Re-Watching "Over The Top" Ahead Of Stallone's Oscar Moment
Sylvester Stallone is nominated for an Academy Award for his (very good!) performance in "Creed." Naturally, we went back to watch his bad 1987 arm-wrestling movie.
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There is a non-zero chance that Sylvester Stallone, America's beefy mumbling sweetheart, will walk out of the Dolby Theater this weekend as an Academy Award Winner. He was nominated twice in 1976 for writing and starring in the original Rocky, and has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for reprising his role in Creed. This could be seen as a lifetime achievement award, but it doesn't have to be seen that way—Stallone gives a fine performance, and the film's snubs in every other category may help its chances; there has to be at least some small bloc in Hollywood who believes a vote for the one white star in a film written, directed by, and starring black talent somehow counts as a vote for racial equality. Clueless awards season politics aside, this might be our last best chance at seeing a STAR OF OSCAR WINS OSCAR headline in the New York Post.
Also, and not to put too fine a point on it, these sorts of Career Achievement Awards tend to accrue to people who have somehow been robbed over the course of long and distinguished careers. That's not quite Stallone, who has starred in a lot of films that, frankly, were little more than cash grabs. A fine example of these, and a prize turd among turds, is the 1987 movie Over The Top, in which Stallone arm wrestles his way to glory and reunites with his son along the way. Nearly half of its $25 million budget went directly into Stallone's bank account, but Over The Top feels more trashy than cheap; nearly thirty years later, this almost feels like an accomplishment. It is a terrible film, made by people who—with the notable exception of director Menahem Golan—easily could have made a better one. That said, it is more watchable than it has any right to be, and far from the most self-serious one-and-a-half star opus in the Stallone oeuvre.
Sylvester Stallone is Lincoln Hawk(s), a truck driver too busy Armor All-ing his big rig and taking meticulous care of his personal hygiene to arrive on time for his son Michael's graduation from a military school that suspiciously looks a lot like frequent '80s backdrop Pomona College. It's tough to blame Young Michael for getting upset, but he's a little too pissy about the snub. Between his father's estrangement, his mother's vague yet ultimately fatal heart ailment, and his wealthy growling grandfather being the legendary Robert Loggia, the kid's got a lot on his plate.
Lincoln and Michael start to develop the father-and-son bond that had long been compromised by Loggia's Sam Cutler although, much like the rusty old truck Hawk drives, the relationship stalls quite a few times. Cutler's hired goons—as played by Terry Fucking Funk and, um, the guy who co-wrote the song "Swingtown"—try and fail to kidnap Michael, and haplessly chase him again much later. Michael's mother, however, is not so lucky in her attempts to avoid the Grim Reaper. In vintage Lincoln Hawk style, Stallone's big rig arrives a few minutes too late, and Michael hates his dad all over again. After trying to win back his son by ramming his truck through his father-in-law's front porch—spoiler: it doesn't work as well as it looks like it should—Lincoln focuses on the big arm wrestling contest while Michael reconnects with his dad through letters Sam hid from him but was too dumb to burn.
The climactic battle of brawn vs. brawn takes place at the beautiful Las Vegas Hilton, where Hawk breezes through the competitors filling the film's requisite Sammy Hagar montage before stumbling against the motor oil-drinking Grizzly John. Michael evades airport security and Robert Loggia's goons in time to cheer for his dad. As it happens, Stallone needs a bit of a pep talk at that moment, largely because he sold his truck and bet all the cash on himself, and also because he turned down a deal from Loggia that would have given him $500,000 and a brand new rig to never see his son again. And then Lincoln Hawk turns around his Bonneau hat one last time and takes way too long to defeat final boss Bull Hurley (Rick Zumwalt). Everyone not named Hurley or Cutler is happy at the end, but you knew that several paragraphs ago.
