“Over the Top” (1987)

by A.J. Hakari

"Over the Top" poster


I’ve always been confounded by the power that Sylvester Stallone wielded in the ’80s. That he became a movie star isn’t what’s confusing — Rocky Balboa is the ultimate heroic schmoe, so of course he clicked with audiences — but rather that his influence soared to such towering heights. Here was a guy who had enough pull to get nearly any cast or crew member who rubbed him the wrong way fired and finagle writing credits on productions where the extent of his involvement is still debated. But one of the most unbelievable factoids yet is that in 1987, the makers of Over the Top saw Stallone as so hot of a commodity, they allocated almost half of the film’s $25 million budget just to hire him to play the lead. The rest is the stuff of cult cinema legend, as repeat cable airings and countless tapes adorning video store shelves have ensured that this flick and its bizarre premise remain in the public consciousness long after its initial release. Truth be told, however, Over the Top isn’t terribly far off from being a legitimately well-made drama, but it lapses into abject goofiness far too many times, courtesy of its inability to provide the story with even the most basic building blocks.

Stallone plays ultra-buff truck driver Lincoln Hawk — or “Hawks,” depending on whether or not the writers were drifting off at the keyboard during a particular scene. He’s led a solitary life for a long time, but all that changes when his ex-wife (Susan Blakely) calls on him for a favor. On the eve of undergoing heart surgery, she asks that Lincoln pick up their son Michael (David Mendenhall) from military school and spend some quality time together as they drive to visit her. Not having seen one another in ten years, their reunion is rocky to say the least, considering Lincoln’s old father-in-law (Robert Loggia) has done everything in his power to distance the two. But father and son soon start warming up to each other, especially after the former introduces his progeny to his greatest passion: arm wrestling. Lincoln is one of the best there is, and he’s got his sights set on winning a new big rig in an upcoming Las Vegas tournament. But as Lincoln’s bond with Michael strengthens, the more his former pops-in-law becomes determined to drive them apart for good.

Over the Top is unquestionably one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever dealt with. It didn’t whip me into a Tazmanian Devil-style conniption of anger and spittle, but that it spends its 90-something minutes shrugging its way through scenes that beg to be fleshed out with the simplest of exposition is a source of constant aggravation. You get a general idea of what beats the story wants to convey, but it fails to fill the gaps with the sort of background information that really wouldn’t have taken much effort to invent. What drove Lincoln to abandon his family, yet still maintain what seems to be a pleasant relationship with his ex? Why does Loggia’s character harbor such hatred towards Lincoln and dedicate what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars to getting him out of the picture? How come Michael is so furious with his father for leaving him and his mom, yet all is forgiven after seeing him win one arm wrestling match? Over the Top knows where it wants to go, but it doesn’t want to put the work into making it all connect; “just because” is this movie’s mantra, a piss-poor excuse used to hand-wave away any and all matters of motivation. The many instances of high emotion the film presents are completely unearned, making it look as though the cast is reciting from a rough outline of the plot rather than a fully-realized screenplay.

But as its defenders (or at least those who ironically worship the ground it walks on) will tell you, story isn’t why they love watching Over the Top, and I can see where they’re coming from. The film’s pacing is so swift and its events so strange in nature, it all does a pretty decent job of distracting you from how it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the narrative. Watching Over the Top is like cracking into a time capsule that preserved a moment in history you’re not even sure existed, so seeing director Menahem Golan (of Golan-Globus infamy) try to get the audience all excited at the notion of peering behind the arm wrestling circuit’s curtain is a strangely interesting novelty. If nothing, the movie’s final act attempts to apologize for all the half-baked family drama that came before it by bringing you a solid half-hour of insanity once Lincoln makes it to the Vegas tournament, a cavalcade of bearded musclemen slapping each other, guzzling motor oil, and eating cigars that’s endlessly amusing. But outside of this, Stallone himself is, oddly enough, the closest we get to finding something honestly good about this flick. It’s weird saying this about a vehicle that features him screaming and drenched in sweat, but this has some of the best acting Stallone’s ever done, with his primarily shy affectation suggesting deeper levels to Lincoln that the script couldn’t bother itself with exploring.

Over the Top isn’t a good movie by a longshot, but boy, is it ever an entertaining one. Though I seldom buy into the “so bad, it’s good” philosophy, this is definitely an exception, a sloppily-assembled production that nevertheless teems with liveliness and always has a reason to make you doubt the mental condition of those who bankrolled it up its sleeve. To say that Over the Top is a mess would be doing it a kindness, but there’s enough hilarious machismo and Kenny Loggins music running rampant to leave you not minding so much.