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Terrifically Terrible Cinema: “Over the Top” (1987)

7977262“The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.”
~~Lincoln Hawk

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.

14 Responses

  1. Lincoln Hawk, one of the great character names.
    is Terrifically Terrible Cinema a new series M Carter? if so, count me in

    • I’m giving it a think or two … if I find more movies this awesomely awful I may have to start a new series.

      As soon as I stop abusing alliteration, that is.

  2. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s stop for a second here. I’m afraid you’ve wholly ignored the film’s rich subtext. The back-and-forth struggle of the arm wrestling symbolizes Lincoln Hawk’s constant struggle between his desire to do the right thing and the stubborn, independent streak that drove them apart for so long. Consider the name Lincoln Hawk: it mixes one of our greatest presidents, a man who freed millions, with a hawk, a fierce bird of prey. The combination suggests both physical and spiritual implacability, but also an internal conflict between Lincoln, who risked everything for unity, and the hawk, a solitary creature. If we extrapolate, Over the Top is a beautiful exploration of the duality of man.

    I’m really surprised you didn’t spot that.

    • Pardon my French, but: Holy shit.

      Your AP English teacher would be sooooo proud.

      • The one thing I’ve learned from all the English classes I’ve ever taken (it sure as hell isn’t proper comma usage) is that if you bullshit sufficiently and with a straight face, you will get an A. Especially if you dig up some bullshit that no one’s ever thought of before.

      • Jake, you are a man after my own heart, I swear it.

  3. haven’t seen this movie in a loooong time. i do remember the part where they have to bring out the strap.

    siskel and ebert talk about that in their amusing review of the movie, which was apparently going by the title “Meet Me Half Way” at the time(?).


    • I will try very hard NOT to make a joke about how arm wrestling is just an excuse for dudes to hold hands without people cracking jokes.


      I’ll have to check out the that review.

  4. I love this awesomely awful film. It’s about arm wrestling! Really?

    • A reviewer on Netflix called it the “‘Citizen Kane’ of arm wrestling movies.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, so I won’t try!

  5. HAHAH!! Wonderfully Awesome!!

    And to think, you were skeptical about this movie. With a name like “Over the Top”, and especially with that awesome picture of Sly with the lightning all around his one strong arm wrasslin’ arm, I could understand your doubts. But, with a kick ass soundtrack, backward flipped hat, and with that signature regrip “over the top” of the hand (for maximum wrasslin’ awesomeness), this movie has it all.

    Plus, you get to see that one kid go from military academy prep to redneck in about 3 days.

    • I think the National Arm Wrestling Championships have the potential to make the Dalai Lama go redneck.

      Also: Hey, you commented on my blog! Come back and do it again soon!

  6. […] (albeit an observant, more emotionally rich rewrite) of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 movie “Over the Top,” Mottern’s film does lose some valuable points for predictability. In all fairness, unless […]

  7. […] of readers have embraced, got its start after a viewing of that ’80s masterpiece of cheese “Over the Top” and some ghetto screwdrivers (I ran out of orange juice, so orange soda got moved to […]

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