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So Bad It’s Good: Sylvester Stallone, Arm Wrestling, and ’80s Nostalgia in ‘Over the Top’

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (The Room), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: Over the Top, the story of an arm-wrestling truck driver who just wants his son to meet him halfway.

Quick, what’s the easiest thing to get right in a movie? Like, the most basic piece of information that you can get across over the course of a 90-minute film? No need to aim high here — think simple. I’m gonna say it’s your protagonist’s name. In the long process of making a film, it’s easy to lose a narrative thread, to get your tone wrong, to throw in too many side plots; there are any number of things that can go wrong. But you’d think, on the most basic level of competence, a filmmaker, his screenwriters, the crew, and the actors could get together and decide what exactly their main character’s name is.

And yet, Over the Top fails even that simple test. The central character, played by Sylvester Stallone, is named “Lincoln Hawk.” (I know, I know.) At least, that’s what his name is in the credits, and on the side of his truck, and on the leader board at the big arm wrestling tournament at the film’s climax. But in the trailer, on the lost letters that provide a key plot point, and when he goes to place a bet on himself at said tournament, his name is “Lincoln Hawks.” The villain refers to him as “Hawks”; the villain’s bodyguard calls him “Hawk.” I don’t mean to sound persnickety here, but could these people have maybe called a meeting and figured this thing out?

Over the Top is the story of Lincoln Hawk (or Hawks, whatever), a long-haul trucker. He’s introduced getting all cleaned up (and making his truck nice and shiny) at a truck stop, intercut with the military-school graduation of his estranged son Michael (David Mendenhall), a kid so uptight that he won’t throw his hat in the air at the end of the ceremony. While Michael’s heading to his limousine, he’s summoned to the office of the headmaster (general? Principal? How do these things work?), who introduces him to his father. The kid asks to see some ID, so Hawk(s) shows him a wedding picture, which is not a valid form of ID in most states.

It seems Michael’s mother and Hawk(s)’s ex, dying of cancer, wants them to take the long drive home together, in the big rig, so they can make up for lost time. “Do you really think you can make up for two years in two to three days?” Michael asks, to which Hawk(s) should reply, “Well, that’s the premise!” Of course, there are speed bumps early on; seconds into their journey, Michael asks his father to stop the truck, at which point he takes off running across several lanes of highway traffic, causing wrecks until Hawk(s) retrieves him and brings him back. Over the Top was released in 1987, when a pubescent boy fleeing for dear life from a trucker’s cab was apparently not a cause for concern among passerby.

Soon, Michael discovers his father has a lucrative sideline to supplement his trucking activities: he’s an amateur arm-wrestler, picking up extra cash competing against mulleted pituitary cases at truck strops. At the first of these sweaty encounters, we meet archrival “Bull” Hurley (Rick Zumwalt), who taunts Hawk(s) to take him on. Hawk(s) demurs, telling him to “wait for Vegas,” the setting for the arm-wrestling tournament (and Rocky-style underdog climax). “Too bad your old man’s yella, kid,” Bull sneers. Michael, meanwhile, is thrown by this seedy underworld, and calls his mother to whine. She somehow refrains from screaming, “JUST DO IT FOR ME, I’M DYING OF CANCER,” probably because she can barely speak above a whisper, but you have no idea how annoying this squeaky, constantly crying, whiny little brat is.

Yet somehow his grandfather (Robert Loggia, who appears to have been called to the set from a tanning bed) wants badly to keep Michael away from Hawk(s) since, in a shocking narrative development, they’re besties by the 35-minute mark. They even work out to Kenny Loggins together:

And when Hawk(s) tries to make Michael follow in his footsteps by arm-wrestling a group of extras from The Lost Boys, his loss prompts the big speech from which the Loggins lyric is culled. The world, you see, meets nobody halfway. If you want it… you gotta take it.

But all that fancy talk doesn’t mean much when they arrive at mom’s hospital to find that she’s already dead. Michael holds his old man responsible, reasoning (not incorrectly) that he’d have seen her before she died if they hadn’t spent so long dicking around at truck stops. Grandpa Oompa-Loompa takes Michael back and refuses to let Hawk(s) see him, so the trucker drives his big rig through Grandpa’s steel gates and into the front of the mansion, the perfect way to show a judge that you’re ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood. He then licks his wounds and heads to Vegas, where he competes in the big arm-wrestling tournament and (spoiler alert, if you’ve never seen a sports movie) mounts a come-from-behind surprise victory, winning the cash prize and a new truck.

A word about that competition: it is a double-elimination tournament, which means if you lose once, you will still have one more chance to win. I am crystal clear on these facts because the tournament announcer explains them no less than four (4) times. I don’t mean it’s casually mentioned — I mean that on four separate occasions, the announcer (often first imploring the viewer to “remember, please remember!”) both states that it is a double elimination tournament and then defines in full detail what those words mean. Like this:

If there were ever a clearer indication of exactly how stupid a movie thinks its audience is, this is it. And to be fair, it is a film that concerns Sylvester Stallone going to Vegas to take on a sweaty, smelly, bulging parade of meatheads who scream and arm-wrestle, though (in a shockingly avant-garde filmmaking flourish) the movie also provides comically introspective faux interviews of the “athletes” between bouts. Bull explains how he feels ownership over the arm-wrestling table, and that anybody else has “got no shittin’ business bein’ there” (?). Stallone, meanwhile, explains why he turns his hat around like a douchey frat boy before every bout:

Over the Top was directed by Menahem Golan, beloved among bad-film connoisseurs for helming The Apple. He was mainly a producer, one half of Golan-Globus, the mini-moguls behind Cannon Films (purveyors of countless Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies, as well as occasional art titles). Stallone was a big get for the company, and was paid accordingly: his $12 million payday was a record-breaker in ‘87, though in all fairness, he did also take a whack at the screenplay, a credit shared with Oscar winner Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night). It’d be interesting to know which of them wrote the “world meets nobody halfway” speech.

Cannon’s gamble didn’t pay off; Stallone’s star was starting to fall, and the film only grossed $16 million on a $25 million budget. That loss, coupled with the belly-flop of their Superman IV, put the company on the road to ruin. But Over the Top has weirdly become a cult item, a campy relic of the 1980s, from its sweaty mise en scène to its music video-inspired style to its clunky inspirational message to its titular arm-wrestling move, the deployment of which appears to be the sum total of the sport’s “strategy.” It is, as I’ve probably made clear, not good filmmaking. It’s cliché-ridden, wildly incompetent, and laughably serious about itself. But if you saw it at the right age (I was 12 when it came out), and if you approach it in the right frame of mind, it’s a pretty easy way to kill a couple of hours on TBS. You just have to turn your brain off. You know — it’s like a switch.

Over the Top is streaming on Amazon Instant Video. Special thanks to fellow bad movie aficionados Mac Welch, Brenda Welch, Amber Malott, and Rebekah Dryden.

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