Carl Weathers was so much more than a sidekick

Carl Weathers was so much more than a sidekick

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During the February doldrums of 1988, the Lorimar production company dumped a movie called “Action Jackson” into theaters. It was just under a year after the release of “Lethal Weapon,” seven months after “Predator,” and five months before “Die Hard.” Like those epochal hits, “Action Jackson” was produced by Joel Silver, and featured many of the face-famous character actors that Silver tended to use in his Reagan-era shoot-’em-ups: Robert Davi, Bill Duke, Mary Ellen Trainor, Al Leong. But the movie’s headliner was Carl Weathers — for once not a sideman, but the star.

End of carousel

Weathers, who died Friday at 76, was briefly an Oakland Raider before becoming a fan-favorite actor, beloved as a foil to Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adam Sandler and, decades later, Pedro Pascal. But “Action Jackson,” a deeply weird but highly watchable attempt to launch Weathers as an action star in his own right, is a persuasive argument that the onetime Apollo Creed’s big-screen legacy — always the best man, never the groom — should have been greater. It is the only movie that could be described as a Carl Weathers vehicle, or at the least the only one that got a proper late-’80s promotional rollout, with Weathers hosting “Saturday Night Live” and joshing with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” And yet he still didn’t get his due: The title “Action Jackson” flashes on screen in bold red all-caps before Weathers’s name does.

The hypermasculine, R-rated action genre was a path to stardom in this era, but it could also be a trap. The same year “Action Jackson” gave Weathers his shot, Schwarzenegger pivoted to comedy in “Twins” and was rewarded with his biggest hit to date. Stallone tried to follow, but a comedian the Italian Stallion was not. We know now that Weathers could do both, but it was obvious even then: You need only dial up his SNL episode, featuring musical guest Robbie Robertson but also Weathers’s dead-to-rights Al Sharpton impression, to see that he was a game goofball in the body of … well, an Adonis, the name that 2015’s “Creed” would tell us that Apollo gave to his out-of-wedlock son.

Weathers might have had a future like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, earning an extremely comfortable living as a twinkly-eyed man-mountain headlining unmemorable but ostensibly family-friendly PG-13 flicks. Instead, it seemed just a little too plausible when he turned up in the cult sitcom “Arrested Development,” playing a hilariously cheap version of himself whom David Cross’s character hires as his acting coach. Weathers’s “acting advice” consists entirely of desperate guidance on how to save money on food. When he tells Cross, “There’s a lot of meat left on that bone,” he doesn’t mean it metaphorically.

By 1988, Weathers was already recognizable for playing Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s opponent and then ally in “Rocky” and three sequels. The character was initially based on Muhammad Ali, and was set to be played by real-life heavyweight boxer Ken Norton. But Norton dropped out and Weathers got the part, which he imbued with more and more of his own ebullient personality as the series went on.

The indelible, much-parodied training montage from 1982’s “Rocky III,” with Apollo and Rocky running sprints on the beach in short shorts before embracing triumphantly in the spray, proved that even the most totemic or reductive beats of the “Rocky” movies were exponentially better when Weathers was a part of them.

Apollo was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago, Dolph Lundgren’s affectless, chemically enhanced Soviet superathlete, in 1985’s “Rocky IV,” the Rockiad’s silliest entry and its highest-grossing at the time. Yet Weathers’s final performance in the role is the finest of his career. The monologue in which he tells his pal that they’re both warriors — “and without some war to fight, then the warrior may as well be dead, Stallion!” — leaves you with no doubt he would take a hopeless fight against a younger, stronger opponent just to silence the gnawing fear that he’s nothing. Weathers admitted years later that he was unhappy about his character being killed off. Apollo’s fear of having to find his second or third act was palpably Weathers’s fear, too.

Weathers graduated from being Stallone’s sidekick to Schwarzenegger’s, second-billed behind the Austrian Oak in “Predator” as an Army buddy of Schwarzenegger’s character who has become a two-faced pencil-pusher for the CIA. Memes weren’t a thing when “Predator” was released in the summer of 1987, but the close-up of Schwarzenegger and Weathers’s greased-up, tumescent arms as they’re reunited was lodged in our cultural memory long enough to become one. Years later, when Weathers was introduced in “Arrested Development,” we got a brief clip of his gruesome “Predator” death scene, where the titular beast blasts one of his mighty arms off before sending the rest of him to join Apollo Creed in the great beyond.

Severed arms became a leitmotif of Weathers’s Silver-produced oeuvre. In “Action Jackson,” Weathers’s “Predator” co-star Bill Duke tells him, “You nearly tore that boy’s arm off!” “He had a spare,” Weathers rejoins.

“Action Jackson” was one of those indefatigable ’80s supercop movies, and probably the only one where someone actually says the word “indefatigable.” Weathers’s Jericho “Action” Jackson is a former track star turned Detroit police officer who has a law degree from Harvard, although he hasn’t used it to challenge his department’s policy that “Jackson is so vicious we don’t even let him carry a gun,” as one uniformed flatfoot mentions in the tropey part of the movie in which a minor character makes sure we know what a world-beating titan our hero is before he makes his entrance. (Of course, Jackson uses his J.D. and his fast feet later in the film, citing case law and outrunning a taxicab.)

The plot has something to do with an evil automaker/martial arts expert played by Craig T. Nelson, who is having union officials murdered in needlessly elaborate ways. The plot is also very much not the point. The purpose, rather, is to showcase Weathers’s all-rounder versatility, marshaling the charm and athleticism for which he was known already and the comedic gifts for which he’d be cherished later. Weathers’s third act was as a primarily comedic actor, in the 1996 Adam Sandler vehicle “Happy Gilmore,” as the hard-times version of himself in “Arrested Development,” and as an interplanetary bail bondsman-turned-magistrate in “The Mandalorian.”

But the cheek was there in “Action Jackson,” which seems to be a sendup of its genre, at least some of the time. There’s a scene in which Jackson, being held by four henchmen, pretends to be a delusional preacher before punching his way out. (It’s the sort of shtick Eddie Murphy pulled in the enormously popular “Beverly Hills Cop” films of this era.) Elsewhere, Jackson drives a car not just through the front of a mansion but up the stairs to its second floor, and then around several corners to reach a bedroom where Nelson’s villain is holding Vanity — the model/actress/singer who was briefly a protégé of Prince — hostage. It’s an odd film! But it’s no less amusing an oddity than the Silver-produced Patrick Swayze sleazefest “Road House” from a year later — and no less a showcase for the many talents of its undervalued star.

In a 2014 interview with the A.V. Club, Weathers said he’d pitched Silver on the idea of a blaxploitation-esque throwback movie on the “Predator” set in 1986. “Predator” has just nine actors with speaking roles, and three of them turned up in “Action Jackson.” The movie came, and just as quickly went. It did not meaningfully improve Weathers’s Q score. “‘Action Jackson’ is a movie where some of the parts are good, but none of them fit and a lot of them stink,” is how Roger Ebert opened his one-star review. (To put that in context, though, Ebert gave “Die Hard,” long upheld as the action genre’s gold standard, a tepid two stars.)

Weathers is the least awkward part of “Action Jackson,” which shifts tonally from scene to scene. What we see, though, is a convincing case that he was at least as deserving of name-above-title status as ’80s action flick anchors like Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, who was presented to the world as an established star in his very first film, “Above the Law.” By the way, a palpably overqualified Sharon Stone played thankless-to-exploitative wife roles in “Action Jackson” and “Above the Law,” four years before “Basic Instinct” made her an A-lister.

So the ascent is possible. And Weathers deserved to make it.

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