Jimmy Hoffa, Action Hero. If that sounds unlikely, then you’ve intuited why F.I.S.T. is such a peculiar movie. The team behind the picture clearly ached to tell the (fictionalized) story of Hoffa, the notorious labor leader whose alleged mob ties made him the target of a government investigation before he disappeared, but with Sylvester Stallone involved as leading man and co-screenwriter, a subtle approach to the material was impossible. Stallone, rewriting an original script by another man allergic to restraint, Joe Ezsterhas, imbues Hoffa doppleganger Johnny Kovak (played by Stallone) with qualities ranging from easygoing charm to operatic guilt to rugged idealism to social consciousness; he’s not just an everyman, he’s literally, it seems, every man Stallone could imagine, placing Johnny among the most absurdly overstuffed characterizations in American cinema.
One suspects the problem was Stallone’s anxiety about potentially alienating viewers who loved him as underdog Rocky Balboa, but whatever the case, the effort to make Johnny heroic and likeable leads to weird tonal shifts. At the beginning of the picture, he’s a factory worker who mouths off to his odious boss about unfair working conditions, only to get fired for his impudence. Hired by an idealistic union boss (Richard Herd) as a recruiter for the Federation of Inter State Truckers (F.I.S.T.), Johnny quickly rises through the ranks because he’s good at motivating blue-collar workers. Seemingly overnight, Johnny evolves from the union’s hired hand to its most passionate advocate—and it simply doesn’t make sense that he cares about F.I.S.T. more than life itself, especially since the movie repeatedly affirms that Johnny isn’t even a trucker.
Thus, as the movie gets more and more epic in scale, trying to beat The Godfather at its own game with a decades-spanning story of a man corrupted by power, the nonsensical underpinnings of the central character become so illogical that it’s hard to believe anything that happens. That’s a shame, since everything except Stallone’s characterization is solid. As directed by the versatile Norman Jewison, who obviously had a significant budget at his command, the movie has an impressive scope and vibrant energy; scenes of labor unrest, with picketing workers fighting union-busting thugs, are particularly exciting.
There’s some enjoyable stuff with Peter Boyle as a union boss who talks a good game about serving the men but ends up dipping into union funds for personal luxuries, and Rod Steiger gets to showboat entertainingly as an ambitious Congressman who puts F.I.S.T. in his crosshairs. Supporting player Kevin Conway’s performance as a low-level mobster who gets his hooks into Johnny offers an amusing throwback to old-school cinematic criminality, and Tony Lo Bianco lays on the marinara as the Mafioso who drags Johnny even deeper into the organized-crime muck.
Unfortunately, this two-and-a-half-hour opus is all about Stallone, and his performance is as unwieldy as his characterization. He speechifies like every scene is the finale of Rocky, complete with wildly inappropriate musical fanfare by Rocky composer Bill Conti, and his romantic scenes with Melinda Dillon feel like rehashes of the wonderful Rocky interactions between Stallone and Talia Shire. It’s true that all of this is quite watchable—the story covers so much ground, moves so fast, and reaches so many manipulative heights that it’s impossible not to be at least somewhat entertained. But does F.I.S.T. deliver a knockout thematic punch? Not so much.