Flying Squirrel Boxing Productions
The KO Picture Show
Presents. . .
Over The Top (1987)

Okay, lets just get it out of the way early... everyone's "switch" turned on? Lovely...

What a cross-section of context for this movie! Not only is it from possibly my favorite decade, "MY" decade (or, at least, the first one that I was actively conscious for), the 80's, but we've got your basic "career definition" choice by an actor, an "Action/Family Drama" genre slash, AND the most important to me, you've got a "tournament style" fight drama blended in with a "niche film" based in the world of professional (or semi-pro) arm wrestling. That's an impressive list of criteria to mull over before watching, so let's dive right in.

At this point in his career, Sylvester Stallone wasn't just an Icon, but an Icon-Maker. I mean, seriously... take a look at that poster to the left. Can it be said any better? Rocky. Rambo. Cobra. You say those words, you see Sly (with varying degrees of hair product and stubble). Hell, just starring OPPOSITE him in his heyday made YOU an icon (say "Apollo", "Clubber", or "Drago" to a passerby and see if they don't know exactly who you're talking about, even if they can't come up with the actor's actual name). So clearly, this was another attempt at making "someone", not just playing a part. But in the films since the multi-layered palooka that was Rocky, Stallone's screen personas (which included subsequent iterations of "The Italian Stallion") were becoming progressively more one-note. And that note was "I'm a badass, I say something in a mumble, you die". So I imagine (and let me stress, this is pure conjecture on my part) Stallone recognized this and decided, "If I want to stay relevant, maybe I oughta switch it up here a bit. Lemme make what's called 'a safe bet' with this arm wrestling movie". But we'll get back to that. What's important is, we got
Over the Top.

Lincoln Hawk (or Hawks, depending on who you believe throughout the course of the movie... even Sly doesn't pick just one surname and stick to it...) is a truck driving man. A divorced truck driving man (already, we've got a layer!). And, as it unfortunately turns out, a soon to be widowed divorced trucker, as his ex-wife is passing away from cancer. Lincoln sees her before she dies and she wants him to take care of their son, Michael (David Mendenhall), when she's gone. Hawk hasn't seen his son since birth essentially, so you can bet things are going to be strained when he shows up in his semi at the military academy that the now just-this-side- of-pre-pubescent Michael attends.

But while we get to watch the estranged father/son jousting go on between the essentially good-natured Hawk and the clipped, thinly-veiled disdain spewing, chipmunk-like visage of Michael, we find out about another layer! He might drive a truck as his main job, but Lincoln has decided to forego "tele-marketing" as a means of supplementing his income. Nope... Lincoln arm wrestles. For cash. In scary bars and diners. And He Doesn't Lose.

And so we get into the meat and potatoes of
Over the Top. While Stallone had made what I'm sure he feels was a "in good faith" attempt to break away from his tough guy persona with some family drama, the testosterone was (metaphorically and possibly literally) on IV drip during the arm wrestling scenes. And, not surprisingly, this is when the movie is at its strongest. Sure, he fills in the gaps between veins popping and arms snapping with some relationship building with his son and a poorly executed "evil grandfather" sub-plot featuring Robert Loggia, but it's all just filler when they aren't holding hands and getting all flared nostril-y.

I also have to mention the other two factors that have kept
Over the Top near and dear to my heart. First, the soundtrack is Grade A 80's perfection. Its centerpiece is of course the Kenny Loggins' masterpiece "Meet Me Halfway". Kenny was in the zone (the Danger Zone, even) at this point of his "explicitly for the soundtrack" career, so his inclusion speaks as strongly as anything else when weighing whether or not Stallone was attempting to go outside his comfort zone (into, again, perhaps the Danger Zone). A Loggins' ballad goes a long way. But it doesn't stop there. We've also got tracks from Sammy Hagar, Asia, and Frank Stallone in the offering, so you know its quality. Seriously.

But what puts this one a notch above the rest is its quality as a "tournament style" fighting movie (and, yes, I consider arm wrestling a form of fighting, particularly as it's presented here). As I've said before (
here and here if you care to look), when you're dealing with this type of movie, you're forced to make the opponents/fodder one-dimensional, so you had better make that dimension an entertaining one. And more importantly, Lord help you if you don't make your villain not only invincible, but as (to borrow the term) over the top as possible. Because if you don't, you've lost me, and I'm your audience. And man did they nail it with Bull Hurley (as played by Rick Zumwalt). He is just one enormous, bald, fu-manchu-ed mound of red-faced bad-assedness, and he plays it to the hilt. He menaces with the best of them, and I really couldn't ask for anything more from a tournament movie bad guy. He's tops in my book.

The Arm Wrasslin'! - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8
Let's be honest: watching arm wrestling is boring. It's too fast to be suspenseful. It's too stationary a sport to be visually dazzling. And man, if I see an arm snap. Blarf. Very few things can get me to change the channel faster (it's right up there with watching vasectomy surgery or spider documentaries). So Stallone and director Menahem Globus (of THOSE guys) had to find a way to fluff this sport up. So rather than trying to make the act of arm wrestling more exciting than it is, they made the participants the focus. And it's a stroke of genius. They went out and found the veiniest, bulgiest bunch of wackos they could find, got them all sweaty and hopped up on lord knows what, and set 'em loose. And they don't disapoint. They're screaming, flexing, slapping themselves and others around. Hell, one guy drinks a quart of motor oil and eats a cigar! That can't be good for you! And then they had the genius idea of splicing in interview footage with the action, giving it a level of real sports verisimilitude that puts it a step above while blending Stallone seamlessly into this cast of crazies.

Against all odds, Stallone & Co. managed to make arm wrestling into something dangerous, glamourous, and exciting. That is an impressive feat. Especially when you consider the fact that if you just listened to the movie's action set-pieces with no picture, you could easily come to the conclusion that it's a movie about various constipated men and their battles in a public restroom.

Overall Rating - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6
When all is said and done with
Over the Top, you can't deny that it ends strongly. As the people left the theater back in 1987, nary a one of them could resist going out and arm wrestling the first one of their buddies that they ran into. But, that being said, it definitely has an albatross to bear, and Michael is its name. The family drama is pure brake pedal to this movie's momentum, bringing it to a screeching halt whenever little Michael pokes his cherub-cheeked face in. It's the reason why I can't quite give this one a higher rating, despite its strengths during the tournament action sequences.

But even little Mikey can't completely derail this one. The bottom line is, Stallone succeeded in making ANOTHER iconic character. And if you want proof, ask someone to arm wrestle. Odds are they're gonna turn their hat around backwards (or pantomime the action), engage "the switch", bulge out their eyes, and then at some point before you start, they're gonna deftly curl their fingers over yours, attempting to imitate Hawk while you snap their humerus in half.

Rob Tillisch
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Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Robert Loggia, Rick Zumwalt,
David Mendenhall
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