Review: Over the Top

In addition to getting his way to a big arm-wrestling tournament (!), trucker Lincoln Hawk (Sly Stallone) tries to reunite with his estranged son (David Mendenhall), at the behest of the kid’s mother (Susan Blakely) who is about to go in for a very serious and risky medical procedure. The kid’s rich and connected grandfather (Robert Loggia) considers Lincoln a deadbeat and wants the kid to have absolutely nothing to do with him. He will seemingly stop at nothing to take him away from Lincoln. Rick Zumwalt plays the chief arm-wrestling antagonist, whilst Terry Funk (!) plays one of Loggia’s bodyguards/enforcers.

Yes, back in 1987 Sylvester Stallone made an arm wrestling movie for producer/director Menahem Golan and The Cannon Group (home to every cheap Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff and latter day Charles Bronson action movie you can name) co-starring the great Robert Loggia, ‘Hardcore’ wrestling legend Terry Funk, and real-life arm wrestler Rick Zumwalt. This is a thing that actually happened, and apparently the answer to why in Stallone’s case, is a shitload of money delivered to his doorstep (He previously made the awful “Cobra” for them too). That doesn’t quite explain his co-writing credit though, especially when he apparently later shat on the film and complained that he would’ve liked to direct it and make it darker/grittier in tone. I didn’t necessary have great taste when I was 7 or 8, but I didn’t much like this back then and that’s usually a good indicator that the film is basically shite. And shite it pretty much is, seeing it again recently.

I can sort of see what Golan might’ve envisioned here, giving Stallone a change of pace playing in what is part broken family road movie/male bonding flick, part Rock ‘n’ Wrestling-era cheeseball arm wrestling flick. I’m pretty sure that was the intention. However, co-scripted by the very well-known Stirling Silliphant (“In the Heat of the Night”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The Towering Inferno”) it’s just…not good. Sure, it’s no “Rhinestone”, but it’s definitely a bad, bad movie. I’m not gonna deny that some of Cannon’s output was cheesy fun, but when I saw their logo at the start of this…yeah, I immediately knew I was in for a rough night.

We start off with a horrendous 80s power ballad sung by the instantly forgettable Eddie Money. Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander sings his own version of it over the end credits and even that is only a slight improvement. Six minutes in and I already had seething hatred for young David Mendenhall’s character. A real snotty military school snobby little shit, he becomes more palatable as the film goes on, but Mendenhall’s performance is very amateurish overall, and it takes far too long for him to undergo the change. I will say though, that Stallone getting a bit of a change-of-pace works well for him in terms of his performance, whatever his misgivings about the film his performance is actually pretty sincere. He’s the best and only decent thing here, though. I actually think the film is lucky to have him, because really this role and this film seem more Chuck Norris territory to me, especially with Cannon backing it. Chuck’s an appalling actor of course, and the film would be even worse with him in it, but I think Stallone really needn’t have bothered agreeing to this, money or not. It’s not his worst film, but it’s regrettable nonetheless.

Apparently Stallone didn’t like the use of mostly rock songs in the Giorgio Moroder (“Flashdance”, “Electric Dreams”, “The NeverEnding Story”) score and would’ve preferred a score without the use of too many songs. Moroder back in the 80s was usually indicative of pretty top-shelf pop-rock soundtracks, but not so here with this collection of soft rock piffle that wouldn’t even be deserving of playing over the end credits of most action movies of the day let alone during the film. It’s an oh-so 80s array of artists, but they’re all seemingly captured at their worst. We get some seriously pissweak songs by Asia (who?), Kenny Loggins, Frank ‘Sly’s brother’ Stallone, and even a Sammy Hagar/Eddie Van Halen number called ‘Winner Takes it All’. They all sound the same except that the Hagar/Van Halen number sucks a bit less than the others. There’s no ‘You’re the Best Around’, ‘Far From Over’ (Frank’s one good song), ‘Eye of the Tiger’, ‘Flashdance (What a Feeling)’, ‘Take My Breath Away’, ‘Danger Zone’, or even ‘We Fight for Love’ (Power Station’s end theme from “Commando”) here, I’m afraid.

The biggest problem here is just how weird the plot is. I mean, on the one hand you’ve got Stallone competing in an arm wrestling tournament that plays more like WWF’s “Saturday Night’s Main Event”, then there’s his attempt at bonding with the kid. Cornball, but on its own not the worst thing in the world. On the other hand you have Robert Loggia as Stallone’s former father-in-law attempting to wrangle the kid away from his ‘deadbeat’ father. In theory, once again not the worst thing in the world. Unfortunately, the way the Loggia character is presented, you’d swear Loggia were back on the set of “Scarface”. The fact that his bodyguard is wrestling legend ‘Terrible’ Terry Funk says a lot, really. The character has been written by a ridiculous heavy hand but also with vague detail, coming across like he’s a huge crime boss or something. It seems completely jarring. All this just to keep a kid away from his slightly douchey father? It’s an unconvincing, tone deaf mess and you get the feeling that the only way they paint Loggia this way is because there’s otherwise no earthly reason for the kid to be in the custody of his father except that he’s played by Rocky Balboa, so he can’t be all bad. He’s the biological dad, and that’s important, but…there’s no way this ne’er do well is the right guy for the gig, he can barely scrape by looking after himself. Meanwhile, Rick Zumwalt looks exactly how you’d expect a villain in an arm wrestling movie to look, but unfortunately the filmmakers make no attempt at providing him with adequate screen time or character depth. That’s a big mistake, in my view because it renders the arm wrestling competition climax ineffectual. Now if they had removed the Loggia character entirely and beefed up Zumwalt’s part to where he could function as the lead villain (as he should be, really) there might’ve been something here. As is, you’ve got a villain who is completely overblown to a nonsensical degree and another antagonist we barely get to meet in a film where the father-son relationship is 70% conveyed through dialogue-free musical montages. It’s pretty pathetic storytelling, really. It’s a shame because there was potential there with Zumwalt, and as far as I’m concerned the best/worst/funniest character is an arm wrestler named John Grizzly (Bruce Way, another real-life arm wrestler), who swallows lit cigars and wears a FUBAR camo tank-top. He’s hilarious, but gets even less screen time than Zumwalt. As for Ms. Blakely, she literally phones in 99.99% of her performance.

Far from the worst film of Sly Stallone’s career (“Rhinestone”, “Cobra”, “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”, “The Specialist”, and “Assassins” are all worse), this is nonetheless a poorly scripted and cluttered mess that never gets the tone right. Aptly named, it really is too over the top.

Rating: D+


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