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‘Over the Top’ Under the Microscope

What is it about this big, dumb movie that gets us every time?
By  · Published on April 21st, 2017

You can go ahead and sheathe your Tweets, we are well aware that 1987’s Over the Top is a flawed piece of cinema. It’s called Over the Top for crying out loud; if ever the writing was on the wall. However, there is something about this spectacular failed attempt to take the sport of armwrestling mainstream that continues to delight and inspire this writer and the other hosts of the Junkfood Cinema podcast. If you currently sneer at “that movie where Sylvester Stallone armwrestles for custody of his son,” allow me to offer an argument in favor of Over the Top. Look, just read it, ok? Meet me halfway.

While the popular logline for Over the Top is not entirely accurate, it’s unquestionable that it is a silly movie. Truckers getting their faces smacked before armwrestling each other in sweaty diner back rooms, a father who wants to reconnect with his son despite the film never telling us why he left him in the first place, and Stallone going toe-to-toe with a bearded man who willingly guzzles motor oil before a match. More inescapable however is the working class sincerity of Over the Top that speaks to the most fascinating point of Stallone’s career.

There is a perfect storm of hubris in combining for one movie the collective inflated ego of Cannon Films producer/director Manahem Golan and actor Sylvester Stallone. If Leni Riefenstahl had directed a documentary about this collaboration, it would be called The Imposing of the Will. For those who don’t know, Golan was the head of a studio known for employing more shady production tactics than Roger Corman during tax season. Similarly, Sylvester Stallone has made as much a career of being a musclebound prima donna as he has of being an action hero.

But in the 80s, that arrogance was restrained to behind-the-scenes antics. These incidents include firing Barry Sonnenfeld off Tango & Cash because he felt Barry didn’t know how to light him correctly and actually asking the author of the book on which Cobra is based if the book could be re-released with Stallone instead listed as the author. And yet for all the elbows he tossed around, which I’m pretty sure would be a penalty at the World Armwrestling Championships, the characters Stallone plays during this decade are primarily blue collar Joes to whom the audience can relate and who are drenched with humility.

He kicks off the decade in the gritty buddy cop flick Nighthawks wherein he plays a cop so eager to clean up the streets that he is willing to dress as a woman to bait purse-snatchers; no judgment of those who enjoy crossdressing, but it’s certainly something we’d never see Stallone do again. He plays a cab driver in Rhinestone (terrible but apt for this analysis), he plays a New Jersey mechanic/prison inmate in Lockup, and even his exaggeratedly hardboiled cop Cobra is saddled with the ego-checking first name of Marion.

Consider also two of his most popular cinematic characters: John Rambo and Rocky Balboa. Much like John McClane, Rambo and Rocky lost their grasps on the everyman identity throughout their sequels. But recall that Rocky began life as a struggling boxer forced to be a loan shark’s enforcer to make ends meet and in 1982, we were introduced to the original version of John Rambo: a damaged Vietnam veteran being hassled by small-town cops while literally just trying to make it back home.

There are exceptions to this Stallone 80s model — self-parodying caricature Ray Tango and a Rocky who figuratively punches down the Berlin Wall — but they are just that: exceptions. This is before we hit the 90s wherein he is playing assassins, cryogenically frozen supercops, and post-apocalyptic super…judges. His roles became so hilariously larger than life that Stallone the actor became subsumed by Stallone the movie star right before audiences’ eyes. This might be why his turn in Copland was so heralded, as a return to the 80s Stallone archetype we all preferred.

Somehow one of the least over-the-top characters Stallone has ever played is Over the Top’s Lincoln Hawk. Hawk, who is periodically also called “Hawkes” because the writers weren’t paying much attentionm, is a freelance truck driver with big dreams owning his own trucking firm. He subsists on truck stop steak and armwrestles for extra cash to make ends meet. He’s divorced, is estranged from his own son, and has a bitter relationship with his ex-father-in-law. If his collar were any bluer, he could go on tour with Jeff Foxworthy! While it’s true that Over the Top is Manahem Golan’s temple of machismo, bigger than the biceps in this movie is the heart of the movie itself. Stallone plays Hawk with such a evocative genuineness that you not only buy him as the underdog at the armwrestling podium, but as the David to everyday life’s Goliath.

Off screen, I don’t care about armwrestling in the slightest whether it be single or double elimination, but like a well-crafted documentary (incidentally, the third act slips in some surprise documentary-style structure), Over the Top makes the audience care about the subject by delivering likable characters with sympathetic motivations whom we want to see succeed. And my god is Lincoln Hawk’s victory triumphant!

Although he’s not technically winning custody of his son, because he’s legally had that custody the entire time, the struggle of a physically mighty man to be a loving, providing father elicits tears from even the stoniest of eye sockets. That triumph is enhanced by a beautiful score by the legendary Giorgio Moroder, a power ballad by the equally legendary Kenny Loggins, and a blistering, montage-inciting anthem from Sammy Hagar.

Don’t feel out-of-place if you haven’t previously connected with Over the Top. Junkfood Cinema cohost C. Robert Cargill wasn’t hot on it either, and he and Brian Salisbury wrestled with covering it as part of their Summer of 87 series. Luckily, Alamo Drafthouse programmer and Neon Films creative director Greg MacLennan was there to referee. Give it a listen and see how Cargill’s (and possibly your own) opinion turns around like Lincoln Hawk’s trucker hat.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! During Summer of 87, there will be an entirely separate Summer of 77 miniseries just for Patrons! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.