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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Over the Top (1987) review


 

OVER THE TOP 1987

Sylvester Stallone (Lincoln Hawks), Robert Loggia (Jason Cutler), David Mendenhall (Michael Cutler), Rick Zumwalt (Bull Hurley), Susan Blakely (Christina Cutler), Terry Funk (Ruker), Magic Schwarz (Smasher), Bruce Way (Grizzly), Randy Raney (Mad Dog Madison), Paul Sullivan (Carl Adams), Jack Wright (Big Bill Larson), Sam Scarber (Bosco)

Directed by Menahem Golan


"I'm gonna give you a world o' hurt, little man!"

The Short Version: Armwrestling has long been a staple of action films as macho window dressing, but for one strange moment in history, an entire movie was built around it (and a real life armwrestling tourney). Not since the Italian sword and sandal movies of the 1950s and 1960s has their been so much grunting, groaning, and mountains of sweat rolling off of biceps. Hell, one hairy man drinks a can of Valvoline before a match. It's ROCKY without boxing gloves. And a ring. It's a feel-good movie drenched in kitsch and 80s power ballad overload. There's an honest to goodness message suffocating underneath all that testosterone and outrageous "dialog" that often puts this minor league macho movie Over the Top.

 
Lincoln Hawk is a truck driver priming himself and pumping his right arm for a big armwrestling tournament in Las Vegas while trying to reconnect with his son, Mike after years of absence. Learning that his dying ex-wife's father has been instrumental in keeping Hawk out of touch with his kid, Hawk is determined to gain custody of Michael by any means necessary, and hopefully win the big prize in Las Vegas. Also dogging Lincoln is Bull Hurley, a big and bad man undefeated on the pulling circuit.


Sylvester Stallone was still riding the crest of his popularity by the time OVER THE TOP hit theaters in February of 1987. This was his second Cannon film after the gritty brutality of COBRA (1986), the actors second 'Tough Cop' role after 1981s obscure STREET HAWKS co-starring Billy Dee Williams. Directed by co-head of Cannon, the late Menahem Golan, OVER THE TOP is the polar opposite of COBRA, and essentially an arm wrestling version of ROCKY (1976). Stallone co-wrote the screenplay, and, considering his status as an action hero of the day, there's very little brawling; but there's lots of sweating. And grunting. And power ballads.


There's also a lot of potential here, and much of it is wasted on a head-scratching premise that ultimately ends up being a lot of fun for all the wrong reasons; many of those reasons revolve around uproarious, emphatically delivered tough guy dialog, and Stallone's facial squinting. Had this been WHITE LINE FEVER (1975) with arm wrestling, we'd have an epic macho movie; instead what we have is a trucker movie with a heart -- reminding us every ten minutes or so with Kenny Loggins's 'Meet Me Halfway'.


"Are you Hawk? I'm Smasher!" 

 
Armwrestling as an organized sport had been around since the early 1950s. The original story for OVER THE TOP was written as far back as 1979 by Gary Conway. Upon learning the film was finally becoming a reality, promoters, in collaboration with an energetic Menahem Golan, created the International Double Elimination Over The Top Armwrestling Tournament. 



The event began in August of 1985, and the finals, an 18 hour event with over 800 competitors, were held in July of 1986. Competition was a global one, with events taking place in Europe, Israel, and Japan. Footage shot at the finals in Las Vegas was integrated into the film, OVER THE TOP. Many of the real arm wrestlers -- male and female -- were seen in the picture, and one of the most famous, John Brzenk (whom Stallone based his character), has a brief cameo during the tourney. 

Sylvester Stallone and his then wife Brigitte Nielsen were at the New York event, as was martial arts legend and action movie star Chuck Norris.

Additionally, UFC, PRIDE Fighting, and K-1 martial artist Gary "Big Daddy" Goodridge was among the arm wrestlers in the finals, but didn't make it onscreen, losing his first bout of the finals, and again later in the tournament to Rick Vardell. Goodridge is one of the few pullers to beat Brzenk, named the Guinness World Record Greatest Arm Wrestler of All Time. Brzenk won in the Truckers Class in the finals taking home the big rig prize worth $250,000. The truck was used to promote the movie.



The arm wrestler seen breaking his arm during a match was real (see above). Only 4 tables were seen at one time onscreen, but 8 to 10 were used to get all the matches squeezed into the 18 hour time frame. All the scenes with Stallone's matches were shot the following day after the tournament was over. 



According to the late Rick Zumwalt, he was in and out of the film; then the 6'7" 465lb puller legend, Cleve Dean was slated to be Stallone's nemesis, but he was swapped out with 6'10" pro wrestler Big John Stud. Reportedly, Vince McMahon decided against the idea, and 6'4" Rick Zumwalt was back in again as the main bad guy.

In addition to helping put the sport of armwrestling in the limelight, OVER THE TOP (1987) inspired Gary Gallo, Sr. and Jr., a real-life father and son armwrestling duo from New York.


"My whole body is an engine and this is the fire plug, and I'm gonna light him up!"


Golan's movie revels in its story of a musclebound truck driver trying to rekindle a relationship with his son, impeded by the father of his dying ex-wife. Again, lots of opportunity to turn this into the Monster Truck of 18 wheeler cinema, but the filmmakers jack-knife down the road a ways making this one of the more awkward movies on the Italian Stallion's resume. 


Trucker movies had left their appeal behind in the previous decade, so this movie, and the more violent actioner, ROLLING VENGEANCE (released later that year) felt like throwbacks. If only Stallone had pushed for a more atypical approach to the material, we might of had a minor classic to look back on. Still, OVER THE TOP is a valiant, if failed experiment with a big rig load of entertainment value.

