“The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.”
First things first: Let’s go ahead and agree that this movie scribble is going to file “Over the Top,” a lesser-known Sly Stallone gem from the late 1980s, in the supremely overstuffed folder titled “Splendidly Bad Epic ’80s Flicks” (because if the ’80s produced a movie that was not epic in scope and soundtrack, I did not see it). For a movie about the National Arm Wrestling Championships in Sin City that also manages to include oodles of dad-like advice, big burly-man semis and a man who chugs Valvoline belongs nowhere if it does not belong in that manila folder.
With its screenplay co-written by Stallone, “Over the Top” (heed the title; it’s damn fine nutshelling) has but one thing to offer its highly specific audience of Sly fans and connoisseurs of Terrifically Terrible Cinema: a marvelous and total lack of sophistication. For Demolition Man, “subtlety” is nothing less than a deplorable dirty word — always has been, save for a “First Blood” here and a “Rocky Balboa” there — and it shows. Not one single element of “Over the Top,” from the smallest father/son moment to The Really Big, Really Intense Showdown, is understated. (Remember about the title? I told you it was important.) Metaphors are painted with big, messy glops and slops; the sweeping montages showcase “Eye of the Tiger”-styled music so loud it drowns out the (ha! as if!) dialogue; the dying mom has a bad case of Sick People Teeth and Too Much Gray Eyeshadow; Robert Loggia acts like his very life hinges on line overdelivery.
There’s bad, alright, but this? This is the kind of movie that’s so bad you have to watch the whole thing.
But more on this plot, so awful it seems overripe for a remake by Trey Parker and Matt Stone: Long-haul trucker Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) discovers his ill wife Christina (Susan Blakely) is rapidly approaching her expiration date and she wants him to have a relationship with Michael (David Mendenhall), the son he left behind. Christina’s underhanded father Jason Cutler (Loggia), who long ago branded Hawk a — gasp! — “loser,” has done his part to keep father and son separated. But soon enough Cutler learns three important lessons: 1) Hawk drives a semi big enough to obliterate fancy porcelain fountains, so don’t piss him off; 2) If you see Hawk’s hat turned backward, he’s already pissed off, so run away; and 3) National arm wrestling competitions are petri dishes that breed entire populations warm, fuzzy dad-and-son moments.
Herein lies the pure trashy fun of “Over the Top”: It’s exactly the movie you expect it to be, only moreso. Everything is loud and bright and dumb and epic and so overdone as to be hysterically funny. Hawk’s arm wrestling competitors alone are priceless, from Grizzly the Valvoline-swigger (Bruce Way) — who learns the only appropriate follow-up to Valvoline is Alka-Seltzer — to the philosopher Bull Hurley (Rick Zumwalt), a man of simple tastes who lives by an easy-to-remember credo: “I drive truck, break arms, and arm wrestle. It’s what I love to do, it’s what I do best.” Hawk himself is something of a soothsayer, a deliverer of gloriously unsubtle advice (refer to the opening quote), and there are moments when Stallone appears to have slipped into a communicative coma while playing him. Mendenhall and Loggia take the opposite approach, injecting so much passion into their Big Speeches that they threaten to become touching. But they do not, and thank Valvoline for that; it would ruin this movie!
So, no, “Over the Top” is not great work of art, or even a paint-by-numbers ripped from Highlights. But it is the finest movie ever made about arm wrestling, and sometimes, well, that’s enough.