We look back at 1994’s The Specialist, an action flick starring Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone. Does it hold up?
1993 was a banner year for Sylvester Stallone. While he had started the nineties on shaky ground due to the failure of Rocky V and his two comedies, Oscar and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, the back-to-back success of Cliffhanger and Demolition Man reestablished Sly as one of Hollywood’s biggest action heroes. For his follow-up, he would pick another action flick, albeit one that embraced elements of another genre quickly gaining popularity in Hollywood: The erotic thriller.
Flashback to 1992. The movie Basic Instinct was a worldwide smash and established Sharon Stone as the biggest sex symbol of the day. A veteran actress with a career going back a decade, her performance as the murderous but insanely alluring Catherine Trammel made her a cultural icon. She followed it up with another steamy thriller, 1993’s Sliver, also a hit, and The Specialist would be her last entry into the cycle of erotic thrillers, with her eventually opting to branch out a little with movies like Martin Scorsese’s Casino in a bid to avoid typecasting. But, for the moment, she was Hollywood’s reigning femme fatale.
The film was inspired by a series of books by John Cutter, a pseudonym for screenwriter John Shirley, who would go on to co-write The Crow. Still, in the transition to the big screen, virtually nothing from the novels was left intact, resulting in a screen credit stating the film was “suggested” by those novels. Looking at their synopsis, it’s easy to see why, as everything was changed. The film would be written by Alexandre Seros, who wrote the remake of Nikita, Point of No Return for the same studio, Warner Bros.
In the movie, Stallone plays Ray Quick, a former explosives expert for the CIA. When one of his bombs takes the life of a young girl, he quits the agency and becomes a killer for hire. He’s hired by Stone’s May Munro, who wants him to eliminate a Miami crime family run by a father-son duo played by Rod Steiger and Eric Roberts. When he starts picking off family members, a bomb expert played by James Woods is brought in, with him having been Quick’s old handler/nemesis in the CIA. But, soon, Quick realizes that May has become the lover of one of his targets, leading him to question who is playing who.
In many ways, The Specialist is the kind of movie that could have only ever been made in the nineties, and it’s a part of two interesting cycles that were going on at the time. One is the erotic film cycle, while the other is that it’s one of a series of movies that came out during the mid-nineties about bomb-making. Speed and Blown Away (a Best Movie You Never Saw favorite) both came out the same year, but the thing that made The Specialist unique was that this time the bomb maker was a hero. Within a few years, CGI would make old-school pyrotechnics a thing of the past, and the film is fascinating to see how much practical action there is.
When it came out, The Specialist was reviled; indeed, it’s a silly movie. The director, Luis Llosa, films the movie like it’s the most expensive episode of Red Shoe Diaries ever, and it comes together like a pricey direct-to-video erotic thriller. It’s not helped by the raunchy sax score by John Barry, which is shamelessly cribbed from his own Body Heat. The love scenes, particularly the big set piece one in the middle featuring Stallone and Stone, are hilariously over the top, with them stretching and posing for the camera in a way that’s easy to mock. However, given how sexless movies have gotten nowadays, something is charming about the way they go all-out here. Indeed, The Specialist, if not Basic Instinct, is far superior to other examples of the genre, including the much-mocked entry from Bruce Willis, Color of Night.
The behind-the-scenes stories from this movie are pretty amusing, with Stallone always saying that Stone was sick of being a sex symbol at this point and didn’t want to do the nude scenes. The two apparently had to get pretty drunk, doing half a dozen shots of Black Death vodka before getting started. To this day, the two remain friends, but apparently, the shoot was tense. At the time, there were also unfounded rumours that Stallone had many of James Woods’ scenes cut, after being advised the character actor was stealing the movie – and to be sure Woods IS stealing the film. While Sly and Stone are acting like they’re in a sophisticated thriller, all of the guys playing baddies are acting like they’re starring in pure pulp, with Woods CONSTANTLY mugging, yelling, and basically being James Woods.
Meanwhile, Eric Roberts gets oiled up to play one of the sleazy baddies and plays the film with an appropriate constant leer. Yet, both guys are a model of restraint next to the late Rod Steiger, whose Cuban accent is one of the books, and does everything short of cartwheels from scene to scene to make his presence known. His efforts would earn him a Razzie nomination, and I even remember James Woods mocking his accent on Entertainment Tonight.
While The Specialist is a pretty bad movie, it can’t be denied that it’s still a whole lot of fun. In the nineties, it was probably viewed as a crushing disappointment for all involved. Still, it’s a goofy joy nearly thirty years later, with a fun soundtrack of songs by Emilio and Gloria Estefan that lean into the sexy/ seedy Miami atmosphere. Despite still acting as a quasi-femme fatale, Stone also gets to branch out a bit with her character ultimately being revealed as heroic, with her trying to avenge the murder of her parents. However, it’s bizarre that she’s supposed to have been a little girl when she watched Eric Roberts murder them, but years later, they seem to be the same age and become lovers. I get she’s trying to trap him, but seducing the man who murdered your mom and dad and then becoming his girlfriend? Ewwwww.
Stallone fans have always been divided about this one, as it lacks the traditional action you’d get in something like Cliffhanger or Demolition Man. It’s more of a thriller, with Sly using bombs rather than brawn to eliminate the villains. However, you can tell the studio was worried about there not being enough action, as they tacked on a bit when he beats up a bunch of ruffians on a bus who won’t give up their seats to a pregnant lady.
As Sly was amid a resurgence and Stone was at the height of her fame, The Specialist was a decent-sized hit for Warner Bros, earning $57 million domestically – which is about the same as Demolition Man made. At the same time, it was an even bigger hit worldwide. Yet, its box office was hampered in its second weekend when Pulp Fiction opened and may or may not have stolen its crown as the week’s top movie in a hotly disputed race. Ultimately, it was no Basic Instinct, but it proved to be Stallone’s last North American hit of the nineties before a major resurgence in the mid-2000s. What went wrong? Four words: I am the law. But that’s a story for another day here on Sylvester Stallone Revisited.