization.
While F.I.S.T may not be on the shortlist alongside The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface—the cream of the gangster film crop—F.I.S.T is certainly better than the MTV-styled mobster tropes Carlito’s Way (1993) and Mobsters (2001)—and is just as good as Hoffa. In the Hoffa-portrayal sweepstakes, Stallone matches Jack Nicholson toe-to-toe and blow-by-blow. Sadly, the film received a lukewarm critical and box office reception. Then, Sly’s follow-up, Paradise Alley, stalled at the box office . . . so he made another Rocky and First Blood and moved into action films and sequel work.
If F.I.S.T and Paradise Alley had achieved critical and box office success on par with Rocky, it’s possible Stallone’s career would have taken a different path—a dramatic path. Perhaps he would have starred as Jimmy Hoffa instead of Nicholson in Hoffa? What might have been.