When you think of Sylvester Stallone, your mind probably goes first to the Rocky franchise. If asked to conjure more of his roles, you would probably go next to the Rambo series (the man likes his “R” movies), and then maybe the Expendables. All of them are successful runs of films. Then there are popular one-offs, like Demolition Man (1993) and Judge Dredd (1995). If you really dig deep, though you probably would not have to go too far, you would come to Over the Top (1987). I had not seen in a long time what I believe is the only film ever about professional arm wrestling, and hence I had completely forgotten about the stomach-churning moment when one of the extras competing in the climactic tournament breaks his arm. If you are at all squeamish, I urge you not to look it up. In doing a little research on the movie, curious as to whether or not that part is real (it is), I found out some other interesting tidbits. Apparently, despite the fact that Stallone has an unexpected writing credit for the film, he apparently did not want the role until they gave him so much money he could not refuse. It is also based on a real person. As for the rest of the film, it is as Eighties and Eighties can get.
One of the hallmarks of Eighties films is the montage, and the opening credits of Over the Top feature Lincoln Hawk (Sylvester Stallone) plying his trade as a truck driver, spliced together with scenes of young Michael Cutler (David Mendenhall) graduating(?) from military school, and overlaid with a country-esque tune called “In This Country.” The school is one of those academies rich parents send their children to in order to instill discipline, and it stands in stark contrast to the beaten-up semi Lincoln pulls up to it in to pick up Michael, his son. Michael is not pleased by this situation, disliking Lincoln for running off when he was a child. Regardless, Michael’s dying mother, Christina (Susan Blakely), wants Michael to spend some time with his father. Thus, they leave together, much to the displeasure of Michael’s grandfather, Jason Cutler (Robert Loggia). Jason despises Lincoln, seeing the long-haul driver as a worthless loser. Michael seems to be much of the same of the same opinion, and even tries to escape at one point. Lincoln, though, is determined to win his son over. He does so through a number of tricks. At one point he lets Michael drive the truck, always a great idea for a twelve-year-old kid. Lincoln takes Michael to some of the trucker hangouts, exposing the young man to a side of the world previously unseen. Since the film is rated PG, it is not the side of trucker culture you might be thinking. At any rate, the one thing that really gets Michael’s attention is Lincoln’s ability as an arm wrestler. While they are eating at a roadside diner, he is challenged by one of the other patrons. When he accepts, Lincoln’s hat goes backwards, he puts on his “game face,” takes down his opponent, and wins an extra $1,000. Eventually, they make it to the hospital where Christina had been receiving treatment. Unfortunately, she dies before they arrive, and Michael blames his father for them not being there in time to say goodbye. As a result, Michael stays with Jason. Lincoln tries one last time to get Michael, crashing his truck into the Cutler mansion (great idea). Unsurprisingly, Lincoln goes to jail, and while there, a torn Michael tells Lincoln that he is better off with his grandfather. On his way out of jail, Lincoln signs over custody to Jason, then heads to Las Vegas to compete in the International Arm Wrestling tournament. He is betting everything he has, including the money he made from selling his truck, on himself to win it all. Part of what victory would bring him is a brand new rig, so I guess you can understand the motivation. Back at the Cutler estate, Michael searches through drawers and comes across all the letters and birthday cards Lincoln sent him, that Jason had hidden from the boy over the years. Deciding that dad is not so bad after all, Michael proceeds to steal a car, drive to the airport, fly to Las Vegas, and make to the tournament in time to see Lincoln compete. Jason eventually follows, and attempts to buy off Lincoln with $500,000 and a shiny new truck. Lincoln refuses, and is buoyed when Michael comes and finds him. Of course, he wins his final match and takes home the prize, the best of all being his son.
There are a lot of people who love Over the Top, for some reason. It is okay, I guess. I sat in amazement at watching a twelve-year-old commit grand theft auto and manage to make it to Las Vegas on his own. While that scenario seems unlikely, the whole sub-culture of truck driving and arm wrestling is seemingly quite real. As someone who tends to stick with the more traditional values of the Catholic Church, I appreciated the budding relationship between Lincoln and Michael. Granted, it is not the most common one in the Catholic sense, but what God wants the most from any of us is effort. That is a fitting metaphor for the entire film. Lincoln is not only trying to overcome the opponent before him on the wrestling table, but he is also struggling against the circumstances of his life. What I like about him is the quiet confidence he possesses. There is no ostentation in him. Humility is a Godly trait, and Lincoln demonstrates it throughout. He is competing in the tournament not to get rich, but to win a new future and home. One can bemoan the fact that he gambles all of his life savings on coming out, er, on top. Gambling is a tricky matter in the Catholic view. The problem becomes when you bet irresponsibly. If you put up money that is meant to go towards other obligations, then that is sinful. There is also the danger of addiction. For Lincoln, his act is, in a way, putting it all in the hands of the Lord. There is no religious component to the film, but it can be seen in this light.
Over the Top is not a complicated movie. At times, it is a little silly. It also may appear dated, in the music and the way it is filmed. It is not a bad film. There is nothing morally objectionable about it. I would not call it a particularly memorable one either. The only reason to watch it these days is for a bit of nostalgia. Just try and skip over the part where the arm wrestler breaks his arm. Barf.