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Looking Back: Over The Top (1987)

It makes perfect sense that Sylvester Stallone, at the height of his powers as an 80’s mega-movie star, would make a PG-rated action movie for kids. Over time, Stallone would make a massive comeback, regain his status as an actor (and not merely a Movie Star) and, against all odds, become an Oscar contender. By the mid-1980’s however, Stallone’s career took a very commercial turn, in which he starred in a string of tailor-made vehicles, many of which were beneath him and don’t hold up, even through the haze of nostalgia.

Stallone stars as Lincoln Hawk, a single, apparently homeless truck driver who belatedly decides to give fatherhood a shot. For reasons both overly complicated and painfully contrived, Hawk must drive his son, Michael (played by David Mendenhall, a survivor of this and “Going Bananas!”) on a road trip where they bond and ponder attending an arm wrestling championship in Las Vegas.

After the whammy of starring in “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Rocky IV,” both giant 1985 blockbusters, the reigning Italian Stallion of American Action Movies started to go wrong. I’m not saying that the movies that followed, “Cobra,””Lock Up,” “Rambo III,” “Tango & Cash” and “Rocky V” aren’t entertaining (“Tango & Cash” in particular plays like a knowing parody and is a deluxe guilty pleasure if there ever was one). A harder argument to make is that they’re any good. Case in point: “Over The Top,”

Oddly enough, this is the first of three almost-consecutive movies in which Stallone plays an imprisoned character (the best Sly in the Slammer movie, “Escape Plan,” wouldn’t come for decades later).

“Over The Top” was directed Menahem Golan, of the Golan/Globus alliance that brought us the infamous, fondly remembered Cannon Films. Golan, like Stallone, knows a winning formula and does everything he can to hit the narrative beats of “Rocky,” “The Champ” and “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” an odd pairing if there ever was one. Considering this is about a lovable blue collar worker, a regular at greasy spoon diners  and a real man of the people, who must bond with his “spoiled brat rich kid” son, what we have is oddly like the 1991, John Hughes-scripted “Dutch,” with lots and lots of arm wrestling.

Let it be said, when the arm wrastlin’ is the focus, the movie works. There is a bug-eyed, sweat n’ stank, testosterone-fueled intensity to these scenes that are just right. Note the final match between our hero and his opponent: the camera moves in close, the actors sound like they’re in excruciating pain, and even the slow-motion shots succeed in keep us on edge and enthralled. To my knowledge, “Over The Top” is the only movie to prominently feature arm wrestling as a sport. It may be dubious praise, but I can’t imagine it being done better than it is here.

Whenever the movie focuses on Hawk bonding with his son, it all goes down smoothly, even as Stallone whisper/mumbles too much of his lines and Mendenhall’s earnest performance is sometimes grating. Early on, we meet “Bull,” the burly villain played by Rick Zumwalt. “Bull” has a great psyche-out method of making crazy-eyes, pointing his beefy fingers at his opponents and growling, “You’re Mine!” He’s a great villain.

At one point, “Bull” wears a hat for a Las Vegas State Corrections Security Officer, a subplot this movie sorely needed. Zumwalt’s other big role is playing the guy who gets beat up in a bar by Sean Connery in “The Presidio” (don’t laugh, it’s a great scene). “Bull” should have had a bigger role in “Over The Top” but is, most unfortunately, the movie’s secondary villain. The Head Jerk is actually played by Robert Loggia, as a the suit-wearing, thug-hiring “Grandpa,” whose only goal in life appears to make his Grandson Michael and Hawk completely miserable.

Loggia typically gives too much when the roles aren’t good and he seems to be striving for the same intensity in his acting as the arm wrestling scenes. It doesn’t work. Neither do the badly clichéd scenes of Michael’s Sick Mother. The first major wrong turn comes when Hawk tricks his son into an impromptu arm wrestling match with a bunch of obnoxious 80’s teens over a pinball machine. It’s a rotten scene, supposedly built on the idea that Hawk is building character in Michael. Considering Michael doesn’t have a follow-up bit where he arm wrestles again, the ordeal he suffers is especially pointless.

In addition to mountains of clichés and characters with little-to-no depth, lets also talk about logic. I still can’t figure out how Michael could steal and drive a vehicle (after one lesson), hop a plane, grab a cab and sneak into a Las Vegas arm wrestling tournament with the finesse of Danny Ocean. Plus, despite montages telling us otherwise, does anyone really believe Hawk could have his Adonis physique by working out with his truck every morning (and sometimes while he’s driving!)?

What “Over The Top” has is a mid-range but undeniably likable Stallone turn to carry it, a handful of good 80’s tunes to power it and a heartfelt father/son story that manages to engage, in spite of how badly formulaic it is.

80’s Kids with “Rambo” posters and action figures finally had a non-R rated Stallone movie they could see with their parents. This one even had its own short-lived action figure line! Sly would later make a comeback as an action star with “Cliffhanger” in 1993, find a resurgence as a character actor in the superb 1997 “Cop Land,” and begin a string of mostly-solid 21st century films like “Rocky Balboa.” When he made “Over The Top,” he was outrunning the ridicule and fall-out of one dud after another. “Over The Top” is one of the more enjoyable vehicles in his down period but man, is it dopey.

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