Over The Top

You want to live like common people
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1987
Director: 
Menahem Golan
Starring: 
Sylvester Stallone, David Mendenhall, Rick Zumwalt, Robert Loggia, Susan Blakely
The Setup: 
Guy travels cross-country with his son as a bonding exercise while heading toward the World Arm Wrestling Championship.
Discussion: 

I don’t know why this suddenly struck me as something I would want to watch, but I do know that the picture of a huge bald muscle guy with a big mustache did quite a lot of edge this one toward the top of my list. This is one of those post-Rocky, post-Rambo movies in which Sylvester Stallone tries to find something for himself to do, desperately hoping that this one will catch. But like Staying Alive, also co-written by Stallone, which was essentially “Rocky goes to dance school,” this one is essentially “Rocky does championship arm wrestling.”

It’s off to a promising start before the movie even begins with this hard-pumping shitty synth-driven 80s “rock” music playing over the menu. Then the movie starts. It would seem that our pal Sly is a trucker going to pick up his 12-year-old son from a military academy, where he is graduating. Apparently the son is under the care of his rich grandfather, played by Robert Loggia. It would seem that Sly married this rich girl, Loggia’s daughter, then deserted the family years back because Loggia was driving him crazy. The movie does not address how flat-out ludicrous it is that some pampered rich girl would end up with this shiftless trucker [though I guess Elizabeth Taylor did marry a trucker], but then the entire movie is about how the good, hard-working lower classes all have hearts of gold and live their lives in the best, most sincere way possible, whereas all rich people are evil, scheming villains who can never know true human connection.

During this opening sequence we have this humorously idiotic song on steroids about the common man [“In America, our hearts are open”]. All of the music here is by Giorgio Moroder, but rather than the cool synth work he is known for, this is all simplistic 80s synth-rock with platitudes borrowed from beer commercials. We’ll come back to this later, as the soundtrack is a huge part of the movie.

Anyway, it seem that the kid’s mom wants Stallone to drive him on a 2-day trip to see her in the hospital so the two of them can bond. If I gave you three minutes to think about it, I’m sure you could deduce from just what I’ve told you so far that poor mommy has cancer. The evil rich grandfather sends his minions [some of whom are quite hunky] out to kidnap the boy, because he regards the child as HIS son. Robert Loggia gets to throw several histrionic scenes, which always lends amusement.

So after the kid complains that the truck’s cab is dirty and old—when it is clearly new and pristine—Stallone takes him to a trucker roadhouse for a steak. Some guy challenges him to an arm-wrestling match, then everybody piles into the back room, leaving Sly’s kid all alone. He is soon approached by a huge sweaty bald guy in a leather wristband, aviator glasses, and with a fu manchu mustache who places his hand threateningly over the kid’s and asks him what he’s doing there. The kid says he’s with his dad, and the bald guy smiles in an evil way and says “Too bad…” and I’m like: “Is this the hottest child molestor ever?” If so, I seriously misspent my youth. But no, turns out he’s the big baddie, the five-time arm wrestling champion, and the baldie on the box cover that got me to rent the movie in the first place.

So back in the other room everyone in this quite sizable crowd is rabid with excitement about this dumb arm wrestling match. This scene, and many of the wrestling match scenes, are chuckablock with hot trucker bears, so if that’s your thing, you need to put this one on the front burner. You can just fast-forward through all the boring father-son bonding. Anyway, so then little Bobby or Jesse or whatever his name is runs away from the hot potential molestor and into the room, where somehow he can see his father from the doorway, even though the movie has made abundantly clear that there’s a crowd ten-deep on every side [and pure, blue collar heart or not, that’s just shitty filmmaking]. The dad wins, of course, and the kid is appalled to find that not only is his dad total trash, he’s also a hustler [though tragically not THAT kind of hustler]. This is the kind of movie in which when the kid screams “I hate you!” the father replies “Well, we’ve got to start someplace.”

In fact, the entire movie is recycled from moments from beer commercials. Not one thing happens that isn’t a cliché. You can seriously hone your filmmaking skills by predicting, at any moment, the next four shots to follow. I’m sure, from just the information you have so far, you could write the entire rest of the movie—including the songs on the soundtrack.

Anyway, Stallone pulls off the road to sleep—his truck doesn’t even have a bed—and at this point a viewer asks: why would he pull off to sleep THERE when there’s obviously a massive, bright white arc light just outside? He tells his young spawn that if he gets uncomfortable [considering that they can’t even lie down], he can use his shoulder as a pillow. We then dissolve to the two of them curled up together in the soft morning light, and I thought “You know, Michael Jackson could have introduced this film at his trial to demonstrate that Americans consider it heartwarming and normal for adult men and young boys to sleep together.”

In the morning we have a physical fitness and truck driving montage to Kenny Loggins’ repugnant hit “Meet Me Halfway.” This song was obviously commissioned specifically for the film, as a repeated life lesson here is “Life doesn’t meet anyone halfway.” [We are meant not to reflect on the mixed message that life DOESN’T meet anyone halfway, whereas in the song you SHOULD meet Kenny Loggins halfway]. The rest of the soundtrack could accurately be entitled the “Meet Me Halfway Variations,” as that song’s themes are repeated until you will attempt to see how far you can drive your index finger into your own eye socket.

