F.I.S.T.(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 12.13.2005)
Two feature films have depicted the rise and fall of Jimmy Hoffa: 1978's F.I.S.T., starring Sylvester Stallone and written by Hollywood Animal Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls), and 1992's Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson and penned by master scribe David Mamet. Surprisingly, only the former is worth watching. The credit for this feat likely goes to director Norman Jewison who, after scoring earlier in the decade with big screen adaptations of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, boldly stages a tale of labor wars and political corruption that's essentially a poor man's version of All the Kings Men.
F.I.S.T. is a film in two acts. In the first, blue collar box lugger Johnny Kovak (Stallone) idealistically ascends to regional head of the Federal Interstate Truckers (F.I.S.T.) Union in depression-plagued Cleveland, but finds that corporate corruption can only be fought by pairing organized labor with organized crime. Act two jumps to the late 50s as Kovak usurps the union presidency but is simultaneously strangled by the tightening of the mafia's noose and a Congressional investigation launched by Rod Steiger's soapboxing Senator.
In Eszterhas' unsubtle screenplay, F.I.S.T. is clearly a stand-in for the Teamsters: Kovak is Hoffa, the laborers are uniformly good, and their bosses are evil personified. That said, the story is compelling, especially in the first act as Kovak concurrently courts laborers to the cause and a Hungarian factory worker played with spunky aplomb by Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The second act's a bit more uneven as Stallone (who rewrote part of Eszterhas' script) clearly saw Kovak as a Christ-like hero in the Rocky mold, while Jewison saw him as more of a Judas.
In a better actor's hands, these competing visions could have meshed but, after delivering surprisingly understated work in the first hour, Stallone's lack of range makes the elder Kovak seem merely contradictory, rather than conflicted. That makes Steiger the film's moral anchor as he adroitly plays a doppelganger to his On the Waterfront heavy.
Laszlo Kovac's (Five Easy Pieces) color-drained cinematography sets an appropriately dour tone that is sometimes at odds with Rocky composer Bill Conti's grandiose score, which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Yet, somehow Jewison and editor Graeme Clifford (Images) never let the film stray from its devoutly populist points and keep things surprisingly springy during the 145 minute running time.
The disc features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound that muffles a lot of dialogue (especially Stallone's guttural garbles). There are no special features to speak of, but it's interesting to watch knowing that Jewison's first choice for Kovak was Stallone's future Copland co-star Robert De Niro, who masterfully played both the younger and older Jake La Motta in the following year's Raging Bull. -- Colin Miller