Sylvester Stallone is a New York gangster starting over in ... Oklahoma?
As the creator of the “Yellowstone” franchise, Taylor Sheridan’s notions of masculinity are not what you’d call expansive, but instead sit comfortably within the same mold that produced John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. A similar but distinctive brand of masculinity exists in stories about the mob. With “Tulsa King” on Paramount+, Sheridan teams up with “Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” alum Terence Winter to combine these two archetypes into a single show starring Sylvester Stallone as an aging but still buff New Yorker, fresh out of the joint, who is sent to Tulsa — banished, really, by his Italian American business associates — to establish a money-making scheme in Oklahoma. That’s the premise: A Mafioso fish out of water.
So he falls back on what he knows — the drug game — but it comes with a twist, since pot is legalized: He barges into a dispensary and informs the owner (a wet noodle of a guy played by Martin Starr) that he will now be paying protection money whether he likes it or not, to the tune of 20% of his profits.
Sheridan and Winter have given Stallone’s character an unnecessarily fussy moniker: Dwight “The General” Manfredi — his first name a nod to Eisenhower, given to him by his immigrant parents embracing Americana, but not the Americana that interested Dwight.
“When I was 17, my father asked what I wanted to be. Would I like to be a barber, like him? I laughed in his face,” he says in voice-over, contemplating his future after a quarter century locked up in the clink. “I wanted to be a successful gangster. In retrospect, I asked myself if what I chose was worth 25 years of my life? The answer is no. Not 25 seconds. I married this life and after keeping my mouth shut for all these years I’m gonna see if it married me back.”
There’s something reassuring about Stallone as a screen presence. His is a stardom that’s become increasingly rare, but there’s more to it than that. He knows how to carry a story that would be less interesting in other hands and he understands how to wield his charisma and that low, rumbly voice in ways that never seem pushy or forced. He can do this sort of thing with style and economy. Not unlike the guy he’s playing.
So who is Dwight? He’s lonely but motivated to work. Or rather “work,” as defined by organized crime. He’s partial to chivalry and a tailored suit. A gentleman gangster whose fist will make contact if he thinks you’re disrespecting him or the cabbie he hires as his personal driver (Jay Will). At 75, he’s been forced to start over. The world may have changed during his time in prison, but certain truths remain the same. He knows that brute force will always get things done.
The series also traffics in moth-eaten notions of authenticity and there’s a gratuitous rant about pronouns. It’s not that I don’t buy Dwight having this point of view, but it feels so unnecessary. We already know who this guy is: Old school but adaptable.
If “Tulsa King” were a movie from the ‘80s or ‘90s — and it almost has that sensibility, at least in the pilot — it would make a nice double feature with “Road House” or “My Cousin Vinny.” The edges are harder here. It looks to be shaping up into a never-ending crime saga revolving around the drug trade and the complications therein. Plenty of people liked Netflix’s “Ozark” for the same reason, I’m just not one of them; I think there are other, more interesting stories to tell.
More to the point, movies have a clear end goal that emerges — a story with pacing and a solid arc — and I’m not convinced “Tulsa King” can avoid the diminishing returns that tend to plague a TV series where the audience is asked to tag along, waiting and waiting for the endgame to unfurl.
But there’s plenty like here as well, including the show’s commentary on the barriers that exist for anyone reentering society after a long stint in prison. “This is why people break the law,” Dwight says barely tamping down his frustration, “because they make everything legitimate so friggin’ complicated.”
There’s little that’s visually unexpected here, but the first episode does include a terrific moment when Dwight is cooling his heels in a Long Island kitchen somewhere, waiting for an audience with his crime boss, and we get a glimpse of Stallone’s face reflected in a row of chef’s knives stuck to a magnetic board. It’s a clever shot and the intimation of violence comes through loud and clear.