Sylvester Stallone stars in this hard-hitting, boldly ambitious drama that powerfully reveals a significant slice of American history. As union leader Johnny Kovak, Stallone's performance confirmed his stature as one of Hollywood's hottest stars. Closely paralleling history, the film follows the rise and fall of Kovak, from his beginnings as an idealistic blue-collar worker to his final position as head of one of the country's most powerful unions: the Federation of Inter-State Truckers. But there are no unscarred heroes in this world. To achieve his dream of justice for the working man, Kovak must accept the muscle of organized crime. Ultimately, F.I.S.T. is a story of idealism corrupted and betrayed. Oscar® winner Rod Steiger (1967 Best Actor, In the Heat of the Night), Peter Boyle and Brian Dennehy are featured in the fine supporting cast. Directed by Norman Jewison, with Laszlo Kovac's darkly moody cinematography and a heroic score by Rocky composer Bill Conti, F.I.S.T. is "a particularly American kind of epic" (Vincent Canby, The New York Times).
Considering that Sylvester Stallone's first film of any real distinction was Rocky, an Academy Award winner for best picture and an instant classic, it's a safe bet that he had free rein when it came to his next project. In F.I.S.T. (released in 1978), he chose a vehicle that matched him with a big-time director (Norman Jewison of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair renown), a screenwriter on the verge of stardom (Joe Eszterhas, whose future would include Flashdance and Basic Instinct), and veteran actors like Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle, and Tony Lo Bianco. Yet while F.I.S.T. is filmmaking on a grand scale, it also has the underlying themes that made the Rocky Balboa saga such a hit, particularly the plight of the common man as he struggles to maintain his dignity in the face of daunting odds. Stallone portrays Johnny Kovak, a blue-collar worker in late 1930s Cleveland who joins the nascent Federation of Inter-State Truckers (the Teamsters, basically) and rises up through the ranks until, a couple of decades later, he becomes the union's head honcho. Along the way, his ambitions lead to an alliance with organized crime, and while Kovak is an essentially decent fellow, the compromises he's made eventually catch up to him in the form of an investigation by a grandstanding, blowhard U.S. Senator (Steiger) and big trouble with an oily mob boss (Lo Bianco). All of that takes quite a while to play out; at 145 minutes, the movie is too long, especially considering that Jewison and Eszterhas (Stallone co-wrote the script) take an approach that's no more nuanced and subtle than, well, a flying fist. It also seems somewhat dated; viewing it now, in an era when CGI and other effects wizardry would have greatly enhanced some of the bigger scenes (a truckers rally in Washington, confrontations between union members and strike-breaking thugs), one is reminded more of a '70s TV movie that the epic the filmmakers clearly intended to create. The DVD includes no extras. --Sam Graham