Tuesday, 10 March 2015

F.I.S.T. - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Potential of Jewison/Eszterhas Union Epic Muted By Sly

F.I.S.T. (1978)
Dir. Norman Jewison
Scr. Joe Eszterhas & Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle, Melinda Dillon,
Cassie Yates, David Huffman, Kevin Conway, Tony Lo Bianco, Brian Dennehy

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Jimmy Hoffa still remains one of the most important and complex figures in the history of the labour movement in the United States. That he is also equally regarded as a thug merely adds to his legendary status. There have been a number of attempts in both feature films and television to tackle the story of Hoffa. Given the complexity of Hoffa's place in history, F.I.S.T. is still probably the best fictional representation of the former leader of the Teamster's Union in spite of being one of the most severely compromised.

With a story and screenplay by Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct), F.I.S.T. had substantial buzz around it, not the least of which being its A-list class-act director Norman Jewison (In The Heat Of The Night). When Sylvester Stallone agreed to take on the lead role as his first major picture after the success of Rocky, excitement for the property shot up even higher.

Alas, Stallone, also a writer, decided he needed to Stallone-ify his role further and the Eszterhas screenplay was completely reworked by Sly - mostly in terms of giving him more Hell's Kitchen-like dialogue to mumble and drool through. Perhaps Stallone's most annoying contributions included beefing up the courtship and romance scenes with a level of cuteness involving wifey-to-be (Melinda Dillon) that bordered on intolerable.

Worse yet, the final third of the film is a lopsided mess with Stallone's thinly-disguised rendering of Hoffa wavering between heroic and villainous (makes sense, but it's not given enough time and balance) as well as racing to a fairly abrupt and unsatisfying ending. This inconclusive messiness has all the hallmarks of its star meddling with the screenplay to downplay the character's villainy and hence, muting the film's complexity.

This is too bad, because much of the picture, especially the sumptuous period detail, the astonishing cinematography of László Kovács, the terrific cutting of Graeme Clifford (when he's not having to battle the more lacklustre script elements delivered by Stallone), Bill Conti's rousing traditional score, a magnificent supporting cast (most notably Peter Boyle and Rod Steiger), Jewison's first-rate direction and even aspects of Stallone's performance are all indeed fine.

Closely following the Hoffa story, the film introduces us to Sly as Johnny Kovak a working stiff in a major Cleveland distribution warehouse where the working conditions are becoming increasingly egregious. Upon being duped by the company ownership, he begins to organize the men and a series of violent encounters rear their ugly head. Eventually Stallone is offered a job rustling up new members for the Teamster-like "Federation of Interstate Truckers" (hence the F.I.S.T. acronym) and he begins to rise up through the ranks quickly and powerfully, butting heads with deadwood in the upper echelons of the Union and finally, cutting deals with the Mob to solidify the power of the union. Along the way, his youthful ideals go out the window and he finds himself being investigated by various powers-that-be.

So much of this is stirring, compelling stuff that it's a shame we have to put up with a weird combination of Rocky-like cutesy-pie nonsense and an unsatisfying need to put far more emphasis on the "heroic" aspects of the Johnny Kovack character in the final third as opposed to creating a genuinely super-charged, almost schizophrenic quality to his personality and actions. Instead of a satisfying Godfather-like denouement, we're handed an emotional and dramatic mishmash.

In spite of these open wounds, F.I.S.T. remains - partially by default and partially because it earns it - the best film about the Hoffa phenomenon to date.


F.I.S.T. is available on Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray with and excellent short documentary about the making of the film entitled "The Fight For F.I.S.T." which focuses upon the rivalry between screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and Stallone's insistence that he rewrite a great script to "Balboa-ize" it. Includes interviews with Jewison and Eszterhas.