While Paradise Alley is unmistakably a major ego trip for Sylvester Stallone—he wrote, directed, and stars in the picture, and he even (over)sings the theme song—his onscreen presence is more muted than one might expect, given the circumstances. A cornball ensemble piece about three Italian-American brothers living in Hell’s Kitchen circa the late ’40s, the film as much a showcase for costars Armand Assante and Lee Canalito as it is for Stallone. In fact, Canalito gets the showiest part because he spends much of the movie in a wrestling ring, playing the same sort of undereducated underdog that Stallone did in Rocky (1976) and its endless sequels. Yet if Stallone demonstrated restraint by ensuring that Paradise Alley wasn’t entirely about his character, that’s the only restraint he demonstrated—in every other regard, Paradise Alley is florid, overwrought, and schmaltzy.
Our hero, Cosmo Carboni (Stallone), is a street hustler who anachronistically wears long hair and an earring while he pulls one scheme after another because he doesn’t want to work for a living. His brother Victor (Canalito) is a gentle giant who hauls ice up apartment-building stairs for a living—which means that, of course, we get an epic, sweaty scene of Victor lugging ice, only to have it fall down and shatter (in slow motion). Their other sibling, Lenny (Assante), is a haunted war veteran with a limp who works as an undertaker. Because, you see, he’s dead inside. Subtlety, thy name is not Stallone. As the turgid narrative unfolds, Cosmo courts Lenny’s ex, dancehall girl Annie (Anne Archer), and Cosmo gets into hassles with local mobster Stitch (Kevin Conway, giving the film’s most cartoonish performance). Eventually—which is to say, halfway through the movie, once Stallone remembers to generate a plot—Cosmo asks Victor to become a wrestler so the family can get rich. Inexplicably, this decision transforms Lenny into an avaricious prick, allowing Stallone to twist the story so his character can grow a conscience.
After several diverting but pointless sequences—Lenny decides he wants Annie back, Cosmo bonds with a broken-down wrestler (Frank McRae), and so on—the movie climaxes in an interminable wrestling match that is set, for no reason except that Stallone wanted a visual flourish, during a rainstorm. Cue repetitive shots of Canalito and his sparring partner flipping each other into puddles for maximum slow-mo splashing! The great cinematographer László Kovács shoots the hell out of Stallone’s absurd scenes, making the movie look better than it deserves, and the acting is so flamboyant that many scenes have energy. However, Paradise Alley is both clichéd and confusing—it’s as if Stallone couldn’t decide which old movies he wanted to pillage, so he copped something from all of them. Combined with the excessive storytelling style, the haphazard cribbing from vintage cinema turns Paradise Alley into an unappealing jumble.
Paradise Alley: LAME