Over the Top (1987)

Driving Headlong Towards the Biggest Fight of His Life.

Poster image from 1987's Over the Top

As his ex-wife lies in a hospital bed, professional truck-driver (and amateur arm wrestler) Lincoln Hawk (Sylvester Stallone) picks up his estranged son Michael (David Mendenhall) from military school for a cross-country drive to develop the relationship they’ve never had. Michael’s wealthy grandfather Jason Cutler (Robert Loggia) would rather Lincoln stay out of the picture forever, and will stop at nothing to make it happen. Can father and son ride into the sunset and live as one small happy family? Perhaps… If Lincoln can win the arm wrestling championship in Las Vegas.

Championship scene from 1987's Over the Top

OVER THE TOP is often thought of as a cheesy action film typical of the decade, but that’s not an entirely fair assessment. For starters, there’s not all that much action—and no matter what the filmmakers do, they just can’t make watching arm wrestling an exciting experience. Secondly, it’s not all that typical—there weren’t exactly a rash of arm wrestling films in the 1980s. Despite not being as exciting as it thinks it is, OVER THE TOP actually defies the odds and becomes a pretty decent film about father-son relationships and second chances, with the occasional fist-fight and car chase to spice things up. There is a ham-fisted sentimentality here, but it has genuine heart, and that goes a long way.

This film highlights the lonely blue collar life of the long-haul trucker, modern day cowboys whose plains are paved and whose broncos have 18 wheels. But within that subset of society, it also explores a subculture that I can only imagine has been amplified for effect, if not outright manufactured. Here, the word of arm wrestling exploits travel up and down the interstate to the point where other truckers seek Lincoln out for a match in order to prove their mettle; and it’s a competition that is so heavily populated by drivers that the grand prize at the championship includes a new semi-truck.

The event in Las Vegas is such a spectacle that it seems like the lovechild of professional wrestling and a carnival sideshow. Mountainous men pound their chests, grunt a lot, and mug for the camera while they threaten to destroy their opponents. One greasy soul even guzzles motor oil as if it were an energy drink in an effort to get pumped up—though he’s later seen downing a glass of Alka-Seltzer, so, you know…don’t try this at home.

Stallone's special movie from 1987's Over the Top

Our man Hawk isn’t easily intimidated, though. He just turns his hat around backwards (“It’s like a switch.”) to show that he means business and sets to work breaking elbows. When things get tough, he pulls out his special movie where he adjusts his grip slowly and methodically to position his fingers over the top of his opponent’s hand. I personally can’t comprehend how this would be beneficial, but it’s treated here like a finisher for which there is no defense.

The script for OVER THE TOP was written by four people, Stallone among them. There was a bit of a dust-up in which Stallone attempted to take complete credit, and the Writers Guild had to step in and sort out the mess. In the end, Stallone had to share “written by” credit with Stirling Silliphant, while Gary Conway and David Engelbach were relegated to “story by” credits. Once arbitration was complete, Silliphant decided that he had had enough of Hollywood. He sold his houses, his cars, and his yacht, and he moved to Thailand.

Silliphant also worked on the scripts for VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973), THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), and THE SWARM (1978), but he gets special hipster points in my scorebook for creating the series ROUTE 66 (1960-1964). As a writer, Conway didn’t see much action beyond a pair of AMERICAN NINJA sequels, but as an actor he played the titular monster in I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and again in HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958), and starred in tv series LAND OF THE GIANTS (1968-1970). Englebach, on the other hand, gave us DEATH WISH II (1982) and the post-apocalyptic AMERICA 3000 (1986).

Our director was the infamous Menahem Golan, one half of the Cannon Group with his cousin Yoram Globus, which produced this picture. His credits as producer are far too many to cover here, but I encourage everyone to seek out the Cannon documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO immediately. His directorial credits are more manageable, though, and he gave us the musical THE APPLE (1980), ENTER THE NINJA (1981), THE DELTA FORCE (1986), and dozens of others.

David Mendenhall from 1987's Over the Top

David Mendenhall had a few acting roles here and there—most famously a stint on GENERAL HOSPITAL—but is much more prominent as a voice actor, lending his pipes to 1980s Saturday morning staples like the animated PUNKY BREWSTER (1985), RAINBOW BRITE (1986), CENTURIONS (1986), and THE TRANSFORMERS (1986-1987).

Stallone, of course, was still pretty fresh out of RAMBO and ROCKY IV (both 1985), as well as COBRA (1986). This was a much less physical role, and although there was still a ton of testosterone flowing, it allowed him to showcase a slightly more sensitive side, too. He was not initially sold on the idea, but Cannon kept throwing more money at him until he agreed, pulling in $12 million for his role. Stallone said of his character in the February 15, 1987 edition of the Observer-Reporter: “This is a character who’ll never tell a joke because his timing’s so bad. He’s incapable of being clever, he can only speak through his arms.” Looking back, he’s not entirely pleased with how the film turned out, and wished that it would have been more urban and ominous, and less carnival-like.

I, for one, would like to let him know that there’s still time to revisit the past. He reinvigorated the character of Rocky in 2006 and Rambo in 2008. Why not a return to Lincoln Hawk in 2018? And this time, it’s winner take all.


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