There aren’t many Hollywood movie stars more recognizable than Sylvester Stallone. In the years since he achieved breakout success with 1976’s Rocky, which he both starred in and wrote, Stallone has gone on to have one of the most successful careers of any actor of his generation. While he’ll always be known for his work on the Rocky franchise, too, he also starred in some of the most popular action movies of the 1980s and ‘90s. In doing so, he secured his place alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme as one of the most iconic action stars of the 20th century.
Now, with Expend4bles set to hit theaters today, it’s worth looking back and ranking some of the best action movies that Stallone has ever starred in. To be clear: That means most of the Rocky movies, which function more as intimate sports dramas than high-octane blockbusters, don’t qualify for this list. We also won’t be including 2021’s The Suicide Squad, which is an undeniably fun and well-made action movie, but only features Stallone in a small voice role. With that out of the way, here are the seven best action movies of Stallone’s career.
Sylvester Stallone directed, starred in, and co-wrote this continuation of the Rambo franchise. While it isn’t nearly as good as the series’ first entry, either, it is a thrillingly violent, often shockingly well-staged piece of action entertainment. Behind the camera, Stallone somehow takes the franchise to even gorier, bloodier places than any of its first three installments.
The result is a modern-day John Rambo movie that definitely doesn’t need to exist and makes very little sense but is the kind of hyperviolent, sufficiently entertaining action romp that movie theaters practically invented late afternoon showtimes for.
Is Bullet to the Head a *good* movie? No. Is it a whole lot of fun? Absolutely. Directed by the legendary Walter Hill, this 2012 B-movie stars Sylvester Stallone as a New Orleans-based hitman who partners up with a Washington D.C. detective played by Fast and Furious star Sung Kang.
Even more importantly, Bullet to the Head pits Stallone against another hitman played by a then-up-and-coming Jason Momoa. The two stars’ on-screen rivalry is consistently electric, and the entire movie is made a worthwhile endeavor solely by their climactic axe battle. Yes, you read that right: Bullet to the Head ends with Momoa and Stallone fighting to the death with a pair of axes. The scene is just as silly and hard-hitting as it sounds.
This 1993 sci-fi action thriller received mixed reviews when it was originally released, but it’s since gone on to become a bit of a cult classic. It’s not hard to see why, either. Directed by Marco Brambilla, Demolition Man pits Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes against each other as a pair of ultra-violent foes who are cryogenically frozen only to be later reawakened in an advanced version of society that has all but eliminated crime.
The film mines gold out of Stallone and Snipes’ bitter rivalry, and its satirical streak prevents Demolition Man from taking itself too seriously. It’s an absurd action movie, but one that is far more effective than it has any right to be.
The Expendables franchise has been a mixed bag ever since it began. That said, its second installment, 2012’s The Expendables 2, is basically everything the series should be. Directed by Con Air director and B-movie extraordinaire Simon West, The Expendables 2 is a loud, violent, and ultimately breezy action flick.
Like Demolition Man, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which makes it easy to get lost in the film’s action sequences and enjoy its moments of humorous banter between action movie greats like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Expendables 2 knows what its job is, and it dutifully delivers everything that’s required of it.
1993’s Cliffhanger is the best non-franchise action movie Sylvester Stallone has ever made. Directed by Renny Harlin, the film follows Stallone’s Gabe Walker, a former mountain climber, as he gets caught up in the heist of a crashed U.S. Treasury plane in the Rocky Mountains.
Clocking in at just a little under 2 hours long, the film is an intense and enthralling thriller, one that surrounds Stallone with a number of talented supporting players, including John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Rex Linn, Janine Turner, and Caroline Goodall. It’s one of the better Die Hard-inspired action movies that swept through the 1980s and ‘90s, and it’s as purely entertaining as any other movie that Stallone has starred in.
It feels wrong to make a list of Sylvester Stallone’s greatest hits without including at least one Rocky movie. While most of the Rocky films Stallone has made aren’t really action movies, either, 1985’s Rocky IV is the closest the franchise has ever come to being nothing more than a pure genre exercise.
Written, directed, and led by Stallone, Rocky IV boasts some of the best boxing matches of the series’ history and some of the greatest training montages you’ll likely ever see. It may not feature any shootouts or fiery explosions, but Stallone somehow manages to make Rocky Balboa running through the snow-covered lands of Russia as genuinely thrilling and adrenaline-pumping as any car chase.
This may be the obvious pick for Sylvester Stallone’s best action movie, but there’s a reason for that. No other action movie he’s made has come close to beating First Blood. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, the film is one of the best American action movies that’s ever been made, and its ideas about the unnecessary violence of war are as thematically compelling today as they were back in 1982.
Even more importantly, First Blood fully weaponizes Stallone’s quiet star power and allows him to give one of the most impactful performances of his career. He makes even the most ludicrous of moments seem plausible and turns the film into one of the most effective reminders of why he’s always been such an unquestionably unique, formidable movie star.