Cannonvember #7 Over the Top (1987)

You can all but smell the perspiration! 

You can all but smell the perspiration! 

According to Electric Boogaloo, Mark Hartley’s wildly entertaining documentary on the rise and fall of Cannon films, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had a strong strategy for luring Sylvester Stallone, one of the biggest and least comprehensible movie stars of the era, into starring in the 1987 inspirational arm wrestling drama Over the Top. They simply offered the superstar more money than anyone had ever been paid to be in a movie.

Of course it’s possible that once inflation or various incentives are factored in Stallone wasn’t the single highest paid actor up to that point, but he certainly ranked high amongst the most ridiculously compensated, and also over-compensated, actors of all time. Like pretty much all actors and human beings, Stallone likes money, and as his filmography has continuously illustrated, he isn’t exactly a stickler for quality, so one of the biggest box-office attractions of his time briefly ended up in Cannon’s stable of manly men. 

Cannon was always more aggressively working class than the big studios. In the overlapping worlds of long-distance trucking and competitive arm wrestling, Over the Top director Menahem Golan found a sweaty universe of truck stops and greasy diners and enormous, quivering piles of manly muscles pressed into dirty tank tops that makes the grubby boxing world of Rocky look as effete and highbrow as George Plimpton cocktail party chatter. 

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This was how Golan saw the United States: as an almost exclusively male realm—why would you need more than just a single dying woman in a movie with no prostitutes, sex scenes or nudity?—where large, manly men drove enormous vehicles to a backdrop of inspirational, fist-pumping anthems with lyrics like “The miles go by like water under the bridge/Reach for tomorrow with the new sunrise/The road before leading to what we need/Right from the start/follow our hearts.”

Sylvester Stallone, who was paid twelve million dollars for Over the Top, portrays one of those manly men in a truck, in this case Lincoln Hawks of Hawks Hauling, a three-time winner for “Manliest name for a local business.” A long time ago Hawks abandoned his wife and son but his dying ex-wife wants their son Michael (David Mendenhall) to have a relationship with his father so she has him travel to the boy’s exclusive military school to pick him up for a three-day bonding trip, much to the chagrin of the boy’s angry, wealthy and controlling grandfather Jason Cutler (Robert Loggia). 

Michael was written as a Little Lord Fauntleroy figure, a pompous brat and dandified child of privilege who looks down upon his father not just as a social and intellectual inferior but as a lower life form. Mike comes off like Chris Elliott in Cabin Boy, an unintentional parody of a foppish dandy. My life has been irrevocably scarred by parental abandonment, in my case by my mother, but I nevertheless think Hawks probably did the right thing by abandoning the brat. Saved himself a whole lot of headaches and aggravation, and really, the only mistake he made was agreeing to venture back into the brat’s life to be his dad. 

That's a mighty serious face there, Sly

That's a mighty serious face there, Sly

Michael is unrelentingly horrible to his salt-of-the-earth-father, who has been sending his son heartfelt letters for decades that Michael never received or knew about. Though his snobby progeny treats him with aristocratic disdain, Lincoln breaks through his son’s formidable defenses by doing things that to our eyes look like clear-cut child abuse, but in the 1980s qualified as good parenting and quality cinema.  

Lincoln is apparently one of the greatest arm wrestlers in the world, so he decides that he’ll boost his son’s confidence by bullying and manipulating his horrified and reluctant son into challenging a boy his own age to an arm wrestling match for money. Michael doesn’t want to do it, particularly after losing the first match, but Lincoln keeps giving him gently bullying pep talks until the preppy bastard beats the other kid because apparently arm-wrestling talent is passed through genetics and not something that you need to develop through practice and training. 

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In another heartwarming scene of outside-the-box yet improbably effective parenting, Lincoln gets back at his son for sassing his blue-collar way of making a living by having him drive his truck for a while. At first Michael is understandably terrified. I was really hoping for a fatal collision, but soon he’s gaining the kind of confidence and bulletproof self-esteem that comes with being bullied and manipulated into doing dangerous, age-inappropriate things by a father who abandoned him as a baby.

