45 minutes of the last hour of Sylvester Stallone’s arm-wrestling/trucker/fatherhood flick Over the Top is taken up with huge, sweat covered men screaming in each others faces while trying to tear each others arms off. But you know what?
IT’S NOT ENOUGH.
Much of the movie, far more than I remembered, is a sappy, awkwardly written fatherhood story, and the film’s strategy is to delay the inevitable arm wrestling sweaty muscle rampage with a first hour of family values foreplay. It does work– by the time the film gets to its grunting sweaty Stallone climax I was definitely into it, but that’s after I had spent the first hour of the film sighing at the stupid dialogue and wishing I was watching Rambo. A audience filing into a Stallone arm-wrestling trucker movie has certain expectations, and Over the Top takes a looooong time to fulfill them. The fact that it’s remembered so fondly by many is a testament to power of a strong finish—I guess 45 minutes of muscles and screaming is enough to reset your brain.
Over the Top is the story of long haul trucker and up and comer on the truck stop arm wrestling circuit Lincoln Hawks (Stallone) trying to reconnect with his estranged 12 year old son Mike. The boy has been raised in privileged circumstances by his mother, (a sick invalid the movie’s start) and his rich tyrannical grandfather, who is somehow behind Stallone’s 10 year absence from the kid’s life. Stallone and the kid road trip in his big rig, and Stallone tries to undue the boy’s soft insular upbringing by teaching him about truckstops, trucks and arm wrestling truckers, while the grandfather works against them.
The movie goes out of its way to show the child as a deluded, entitled little shit who is ripe for some heartfelt fatherly guidance. It does this at the beginning by having Mike attend a military school, and as a military school alum I assure you that such places really are full of rich little oblivious punks. However, I don’t remember any of them talking like Mike does, repeatedly warning Stallone of his cholesterol intake and taking a disapproving tone about literally everything. Mike’s dialogue at times sounds more like a middle aged woman’s than something that should be coming from the mouth of a 12- year-old speaking to his father. One scene where Mike tells his father he doesn’t want to be in his custody sounds exactly like two adults breaking up.
Mike (who is 12): I don’t know what to think.
Stallone (speaking to a small child): I know you don’t trust me. I don’t blame you, I haven’t earned that yet.
Mike (who is 12 and not at all a young lady reluctantly ending things with an unsuitable beau): I just feel like I have a home here. If I went with you, where would we go? Where would we end up?
Stallone: Together is all I can guarantee.
Mike (12!): You say this now, and then you leave. I can’t – I can’t go with you. I’m sorry.
This has been a conversation between father and son in a Sylvester Stallone movie about arm-wrestling truckers.
Mike’s dialogue is so weird it makes me wonder if an earlier draft of the script had Stallone connecting with a love interest instead his son, or maybe the film’s writers only knew how to script one kind of relationship? This suspicion is cemented toward the movie’s end when, like in every romantic comedy, the love interest rushes to the airport to catch a plane to tell their beloved that they’ve decided to be together. Only in Over the Top, it’s Mike (again, he is a 12 year old boy) who steals a truck and rushes to the airport to get to Stallone.
It’s in the second act where Over the Top finally delivers what the kind of person eager to see an 80s arm wrestling big rig movie has been DYING to see. In one scene, a huge sweat-covered hairy muscle man named John Grizzly guzzles motor oil straight from the can and then loses an arm wrestling match to a screaming, glistening, cantaloupe-biceped Stallone. If you were forced at gunpoint to write a scene for a Stallone trucker arm wrestling movie, you would probably come pretty close to this scene. That makes it seem predictable, but by the time the film gets to the arm wrestling tournament where this sort of thing goes down, the audience has been teased and delayed by the fatherhood story for so long that it’s impossible for the tournament scenes to be too Stallone-y. Director Menahem Golan knew a thing or two about the cinematic-s of sweaty, glistening man muscles–he directed Delta Force, produced the He-Man adaptation/desecration Masters of the Universe and the Van Damme classic Bloodsport. The man knew how to light a bicep, and he did not flinch from his task in the final portions of Over the Top, which almost exclusively consist of quivering, sweat spattered hairy man flesh and loud angry groaning.
There’s only one arm wrestling battle before the second act of the movie—if you’ve seen it before, I bet virtually everything you remember about the movie occurs in its final half hour. It’s only in the final ten minutes or so that Stallone brings up the iconic concept of this movie–“The Switch.” He basically says that he gets into mental readiness for competition by turning his hat around, which he says puts him into a machine-like mental state.
At my military school in the mid nineties, we bored teenagers saw this movie as a rerun on TNT or USA or something, and spent the rest of the year quoting this speech and flipping our hats around whenever we did ANYTHING, from weightlifting to Magic the Gathering. The rest of the movie didn’t matter at all, and faded instantly from our minds. So I say there’s only one way to watch Over the Top — come across it already in progress while channel flipping through basic cable and when you happen to have a baseball cap handy so you can do the switch. But that’s probably only possible in 1996– nobody watches TV that way anymore.