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Sylvester Stallone Stars in Paramount's Charming Tulsa King

Dwight “The General” Manfredi (Sylvester Stallone) has spent the last 25 years in prison, taking the fall for his friends in the New York mafia. He ain’t no snitch; he’s good at keeping his mouth shut, working out, and brushing up on his reading (Faust, Shakespeare, The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene) while he waits to reap the rewards for his loyalty. “I married this life, and I’m gonna see if it married me back,” Sly growls in reedy voiceover. 

But his exit from the frying pan leads him right back into the fire: Rather than take his former place in the organization, the don’s son has taken his place as capo. They send him off to start criminal operations in a whole new frontier: Tulsa, Oklahoma. There’s gold in them thar hills, they might say (albeit with pinched fingers), but for Dwight, it feels like he’s being put out to pasture. Doesn’t matter, though; if there’s anything Dwight’s good at, it’s adapting. Well, that and breaking skulls.

There’s a lot to like about Taylor Sheridan’s “Tulsa King”—clearly his next step in his plot to dominate the easy-chair demographic after his smash-hit Western drama “Yellowstone.” Most of it lies in its light, effervescent tone, with the wiseguy-in-a-strange-land appeal of something like “Get Shorty” (book, film, and TV show). When Dwight arrives in Tulsa, he steps out of the airport only to be immediately smacked in the face by a grasshopper “bigger than [his] cock.” No matter, with all his smooth-talking precision, it’s not long before his driver (Jay Will’s Tyson) becomes his erstwhile sidekick as he shakes down a local weed dispensary (run by Martin Starr’s spaced-out Bodhi) to start his first protection and money laundering racket. By all indicators, Tulsa couldn’t have possibly seen him coming.

There are glimmers of threats to come in these first two episodes, to be sure, and there’ll come a time when Dwight can’t bluster or bludgeon his way through a situation. As a last-minute scene with Max Casella’s heretofore-unintroduced character indicates, he may not be the only mafia game in town. And what’s more, on his first night out, Dwight sleeps with a divorcee bridesmaid (Andrea Savage) who turns out to be an ATF agent hot on his heels. But for now, Sheridan and showrunner Terence Winter (“Boardwalk Empire”) are content to let us luxuriate in the delight of watching Stallone do his thing in a decidedly unfamiliar climate: the West. 

When “Tulsa King” coasts on its winking, knowing comedy, it’s gangbusters. Stallone, for all his failed attempts at starring in explicit comedies (“Rhinestone,” “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”) is, when he wants to be, a really funny guy. Dwight’s a perfect conduit for his particular combo of affable aggression, like Joe Pesci’s character from “GoodFellas” if he were as tall as he truly wanted to be. He talks fast (well, fast for Sly) and makes friends at the edge of a knife, spending scene after scene warming up to or dressing down the show’s honky-tonk cast of characters.

There’s admittedly a certain red-state appeal to a man’s man like Stallone riffing on the perceived cosmopolitan nature of 21st-century life. Dwight is a man not just out of space, but time; having spent a quarter century in the big house, he’s perplexed by smartphone apps, legal weed, and all these goddamn pronouns. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle,” he confesses to Bodhi after accidentally getting high in the backseat of a car. 

But these moments of political incorrectness don’t read as rebukes of the advances of society, not in the way the average “Yellowstone” fan might respond to them. Rather, Dwight’s confused and lost about his place in the world—about the years he sacrificed to a mentor who repays him with exile or the daughter who won’t talk to him anymore. He’s a man alienated by his circumstances, forced to rebuild himself in a world that no longer shares his values. 

That’s Dwight, and that’s also Stallone: Television, it seems, is his Tulsa, and the big-screen legend consciously bristles in his new confines. But the 76-year-old shows no signs of slowing down, and on the small screen he seems, if anything, even larger than he did before. Under Winter and Sheridan’s pen, “Tulsa King” is both mafia dramedy and Western, Sly sitting somewhere between Chili Palmer and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.” 

It’s a fitting space for him to occupy, both as aging action star and wizened character actor. The show around him occasionally struggles to keep up—Garrett Hedlund, Dana Delaney, and Annabella Sciorra are barely present, despite occupying significant space in the credits and press materials. But it’s worth sticking around to see what role they’ll play in Sly’s most interesting ride into the sunset.

First two episodes screened for review. Tulsa King comes to Paramount+ on November 13th.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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