"I drive a truck, break arms, and arm wrestle. It's what I love to do, and it's what I do best... being number one is everything, there is no second place. Second sucks." 



The last 40+ minutes is where the films machismo goes into overdrive with an onslaught of muscles, facial and back hair, sweat, and big burly men communicating in some long lost caveman lingo. You'd swear some of these guys were having a baby. The champion of cornball comes in the form of main antagonist Bull Hurley (real life arm wrestler, Zumwalt). Spouting off a litany of chest-beating mockery, Bull is the more colorful truck stop version of Ivan Drago. Bull competes not just against Stallone in the climactic arm wrestling tourney, but against Stallone's array of facial contortions that would make Sonny Chiba very, very proud. Below is a sampling of Bull's brand of recalcitrance.

  • "I OOOOWN YOOOOOUUUUUU!!!"
  • "GET IN HERE!!"
  • "YOU AIN'T SHIIIIIIIIT!"
  • "RRRAAAAWWWWWRRRRR!!!"
  • "YYYYYYEEEEEAAAAHHHHHH!!!!" 
  • "Come on, chicken shit!"
  • "YOU'RE MINE, ASSHOLE!"
  • "I'm gonna rip yer shittin' arm off, boy!"

Friendly fellow, ain't he? 


As silly as Golan's movie is, there's no denying the films message; and a message that nearly drowns in all the heavily perspiring beefcake. This was the 1980s after all, and the mantra of standing on your own two feet, and giving it all you've got whether win or lose was as strong in this movie as it was in so many others. Unfortunately, this sort of mindset is all but extinct nowadays; where winning is, or doing your best to succeed is frowned upon. 

The soundtrack, made up of a bunch of fist-pumpin' anthems and power ballads, even has some good ole American patriotism laid over it. Robin Zander (lead singer of Cheap Trick) belts out one helluva spirited rock song, 'In This Country'. It's played over the open credits amid some sweeping camerwork. It definitely gets the movie started right.



That air of determination is alive and well within Stallone's character, Lincoln Hawk (or Hawks; the dialog can't make up its mind). Once he finally begins to break through that impenetrable wall put up by his son, he begins instilling his spirited views of perseverance into the boy. This is exemplified in a silly scene where Lincoln gets Michael to accept an arm wrestling challenge with a bully and his distracting mullet. Michael loses the first time, but wins the second and third. By the films conclusion, the son turns this around on his father once he himself begins to doubt his own abilities after he's defeated (two losses and you're out) by a neanderthal who drinks a can of Valvoline before a match. 



Sylvester Stallone is/was often chided for his acting ability; but as has been said elsewhere, he, like Charles Bronson, was a much better actor than he gets credit for. He's good here, too; although it's difficult to come to his defense during the above-mentioned last half of the movie. The almost indescribable faces he makes during the hernia convention cum armwrestling tournament are so over-reaching, Stallone looks more like he's desperately trying to pass a kidney stone, as opposed to putting a man's arm down. Buckets of adrenaline and testosterone were spent that day.

"What I do, is I, I just try to take my hat and I turn it around... and it's like a switch that goes on... and when the switch goes on, I feel like another person, I feel, I don't know, I feel... like a truck, a machine."



Aside from Stallone's constipational facial tics, there's this section of the film where it reverts to a pre-reality show type segment where some of the arm-wrasslers are interviewed. Stallone tells the cameraman he likes turning his hat around backwards because it makes him feel like he's transforming into a different person. OVER THE TOP is quite possibly the only macho action movie to feature a hero with a possible case of multiple personality disorder.


Robert Loggia is along for the ride playing what is supposed to be one of, if not the main antagonist; slightly more villainous than a character in an After School Special, but a bad guy just the same. His contribution is choked out by Zumwalt's Bull Hurley and his macho mastery of insults and emotional beat-downs.



OVER THE TOP wants to be a dramatic action movie; and in some ways, it is. The rest of the time, it's a comedy of the unintentional sort. However, the film is very important to those partial to the armwrestling circuit. Stallone would headline comedies in the early 1990s, but in 1987, he gave it a dry run; even if a comedy isn't what was intended, it's what we got. There's some good things tucked away in Menahem Golan's movie; but unfortunately, the bad things refuse to meet them halfway.

***Assorted armwrestling sites were sources for this review***


This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD.


2 comments:

Dick Vincent said...

Hi Brian
Really been enjoying Macho Month. I had a friend who was a HUGE Stallone fan and back in the 80's we went and saw all these on opening weekend. Over The Top was really something to witness in the theatre as people were yelling, screaming and pumping their fists in the air (I half expected to see guys start ripping off their shirts and beating their chests).
Your right, its too bad Stallone never seems to get credit these days for what a fine actor he can be (I defy anyone to watch First Blood and not be moved). Everybody talks about Cop Land, buts his performances in a bunch of the 80's post Rocky stuff is pretty amazing. BTW,I love Nighthawks.

venoms5 said...

Hey Dick,

It's funny you mention fist-pumping. I just added a minor paragraph about that amazing song from Robin Zander that plays at the outset. Sounds like a great audience you saw it with!

I used to not like this movie at all. In ways, now enjoy it on a serious level, and not so serious in others. All the background details help put it in perspective, imo.

I haven't seen NIGHTHAWKS in a few years. I'd be curious to see an uncut release of that one although I doubt that will happen.

I got a bunch more to post. I hope to be able to squeeze them all in by the end of the month. I've too many, actually, so some things will have to be saved for another time.

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