Fresh off the box office, awards, and critical successes of the original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone had a chance to write his own ticket in Hollywood. Following the pugilistic sensation of 1976, Sly took a year off before sitting down at his typewriter and working on a few new screenplays. One was the rather unintentionally hilarious Paradise Alley, but right before that was the period drama known as F.I.S.T., a long and sprawling story about the birth of American unions, and one of the two flicks that predicated the arrival of Rocky 2 in 1979.
F.I.S.T. is easily the better of the two "in between" projects, mainly because Stallone was working with a talented director (Norman Jewison) and a first-time scribe known as Joe Eszterhas. (Joe would go on to become one of Hollywood's wealthiest directors, thanks mainly to his work on Flashdance, Jagged Edge, and Basic Instinct.)
We open with Sly playing a box-lugging nobody who works for a rather unpleasant group of men. Wholly responsible for any broken shipments, forced to work overtime for no pay, and basically treated like rotten crap, John Kovak and his co-workers are just this close to being royally fed up. But what's a 1930's box-lugger to do? Employers weary of complaining can simply toss an entire crew out onto the street and pick up a completely new one tomorrow morning.
But when Kovak meets up with a union truck driver named Mike Monaghan, it's a chance encounter that will change a whole lot of lives. (And not necessarily for the better.) Along with his best buddy, Abe, Kovak takes to the world of unionization like a duck to water. But, as things often happen in movies like this, all the good intentions in the world act only as pavement to lies, greed, and corruption.
Spanning 20+ years and featuring a few (often unpleasant) surprises, F.I.S.T. seems like it wants to be the Godfather of union stories, and if it's not nearly that successful, it's still more than watchable enough ... despite a healthy handful of seriously slow spots.
Jewison brings the 1930s to life in fine fashion, and the screenplay (co-authored by Stallone and Eszterhas) succeeds despite being stuffed with generally stock characters and frequently predictable situations. If F.I.S.T. has one notable flaw, it's that the thing runs on a whole lot longer than it logically needs to. One suspects that the "longer is better" approach is borne from an unspoken rule that says any movie over 140 minutes is an "important" movie, but this is a flick that could be a whole lot better with a good 25 minutes snipped out.
Stallone, for his part, does a surprisingly fine job in his quieter moments, but on the few occasions that he's asked to raise his voice and express some outraged indignation, the actor becomes a roaring caricature ... and it's pretty darn silly to behold. Fortunately there are several veteran actors on hand to keep the movie moving along, most notably Peter Boyle as a hothead union official, Tony Lo Bianco as a sneaky-slick mafioso, Kevin Conway as a mid-level knuckle-breaker, and Rod Steiger as a pissed-off senator.
Perhaps unjustly forgotten as one of Sly's "non-Rocky/Rambo" experiments that went nowhere, F.I.S.T. might not be remembered as a box office smash or a Oscar darling, but it surprised me by being pretty darn compelling ... for the most part, anyway.
Video: MGM releases the 1978 movie in a fairly impressive anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) aspect ratio. You'll notice a little fuzzy grain in some of the darker scenes, but for the most part the transfer looks pretty fine.
Audio: Get ready to crank the sound up for this Mono track. Dialogue levels are pretty mumbled, but every once in a while there's a car crash or a gunshot that's waaay too loud. Optional subtitles are available in English and French.
Extras: Just a pair of trailers for A Few Good Men and The Rocky Anthology.
"Oh boy, a movie about unions," would be a fair assessment going in, but there's more than enough here to keep the movie fans entertained. Be prepared for a few rough spots and several paint-by-number plot-turns, and you'll most likely enjoy F.I.S.T. as much as I did: enough to casually recommend the thing, but not all that loudly or excitedly.