When one thinks of Sylvester Stallone, the first things that come to mind might be Rocky and Rambo. Boxing and explosions. The underdog and the vengeful. There was very much a narrow lane where Sly felt comfortable both as an actor and as a filmmaker. The Specialist, from 1994, at first feels like it fits neatly into the narrative of Sly’s career. In it, he plays an ex-CIA explosives expert turned hitman. That short description brings to mind visions of fiery explosions, gunfights, and maybe even a final fight with a main bad guy. In other words, there is little reason to suspect this film is anything other than an action flick. But it’s not. It’s modern noir, something Sly hadn’t been part of in his career since, maybe, Nighthawks.
Written by Alexandra Seros and directed by Luis Llosa (director of Shitty Movie Sundays favorite Anaconda), The Specialist tells the story of Ray Quick (Sly). After an assassination job in Colombia leaves an innocent child dead, Ray has a falling out with his CIA partner/boss, Ned Trent (James Woods). Ray is finished in the employ of the American government, but he is a talented bomb maker. Where should he take his talents? To the internet, of course.
Ray uses early World Wide Web message boards to find jobs. He arranges hits over the phone, then plants bombs to do the dirty work. His latest client is May Munro (Sharon Stone). When she was a child, her parents were murdered by the son of a Cuban-American drug kingpin, Tomas Leon (Eric Roberts). She wants Ray to kill Tomas and two other men she witnessed, and she won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. If Ray doesn’t get onto the job quick, she will infiltrate the organization herself and probably end up getting herself killed. Ray really doesn’t want that to happen. He has developed an unhealthy crush on May from afar. He scouts the job meticulously, which also seems to include following May around Miami and listening to recordings of their phone calls. The phone calls are good for the viewer because they provided loads of exposition, but they make Ray look like a creep.
For most of the film, these recordings are the only interplay we get between Sly and Sharon Stone. It’s the movie equivalent of a long-distance relationship. Would it have been better for the film had they spent all this time sharing the screen together? Perhaps. As it is they are disembodied voices Sly listens to while wearing brooding looks. It’s hard to gauge any chemistry the two stars had during these scenes. What is clear is that the phone calls have no less annoying dialogue than any other scene where characters are conversing in person.
Because this is a noir flick, all the characters, and I do mean all, speak in a dramatic pastiche of dry witticisms and double entendres. The cadence is as clichéd as the words themselves, evocative of Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse in front of his typewriter and channeling Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane. Are viewers really supposed to take this dialogue seriously?
Ray goes through a lot of handwringing over May’s situation, and decides that it is time to blow some people up. He does, and, in quite the coincidence, the drug kingpin, Joe Leon (Rod Steiger), hires Trent to stop who, to him, is an unknown assassin. Now it’s not just a job for Ray. It’s a battle of wits against his old mentor.
The remainder of the film goes about as a viewer would expect. Ray and May do finally meet up for a long-promised sex scene between Sly and Stone. More for Stone, of course. In the 1990s, some Sharon Stone nudity was a big selling point for films in which she appeared. Their dramatic interplay doesn’t change all that much despite meeting in person. He still pines, she still wants people blown to smithereens. Truly a compatible couple.
The Specialist was a successful film, taking in over three times its budget in box office receipts. It’s proof that having the right stars in the cast can make a movie a lot of cash when just about everything else in it is mediocre. If it weren’t for the stars, and a budget that allowed for the occasional big boom, The Specialist would be indistinguishable from any number of direct to video fare of the era starring Andrew Stevens and Shannon Tweed. The sole bright light is James Woods. He can blow up a scene as effectively as one of Ray’s bombs, chewing up a script and spitting it out in a rage that makes extras visibly uncomfortable. Other than that, there isn’t much to recommend this film.