Escape Plan is the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have headlined a movie together. Asterisk 1: Schwarzenegger was one of Stallone’s weekend-cameo all-stars in the first two Expendables films. Asterisk 2: The two men already headlined a movie together. That movie was America, and the running time was the 1980s. The longtime rivals-turned-business partners-turned-surgery buddies rode astride the action genre’s glory days. They were the defining Hollywood duo, more popular — and more easily reduced to cliché — than contemporaries like Bruce Willis or Kurt Russell or Mel Gibson.
And yet, the question of who was the better beefcake has only gotten more complicated in the ensuing decades, as the vagaries of post-golden-age fame have constantly redefined our understanding of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone divide. In an attempt to map the current state of the great ’80s-action-guy debate, we have separated their twin careers into their component parts and scientifically declared a winner. The results may surprise you!
Let’s begin with the one metric we can actually measure metrically: how much money the two stars’ films have grossed. BoxOfficeMojo hands this prize to Sylvester Stallone, with a lifetime gross of $1.8 billion, narrowly defeating Schwarzenegger’s total of $1.7 billion. Unfortunately, as with all numbers, those numbers are lies. (True lies.) (Sorry.) Schwarzenegger grossed $1.7 billion with a significantly smaller pool of movies — his first non-Hercules leading role came in Conan the Barbarian, six years after Stallone broke big with Rocky, and Schwarzenegger was on sabbatical in Sacramento for most of the ’00s. Schwarzenegger grossed almost as much, with fewer movies and in significantly less time, meaning his average is much higher. Let’s Saber these Metrics and hand this crown to Arnold.
Cultural Impact of their Star Persona
Every sports movie is in the shadow of Rocky in one way or another. It’s either an underdog story, like Rocky, or it’s explicitly anti-Rocky, although even the anti-Rocky films wind up being Rocky movies in the end. Moneyball is Rocky for managers. Warrior is two different Rocky movies in one. Any Given Sunday is about how even the most highly paid, egotistical, swaggering, all-around un-Rocky-like players secretly consider themselves a lot like Rocky. In Rocky and First Blood, Stallone and his doe eyes exemplified the idea of The Little Guy triumphing. The problem is that then Stallone spent most of the next two decades throwing that persona out the window. He didn’t want to be the Little Guy. He wanted to be Big. He wanted to be Schwarzenegger.
So did everybody. Schwarzenegger in the ’80s was a whole new vision of manliness. He was Charles Atlas as a cartoon character brought to life; he was a living machine; he was unstoppable. Any American male under the age of 45 spent at least some part of his youth wanting to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Heck, for that matter, so did Stallone: As you see the Italian Stallion’s biceps swell over the course of his ’80s sequels, you can see the anxiety of Schwarzenegger’s influence.
Schwarzenegger headlined the Terminator and Conan film series, both of which are currently in various stages of Arnold-headlined reboots. There were two great Terminators and one great Conan, followed by unnecessary sequels. Stallone had Rocky and Rambo. Rocky had two greats (the original and the kookbat Cold War cartoon Rocky IV), two okays (the edging-toward-camp III and the shockingly tender Rocky Balboa), and two inessential films. First Blood is great but ancient, Rambo: First Blood Part II is terrible and perfect, and the latter Rambos are unnecessary.
Although Terminator is the best overall franchise, Stallone gets credit for just how damn long his two mainline franchises have been successful (over three decades!), to say nothing of the fact that the star and director of a potential Oscar nominee both want to make a Rocky spin-off. And Stallone invented The Expendables, a move that arguably conflated all other action stars’ franchise into Stallone’s domain.
Schwarzenegger worked frequently with John McTiernan, the Platonic Ideal of the Hollywood Action Movie Director. He also did one movie apiece with auteurist crazies John Milius and Paul Verhoeven. And then there’s the matter of James Cameron, the King of the World. Schwarzenegger has starred in three of Cameron’s eight movies, all of them iconic megahits. Stallone, by comparison, tends to collaborate with his favorite writer and director: Himself.
Extracurricular Activities, Movie Category
But let’s give credit where credit is due. Besides being an actor, Schwarzenegger is best understood as the CEO of Arnold Inc., presiding carefully over his career. Schwarzenegger has never written anything, and he has directed exactly one movie: The telefilm Christmas in Connecticut. Stallone famously wrote Rocky in a weekend and steered that franchise from behind-the-scenes: He directed four of them and has some kind of writing credit on every one.
Stallone actually has writing credit on a significant number of his movies, and even if you assume that some of those credits are contract bunk, there’s an undeniable point-of-view running throughout Stallone’s work, especially in contrast to Schwarzenegger’s manicured post-’80s persona. Heck, Stallone even found time to write Homefront, the upcoming Jason Statham/James Franco movie. Admittedly, he also directed Staying Alive. But hey: He directed it. Also worth pointing out: Stallone’s the guy with the Oscar nominations.
Extracurricular Activities, Non-Movie Category
Arnold Schwarzenegger was, for a time, the Governor of California.
Attractiveness in their Prime
This is, of course, purely subjective, so I subjectively conducted a straw poll of my colleagues, asking whether Arnold or Sly was more attractive in their glory days. Responses ranged from “Ah-nuld” to “I vote C” to “I’ll vote for my mother, who had a poster of Sly on her ceiling in college.” Since standards of male attractiveness have changed radically in the last 30 years, I have no choice but to go with the mom vote.
Difficulty of Impersonation
A surprisingly complicated showdown. Schwarzenegger’s accent is crazier, but it’s also easier to parody, as you probably know from a lifetime of hearing/doing Schwarzenegger voices. Getting Ah-nuld just right is surprisingly difficult: Watching this video of a spot-on impersonation may cause vertigo. That being said, I’m going to semi-controversially say that the Sly accent has a much higher degree of difficulty, since — as this Jim Breuer video shows, it’s too easy to take it into Monster-from-The-Muppets territory. This Aries Spears video demonstrates the subtle character work the Stallone imitation requires, running the thin line between eloquence and incoherence.
Current Career Viability
Stallone reinvented himself by going back to basics, kick-starting his long-dormant Rocky and Rambo franchises in the mid-2000s and paving the way for a whole AARP-action-star renaissance. In the process, Stallone also managed to rediscover what initially made him appealing: The sense that he was the underdog, that he had to come back from DVD purgatory. The ’80s re-renaissance seems to be drying up now — Bullet to the Head flopped, and Escape Plan isn’t trending too high despite decent reviews — but Stallone pulled himself out of a death spiral of Spy Kids cameos. Schwarzenegger has had less luck in his post-political career, with a tarnishing cheating scandal followed by the disappointing gross of The Last Stand.
Schwarzenegger is patiently awaiting reboots of Conan and Terminator, but you could argue that he’s following the playbook set down by Stallone half a decade ago. Stallone, conversely, already seems to be pivoting, taking on slightly more human-size roles in the (admittedly ridiculous-sounding) Grudge Match and next year’s Reach Me.
Stallone narrowly beats Schwarzenegger 5-4. But that may change, if Schwarzenegger’s Conan and Terminator reboots ever get off the ground, or if Triplets co-starring Eddie Murphy isn’t just a beautiful dream. Notably, Arnold is once again making bodybuilding videos… on Instagram. Could this be the beginning of his 10th act? Only time — and science — will tell.