Anyway, after ONE short day, it seems that Stallone and the fruit of his loins have bonded completely, and his young charge has completely thrown off the last few YEARS in his life of priviledge, and fully understands that the jeans-wearin’, beer-drinkin’, sports-watchin’, non-book-readin’ working classes are really where it’s at. His father gets him started in junior arm wrestling [Yeah, raise him to be a loser putz just like you! Great idea! You turned out “okay” right?], prompting the son to opine “This is intense!” He loses his first round, necessitating a FUCKING LONG inspirational speech about how ya gotta get back in there and—whatever, you know the drill. Stallone, man, he could probably do this shit in his sleep now. He should totally bring in revenue by running a “dial-an-inspirational-speech” line. Anyway, the kid goes back in, wins the second round, and consequently believes in himself. One is less than three words into this inspirational speech before one can predict that by the end, it’ll be the little tyke delivering a similar speech to his daddy at a crucial moment. This film can NOT be described as a surprise a minute.

You need only hear the sickly mama tell Stallone about how important it is that he spend time with their child before it becomes obvious that she’ll be a cold, rigid corpse by the next scene. She is, and this allows the evil granddaddy to snatch the kid away, prompting Stallone, in a highly intelligent [but SINCERE, and that’s all that really matters, right?] move, to drive his truck through the door of the grandfather’s estate, landing him in jail. Loggia has another of his major flip-out scenes just afterward.

So the little kiddie is brought to see Stallone in the Big House, where Sly delivers a big speech about how he wants to teach the kid everything he knows and give him everything that’s inside him [fine, hand over your kidneys]. He says “I don’t have much inside me, but I want to give it to you,” at which point I, sick of all this romanticizing of the heart and soul of America’s working classes, wanted the kid to respond: “Right, well as you yourself just pointed out, you don’t have that much to give. And it’s real sweet that you’re all sincere and stuff, but Grandpa can provide a good education, books, museums, conversation, vacations, and virtually assured entrance into a good college and thus a comfortable adulthood. Sorry, Pops, keep your beer and cliched life lessons, I’ll send you a card if I think about it.” The kid does end up choosing grandpa, but only until he sees that the evil rich man has been hiding Stallone’s letters [it’s ALWAYS the letters, and they NEVER just throw them out], so he escapes and runs to daddy [and a future as a Wal-Mart night manager, but so what, he’s got HEART, right?].

Dad, out of jail, is at the world championships of arm wrestling, which, like, who knew this existed? This whole movie has the tone of someone hoping that this would kindle some sort of arm wrestling craze [and apparently it did, at least among my friend’s peers while in fourth grade]. This sequence treats the viewer to the sight of more beefy, bearded trucker types, though this time they’re growling and slapping themselves on the face [I shit you not]. We also catch a tantalizing glimpse of the lovely ladies of female arm wrestling [below]. Now obviously Stallone has to lose a match to build tension and make us think, for one second, that he might not win, and in order to pound into the morons who are the target audience of this swill, we hear an announcer state TEN THOUSAND TIMES that this is a “double elimination round." I honestly wish I had counted how many times he said that, I’m sure it was at least 25. The bouts are interspersed, at great tonal damage to the overall film, with completely jarring ESPN-style interview segments.

Now our intrepid tyke has escaped from grandpa’s house, stolen a car and driven to the airport, taken a flight to Las Vegas [from Southern California, presumably], hidden in a luggage cart and emerged on a baggage claim area conveyor belt, and gotten a cab to the hotel where the event is happening—ALL during the time the event is going on! Fuck, that is one LOOOONG event! Anyway, here’s there to inspire Daddy to greatness and—well, I wouldn’t dare reveal the ending and ruin all your enjoyment, but suffice to say, it’s enough to make the evil gandaddy to say to himself “Huh, I guess I’ve been wrong all along about this whole arm wrestling thing, it really is a worthy accomplishment, and maybe I don’t need a grandson after all, I can just go home and be a lonely old rich man with hot thugs at my side.”

The soundtrack contains a plethora of heavy-hitters on the way to the ending, many of them obviously written specifically to expand upon the themes of this movie. You can play a fun game of guessing the next lyric with surprising accuracy. You just hear one lyric, then think of something that would rhyme. The only rule is that IT MUST BE A CLICHÉ. Therefore, when you hear “Climb higher and higher,” with a little thought I’m sure you’ll deduce that the next line will be “Fight fire with fire.” Similarly, if one line is “Winner takes it all,” it’s not hard to figure that the next line will be “Loser takes a fall.” This stunning soundtrack features works by Sammy Hagar, my former favorite group Asia, and FRANK STALLONE. You know, what would he do if it weren’t for his brother?

I must also mention that there is a rather heavy-handed product placement for Alka-Seltzer, OF ALL THINGS. One wrestler is inexplicably wearing an Alka-Seltzer tank during his competition, and another takes time out to settle his stomach while on stage, offering us a lovely product shot. But amazingly, even this couldn’t tarnish this film’s artistic integrity.

After all that, I did kind of enjoy it. Stallone’s films are amusing for their charming naïveté about themselves, having no sense that they’re really dumb, very poorly written, and that Stallone himself is, yes, a big lug, but not nearly as lovable a lug as he thinks he is. And of course anything that’s trying to be all tough and hard-hitting and emotionally resonant and just has no fucking clue is golden with me. And this one also featured tons of hot trucker bears. It fuckin’ rocks.

Should you watch it: 

You could live without it for sure [as I know you have!], but if you like these kind of ridiculously—you guessed it—over the top movies, you could do worse. Or if you want to see hot trucker bears.