When Lincoln tells his dying ex-wife Christina Cutler-Hawk (Susan Blakely) about what a wonderful time he had forcing his child to drive a truck and also forcing his sobbing, reluctant formerly milquetoast son to arm-wrestle other children for money she doesn’t behave like a sane parent and express shock, horror and mortification. No, she just beatifically smiles and says that seems nice because she knows that her only real function in the movie is to bring father and son together, and then die. 

It’s no wonder Richie Rich’s grandfather doesn’t want this lunatic hanging around with his grandson. It’s a good thing he only has a few days with his son because I can only imagine what kind of irresponsible bonding activities he’d try with the kid if he had him to himself for an entire week: Alligator wrestling? Punching rattle snakes? Visiting a whorehouse with a pocketful of cash and zero condoms? Sky-diving without parachutes? 

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Oh, and Little Lord Fauntleroy’s incredible instant arm-wrestling expertise? It literally never comes up again although Lincoln’s equally irresponsible, reckless truck-driving lessons do pay off positively in the final act when the truck-driving twelve-year old purloins a vehicle so he can make it to see his dad in the world championship of arm wrestling. 

Lincoln is a good man dealt a bad hand by fate and his evil ex-father-in-law but for an exemplar of sweaty, working-man decency, Lincoln sure behaves in a self-defeating manner sometimes. For example, he’s frustrated that Loggia’s sinister powerbroker is keeping his son from him, so he expresses that frustration by driving his truck through the gates of the grandfather’s mansion and then through the mansion itself. 

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If I wanted to show the world, and more specifically my evil ex-father-in-law that I am a good father who can be trusted, I would not do so by committing a series of felonies, seemingly each of which would make it impossible for me to ever see my son, let alone get custody of him. 

In part because it really only has one female character with only a few minutes of screen time, Over the Top feels screamingly homoerotic. The production designer might as well have just passed around a Tom of Finland collection to the crew to give them a sense of the look he's going for because Over the Top is full of buff men with sinewy muscles overflowing out of their soiled tank tops as they sit facing similarly muscle-bound colossuses, their faces mere inches away from each other, the proximity almost daring them to kiss and make out instead of arm-wrestle. 

During the arm-wrestling sequences in Over the Top, we’re afforded what I imagine is a fairly close representation of the strained expression Sylvester Stallone makes both while pooping and making love. Stallone is famously one of the weirdest looking dudes in Hollywood to begin with. Did they really need to make a film that continually calls for Stallone to look like he's trying violently to force a bowel movement after agonizing months of constipation? Does the whole world need to see Stallone’s "O" face?

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During the championship sequences, arm wrestlers talk directly to the camera in faux-documentary sequences that made me wish that I was not watching Over the Top but rather a Christopher Guest comedy from the same era with the exact same premise but Guest’s standard repertory cast and, I dunno, Eugene Levy in the Stallone role instead. 

How awesome would that be? Instead the closest we come is Stallone addressing the camera directly and letting us in on the secret of his technique. “What I do is I just try to take my hat, and I turn it around, and it’s like a switch goes on” he confides in us, and then he stops being a soft-spoken, mild-mannered truck driver and absentee super-dad and becomes a truck, a monster, a vessel of extreme, destructive power. 

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It’s so fucking stupid it’s kind of adorable. I imagine a similar dynamic is at play with Fred Durst. If the baseball cap is straight, he’s all business but when he switches that baby around he turns into a beast. 

The arm-wrestling world would be perfect for Guest. I can only imagine the kind of colorful eccentrics he’d populate my theoretical 1987 satirical version of Over the Top with. He’d certainly do better than Over the Top, which throws a largely interchangeable selection of easily-defeated brutes at its hero distinguished only by their skin color, the macho realm they come from (teamsters, truck-driving) and what they grunt while being easily defeated. 

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Guest could have made this a rollicking and hilarious comedy. Instead Stallone and Golan have turned it into movie where the voluminous laughs are of the unintentional variety. Having suffered recently through six Chuck Norris vehicles for this website, I couldn’t help but appreciate everything Stalllone brings to a movie, positive and negative. Over the Top is a massive vanity project for Stallone (who re-wrote prolific veteran Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant’s script), who turned out to be the perfect leading man for Cannon. With Cobra (coming up next in this column!) and Over the Top, Cannon and Stallone didn’t exactly make great art together, but they did make awfully fun trash. 

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