Sylvester Stallone gets a bad rap for delivering one-note performances, and Over the Top could be Exhibit A should he ever be tried in cinematic court. Not that he should not serve time for this crime alone.
The film chronicles Sly at his late ’80s best, sleepwalking through the story of long-distance truck driver Lincoln Hawk on his way to win back the love of his estranged child (David Mendenhall) as the pair travel from Colorado to the world arm-wrestling championships in Las Vegas.
The story is formulaic and the characters have the depth of a toilet bowl, but it would be too easy to blame the star for the laziness of this 93-minute attempt to transfer the emotional journey of the Rocky movies into another arena.
At least what we see here varies the usual narrative a little bit. Hawk arrives at a military academy to reunite with his son at the request of the boy’s dying mother, and we learn our hero walked out on the family. The boy (unfortunately named Mike Hawk) wants nothing to do with his deadbeat dad and would prefer to spend the summer in the company of his wealthy and perpetually scowling maternal grandfather (Robert Loggia).
Against the boy’s wishes, the elder Hawk tries to bond with his estranged son within the confines of an 18-wheeler cabin and introduces the boy to his side career as a barroom arm wrestler.
Lincoln and Mike Hawk (giggle) grow closer as the duo elude grandpa’s attempts to wreck their trip to visit the boy’s mother in the hospital, and their journey includes both a sunrise exercise montage and a heartfelt father-son conversation which echo the Rocky movies’ sense of heart before things take a turn for the worse when they arrive hours after mom’s fatal heart surgery.
An emotional Mike retreats with his grandfather, only to have his pathos-fueled father get arrested for ramming his big rig through gramps’ mansion gates. After being released from jail, our hero naturally decides the only way he can redeem himself is by selling the truck and betting on himself in the climatic dual-elimination arm wrestling contest against the reigning champ Bull Hurley (an always-screaming Rick Zumwalt).
While the resolution is almost an afterthought, what is truly surprising is the amount of music and product placement inserted into the film in order to divert from the simplistic plot. The rear of Hawk’s truck is emblazoned with an ad for Brut cologne (remember that stinky stuff?), and every T-shirt and billboard along the roadway is an opportunity for ad promotion. The soundtrack features Kenny “king of ’80s sports anthems” Loggins with his emotional plea “Meet Me Half Way” as well as Sammy Hagar’s jock jam “Winner Takes It All,” but the audience also get songs by Asia, Eddie Money, and Sly’s brother Frank Stallone (why would we not?).
While Over The Top does include a subdued performance by pro wrestling legend Terry Funk as one of Loggia’s bodyguards, there isn’t a whole lot else to be said for this sweaty and screaming arm-wrencher of a sports film. It’s very much an exercise in taking a sidelined sport and giving it the paint-by-numbers spotlight to force it into feature film.
Stallone has said he rejected multiple attempts to star and develop the project before mountains of cash were placed in front of him and he succumbed to temptation, and I believe him when he says there is a much better film hiding beneath the shallow exterior show here. How could there not be? Maybe one day his disciples with ample free time will reedit Over the Top into the much darker and commercial-free entity Stallone had hoped for, but until then the verdict remains that all are guilty for such for such a rocky attempt at quick cash grab.
Hagar may sing that the “winner takes it all,” but as far as Celluloid Scoreboard is concerned that is not a prize to be had. Wish that were not the case, but sadly not even an 18-wheeler full of Brut can obscure the smell of this perpetually wet sweat sock.
Over the Top (1987)
Director: Menahem Golan
Starring: Sylvester Stallone’s pained grimace, Robert Loggia’s perma-scowl, David Mendenhall’s incessant whining, and Rick Zumwalt’s exuberant shouting.
Rated PG for cartoon violence and some swearing
Scoreboard Final: C- for telegraphing the play from miles away