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The Cannon Canon: Revisiting ‘Over the Top’ (1987)

Its premise alone is generally enough to evoke laughter and/or derision: A truck driver seeks the funds necessary to secure custody of his young son, and ultimately does so through the winnings earned by arm wrestling. For the chosen few, however, the basic plot synopsis of Over the Top will spark a degree of rapt curiosity. And those who are willing to entertain this 1987 drama, surrendering to its often-clumsy charm and its strained self-seriousness, may indeed come out the other end with an appreciation for its sincere commitment.

Produced and directed by Menahem Golan, with a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and star Sylvester Stallone, Over the Top was released near the beginning of the end of The Cannon Group’s notorious 1980s run, a period punctuated by hysterical action-packed extravaganzas, courtesy of impassioned Israeli cousins, Golan and Yoram Globus. In this exemplary feature, Stallone plays Lincoln Hawk, a down-on-his-luck trucker and absent father to pre-teen cadet, Michael (David Mendenhall). Hawk hasn’t exactly been neglectful, though, as he has been writing to his son for years, but those letters were intercepted by Jason Cutler (a seething Robert Loggia), Michael’s scheming grandfather and dad to Hawk’s estranged wife, Christina (Susan Blakely). Christina, who is fatally ill in a California hospital, seeks to rectify the relationship rift between Michael and Hawk by having her erstwhile husband pick up the reluctant youngster from his military academy in Colorado. While Jason moves in and out of the narrative with varying degrees of consequence, but always as a persistent obstructionist force, the contrary road trip that supports the first two-thirds of Over the Top becomes a peculiarly successful showcase for Stallone and Mendenhall.

Mendenhall already had substantial acting experience by this point, appearing in movies, television shows, and commercials, and in the face of Michael’s shrewd, spoiled demeanor, the young actor manages to create a progressively endearing child figure. He is a health-conscious buzzkill to start, underscored by grating politeness and annoying condescension, informing Hawk he is going to “be a victim of cholesterol poisoning,” peppering a “sir” into every sentence, and insulting his father with quips like, “You don’t read much, do you?” Still he ends up a bubbling youth expressing genuinely infectious joy.

This change in behavior is largely the result of Hawk’s admirable dedication, and that speaks to Stallone’s compelling, albeit ludicrous, performance (it had better be decent: he received a hefty $12 million payday, accounting for roughly half the film’s budget). Following his nihilistic appearance in the 1986 Cannon actioner Cobra, and just before his third return to Rambo territory, Stallone effectively sells the role of Hawk, as his cumbersome emotional range corresponds seamlessly to the character’s own uncomfortable countenance. In Over the Top, Stallone has an appealing blue-collar brawn, similar to his iconic Rocky Balboa, and he possesses the same underdog appeal. As he walks past the uppity gawking bystanders at Michael’s academy (the uncouth Hawk did just pull up in his rig, after all), it’s an early illustration of his amiable outsider status, and when we see his cab plastered with photos of Michael through the years, it’s an indication of his unaffected motivation. Stallone imbues in Hawk a tender, wounded decency; despite Michael’s initial skepticism, his father is earnestly attempting to make up for 10 years of absence in two or three days.

What results from this forced reunion is an occasionally confrontational awakening. Michael is baffled by Hawk’s simple ways and his arm wrestling aptitude (“I’ve gotta go to work,” he tells his son as he accepts a spontaneous challenge at a table set up in the back of roadside diner), yet as the two sift through the lies spun by grandfather Jason, something significant rises to the surface. Glorious musical-montage sequences seal the deal, embracing Hawk and Michael in their on-the-road exercise regimen or as they drive through Monument Valley, a backdrop adding visual scope further amplified by the film’s power ballad soundtrack. That soundtrack, which is phenomenal, is also begrudgingly potent and distinctly of the decade, with music by Giorgio Moroder and songs by Eddie Money, Kenny Loggins, and Sammy Hagar, among others (why not, even Frank Stallone gets a tune). It provides the type of demonstrative uplift only the 1980s could provide. Otherwise, in more subdued moments, Hawk teaches Michael to drive, exposing the boy’s latent purity and softening his ingrained severity, and he espouses his own brand of tough love, with life lessons learned repeatedly summarized by the dictum, true enough, “The world meets nobody half way.” In spite of the film’s necessarily rushed sentimentality (it doesn’t take long to drive from Colorado to California), Golan and company adequately advance Hawk’s modest confidence, his aspirations, and his awkward attempts to bond with Michael, building up their closeness just in time, and in the right right amount, to make their separation mean something.

With a self-effacing clip-on tie and cocky mud flaps reading “Passing Side” on the left and “Suicide” on the right, Hawk embodies a form of classically-Cannon masculinity, one built on austerity and modesty, yes, but also on self-reliance, stubbornness, and confrontation (see the way Hawk barrels through/over Jason’s ornate front yard after the old man has assumed temporary guardianship of Michael). Befitting Over the Top’s apt title, this latter cluster of qualities gets taken up a notch when the picture eases into its vigorous arm wrestling dénouement, which bursts at the seams with muscular brutality, bulk, and bulge. Hawk peddles his semi for the entry money and, as a 20-1 longshot, makes the most of his ranking by betting on himself (conveniently and rather oddly, given how many athletes probably aren’t truck drivers, a new rig is the grand prize). Though there are a few female competitors, the furious finale climaxes in a raucous, testosterone-fueled arena, with hazy lights, seedy pandemonium, and endless dashes of debris and dust. It’s a wild assembly of inharmonious people and frenzied performances, including a few professional arm wrestler cameos, happy to promote the sport in a form seldom obtainable.

Relatively outclassed, or at least drastically outweighed, Hawk settles down to face the champ, big-man Bob “Bull” Hurley (Rick Zumwalt). And just as all appears lost, there it is: the money shot. Stallone’s hero turns his hat backward (this gesture, he declares in one of a series of hilarious interview segments, is like a mechanized “switch,” a gimmick no doubt emulated by some of the film’s adolescent audience preparing for whatever strenuous task is at hand), and in dramatic slow motion, he assumes Over the Top’s eponymous hand positioning technique. The sweat and strain, the grunts and protruding veins, it all pays off in a spectacle so fascinating that even Jason, having showed up to retrieve Michael, halts to take it all in: “We’re going home,” he asserts, appending, “as soon as this is over.” It’s sweet victory as Jason, a thoroughly one-dimensional antagonist anyway, gives a casual head nod of approval and is swept away for the movie’s satisfying conclusion.

David Engelbach wrote the preliminary story of Over the Top in the 1970s, and upon seeing the completed film, he disparaged the result. In 2015, he told Jeff Cramer, “I saw the film at the screening and was very upset about it. … they built up the part of the grandfather and had ridiculous scenes where he drives his truck into the grandfather’s house and stupid stuff.” However accurate that assessment might be (this film is heartily ridiculous), his disdain isn’t entirely justified. Continuing, he notes,Over the Top is actually a much more heartfelt story about this strange relationship between this father and son. … I didn’t have some of the B-movie White Line Fever stuff that they subsequently added because they think they felt they had to pump up the action on it. I think it was a mistake.” While those B-movie elements are certainly prominent, and they constitute the features that commonly define Over the Top, for better or worse, the tugging of heartstrings remains intact, if one brushes aside the cynicism and doubt and gives in to the picture as an agreeable participant in its hackneyed vision. If that doesn’t happen, though, and if the B-movie devices aren’t endurable, Over the Top is still, if nothing else, the best arm wrestling movie ever made.

About Jeremy Carr

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, and Fandor.

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