Forgotten Stallone: THE SPECIALIST
If you’re anything like me, you saw THE SPECIALIST way back in 1994, maybe rewatched parts of it on HBO, and then forgot it existed. That’s understandable. There are plenty of movies out there, and 1994 was a long time ago.
But I am here to tell you, THE SPECIALIST is a gem, ripe for reappraisal. There are too many entertaining elements at play for time to swallow this movie without a fight.
First there’s noted horrible person James Woods, just sleaze-bagging his way through the film with infectious glee. He plays so many different shades of evil here. He’s a little weasel with his boss (a hilariously accented Rod Steiger), condescending to his boss’ son (Eric Roberts, trying and failing to out-skeez Woods), rapey with Sharon Stone and unwillingly respectful to his old army buddy, Stallone. At one point, and for reasons that don’t make any sense at all, Woods leads an entire police squad and when they refuse to be intimidated by his smirking bullshit and demeaning nicknames, he improvises a mini bomb and forces them to kiss his ass before the detonation countdown reaches zero. The film simply does not need Stallone to be entertaining.
And then there’s Sharon Stone, playing a femme fatale turned actual romantic interest but maybe still a femme fatale. Stone’s on a mission of revenge against Steiger and Roberts. She hires Stallone to kill them, but also works with Woods but falls in love with Stallone and maybe used to sleep with Woods and I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I love it. Her romantic plot with Stallone is amazing because she exudes intelligence while he… does not. So you always think she’s about to double cross him, when in reality he’s just extremely outclassed by his co-star. I’m not calling Stallone a bad actor, mind you, but he cannot play a character and his own vanity at the same time and this one’s a ‘90s ass-cheeks role for him. Stone simply runs away with it, letting all these men she plans to kill paw at her, knowing she has an explosion expert wrapped around her finger who will eventually blow them all away. Again, the film simply does not need Stallone to be entertaining.
Woods as an antagonist against Stone’s revenge mission would probably be enough to make THE SPECIALIST a serviceable ‘90s action thriller, but it has even more to offer thanks to its focus on bombs. It’s always nice to revisit older films with real explosions, but this one is special. Stallone’s whole deal revolves around controlled bombs. It’s a stupid premise (it’s hard not to laugh when Stone tells Stallone she needs him specifically because “bullets are imprecise"), but each bomb acts as its own novelty act. It’s pure action cinema bullshit. And since any actor could be setting these bombs off, the film simply does not need Stallone to be entertaining.
But it does have Stallone, though his contributions are almost totally action-free. All we really get is an early out of nowhere scene where he beats up punks on a bus who take an old lady’s seat. The rest of the film, he’s just pushing buttons. He adopts a street cat. At one point he does tai chi. That makes Stallone sound like a lesser ingredient, but his miscasting is the most important part because it rocks THE SPECIALIST into a whole new level of silliness and fun.
The film breaks neatly into four half hour chunks that are fun for different reasons. They break down like so:
Half Hour #1: Stalking
Stone wants to hire Stallone but he keeps saying no. He repeatedly calls her to keep saying no. And he follows her around. In fact, he is so bad at sneaking, at one point Eric Roberts jumps out of his car and gets in his face for staring at him. This humiliates Stallone so he finally says yes.
This half hour is low on action, but it’s important to understand Stallone’s character. Even though the two haven’t met in person, he is already totally in love with Stone and would do anything for her. Every time he says he won’t, we are more and more sure he will. It is possible his character is a virgin.
Half Hour #2: Bombs
Stallone agrees to assassinate Stone’s bad guys. Each one offers a fun mini-set piece where Stallone rigs an explosion precise enough to kill his mark and only his mark no matter how crowded the kill zone. But to make sure we’re having a good time, the explosions are also really big.
Half Hour #3: Sex
This is 1994. Sharon Stone was not allowed to be in movies without taking her clothes off and Stallone would not allow a film to be made without him removing his. The two finally meet and immediately start fucking. Or we have to assume that’s what they are doing. Both touch each other in highly unnatural ways to maximize how good they look individually (to prove this, they start kissing near a bed and instead of laying down move to a shower). Stallone has never had romantic chemistry with any co-star, so pairing him up for a sex scene with Sharon Stone offers a real masterclass in floundering while out of depth.
Half Hour #4: More Bombs
In a conceit I just adore, Stallone’s bunker is armed with individual mini pressure mines. When James Woods steps on one, he doesn’t just blow up once - little explosions knock him around like a pinball. The film ends with its best explosion yet. Rod Steiger learns from a newspaper that all his enemies died at Stallone’s compound. He looks up at God in appreciation, “You are a kind God.” But when he opens a rigged necklace from Stone and Stallone, he suddenly looks at God in anger, “You Bastardo!” before blowing up. This is what cinema is all about.
I love Stallone and want to watch really good Stallone movies. THE SPECIALIST is not a good Stallone movie because he comes off weak and laughable. But that’s also what makes it so great. Combined with such arch turns from both Sharon Stone and James Woods, this is truly a generous revisit.