Over The Top's script is all over the place, with "credit" going to separate drafts by Stallone and Academy Award-winner Stirling Silliphant, both of whom were working off an original script written in the late 1970's by David Engelbach. According to a 2015 interview, Engelbach's screenplay was his introduction into The Cannon Group, the dodgy ultra-'80s production company for which he would eventually write Death Wish II. Future drafts of that original Over The Top script, which Engelbach had no part of, diluted the father and son relationship that had been the story's core, replacing it with everything you just read about.
In Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films, Engelbach goes as far as saying he cried in horror upon seeing his former dream project on the screen for the first time. Stirling Silliphant did too many awesome things to mention here, from being close friends with Bruce Lee to creating "Naked City" and "Route 66" to writing most of Irwin Allen's 1970's disaster movies. If Engelbach is correct, we also have Silliphant to thank for the increased emphasis on Robert Loggia's dickishness, and for the scene where Stallone rams his big rig through the fucking Beverly Hillbillies mansion. Thanks, Stirling!
Menahem Golan, who with his cousin Yoram Globus turned The Cannon Group into the weird 1980's hybrid of Miramax psuedo-prestige and The Asylum-style cheap thrills, directed Over The Top with as much professionalism as he brought to such prior films as Operation Thunderbolt, The Delta Force, and the psychotic musical anti-classic The Apple. To call Golan a competent director would be patronizing, but the movie doesn't actively suffer from his work behind the camera, which is not true of many of his other films. And the work of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III cinematographer David Gurfinkel really puts a shine on this particular turd, especially the wide shots of the truck traveling across the American West. The Giorgio Moroder score and the mid-80's soundtrack do not hurt, either. Over The Top is not a good movie, but as a highlight reel of Extremely 1987 Things, it covers the territory.
The late great Robert Loggia is, unsurprisingly, great as Sam Cutler, the dickish father-in-law who tries to buy his way out of everything short of his daughter's death. Susan Blakely literally phones it in from her fictional deathbed, but is fine in a thankless role. David Mendenhall is Peak Child Actor as Michael Cutler/Hawk(s)—a pinched, meticulously rehearsed kid perhaps a few years too old for his role who comes off as a little whiny. That said, Mendenhall's performance fits well with the janky nature of Over The Top; he did his best work the following year, in the monkey caper Going Bananas.
There is a very detailed account of the actual Over The Top arm wrestling competition, which culminated the weekend the movie's competition was also filmed. Future WCW wrestler Scott "Flapjack" Norton won the super heavyweight division, while John Brzenk, perhaps the greatest arm wrestler of all time, won the Trucker's Division despite being a mere airline mechanic. For Brzenk's effort, he won the exact truck Hawk wins at the end, which he later sold off. Rick Zumwalt was the third choice to play Hawk's rival Bull Hurley; he's a good fit for the part largely because he could plausibly lose an arm-wrestling contest to Sylvester Stallone, as opposed to the gargantuan Cleve Dean, originally cast to face Sly in the climax.
Poor decision-making and bad timing both play a part in the failure of Over The Top as a movie and at the box office. Perhaps Cannon knew they didn't have a critical darling when the film was released on President's Day Weekend in 1987, but not only did Over The Top not open at number one, it finished fourth behind that classic tale of a Philadelphia underdog making it big: Mannequin. It also must not have helped that Over The Top was released between two movies whose arm wrestling scenes are more iconic than anything the former could produce: The Fly and Predator.
The Cannon Group was already showing cracks in its facade when Over The Top was released, and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Masters Of The Universe would soon finish the job. It's hard not to admire the vision of Menahem Golan for risking so much for an arm wrestling film, as well as the crew's unrelenting drive to betray that vision. The sheer ballsiness of Sylvester Stallone for doing this movie for the money should also be commended, because he outsmarted the producers and made a nice eight-figure salary for basically using just one arm and muttering some stuff every now and then.
Over The Top is indeed over the top, but it works in spite of itself, at least as 93 minutes of mindless entertainment. It is a movie that people did not make so much as survive. And if Sylvester Stallone does not win an Academy Award on Sunday, he can always take solace in the knowledge that Over The Top did not earn him a Razzie for Worst Actor, and that he has far less to answer than the guy who beat him for that prestigious award that year. It's the little things.