Sunday, 13 September 2009

Over The Top (1987)

Director: Menahem Golan

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to respect Sylvester Stallone more and more. Now I never was a big fan of his work growing up; maybe I could just sense his embodiment of Reaganite era values with his reigning characters Rambo and Rocky. However, Stallone is a firm believer in the the underdog. I remember a bit from his own reality show, The Contender, basically a boxing version of The Apprentice, where he cast a vote for a contestant on that very basis – “He’s an underdog.” It’s a philosophy that has basically guided his career since the first Rocky and I guess when I was young he was still a bankable star with hits like Cliffhanger and having enough studio support to ruin a comicbook franchise like Judge Dredd. Stallone seems to be at his best when he himself is an example of the underdog ideal, particularly in recent years when he made pretty decent films out of what seemed like silly ideas when they were announced (Rocky 6 and Rambo 4). However, this doesn’t excuse the fact he made some shit films during his reign as a box office superstar and 1987’s Over The Top is another fine Golan-Globus production of bullshit, co-written and starring Stallone.

Taking a break in between Rocky sequels, Stallone decided to vary the formula a tad and stretch himself by not playing a rising underdog boxer. Yes, Over The Top represents new territory for the man since it’s about a rising underdog arm-wrestler... Big, big difference (boxing you use your fists, arm-wrestling you use your wrists). Yes, arm-wrestling was apparently a sporting craze tearing across America with a subculture of truck drivers gambling on dudes arm-wrestling in the back of local pit-stop bars. There’s even a World Championship Tournament held naturally at Las Vegas where contestants from all over the world with freakishly huge upper bodies and fat necks wrestle to win prizes and cash, readymade for our movie's finale. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves as this film isn’t simply about bulging veins in the forearms of muscled meatheads. No, it’s Stallone as the underdog once again, an estranged father trying to bond with his snooty military schooled estranged son over the course of a road movie. Over The Top was Stallone’s stab at the family friendly market and when you think about it, this is basically a remake of E.T. but instead of finding an alien in your backyard you find out that your long lost father is actually a mumblely, duck-mouthed, muscle-bound, short-arse, arm-wrestling champ big rig trucker named Lincoln Hawk (Lincoln like Abraham Lincoln, Hawk like the mighty hawk...). This is the predicament Michael Cutler (David Mendenhall) finds himself in when he graduates from Summit Crest Military School. He doesn’t throw his hat in the air like the rest of the toy soldiers because they have families and he is sad and stuff, but then he finds out his dad is lower class trucker and that makes him angry. Of course, it’s no Swiss picnic for Stallone when he discovers his son has been turned into an upper-class snob robot who says things like “Sir, there’s no need to make conversation on the road.” When Stallone suggests father and son chow down a steak, naturally the son is all “blah blah cholesterol, order me a tuna salad and spring water with lemon.” Warning: military schools turn your children into yuppie vegetarian mutant! Never fear, because when the kid discovers his old man is a champion arm wrestler after some barbarian with a blonde mullet named Smasher challenges him to a duel of forearms, the kid soon becomes a student to the way of Lincoln Hawk. Tight close-ups magnify what is essentially two idiots gripping their hands together into a veritable Clash of the Titans and we get what we pay for with Stallone yelling like grizzly bear with a buckshot in his butt. Then in one of the many scenes that unfortunately bristle with paedophilic overtones, a bald mountain of muscles with a handle-bar moustache and dark shades, approaches Michael and grunts, “What are you doing with that guy?” Don’t worry though, it’s just the villain who WANTS Stallone and his name is BULL and he’s played by Rick Zumwalt in a magnificent performance that is one step away from twirling his moustache and threatening to tie his son to the tracks: I AM A VILLAIN, his presence screams with every appearance. When Stallone refuses a challenge from this arm-wrestling champ, Bone cracks-wise, “Too bad your old man’s yellow, kid. See you in Las Vegas, Hawk!”

Stallone begins the interminable process of deprogramming his son of being an uptight stiff and teaching him cool stuff like how to drive a truck and a questionable move of parenting how to arm-wrestle ugly video-gaming punk kids for money in order to fully understand the teachings of Hawk with pithy maxims like “The world meets nobody halfway” and “If you want it, you can take it.” Yeah, there are also some creepy overtones with Stallone pulling the truck over and telling the kid they are spending the night in the truck and that “if your neck gets sore, use my shoulder as a pillow.” I know, I know, it’s father-and-son Cat Stevens time and all perfectly innocent, but I guess it’s the fact that Stallone wears overalls and muscle tees and has a set of weights in his truck so he can improve his arm muscles and everything is so OVER THE TOP 1980s style that such Todd Solondz-styled perverse overtones seem very natural in such a context. Oh yeah, they also have the occasional phone call to Susan Blakeley who plays Stallone’s separated wife and Michael’s mother, bed-ridden in hospital with Ali MacGraw disease. Then there is also Robert Loggia, father to Susan Blakeley’s character, a rich, tanned businessman who lives in Scarface’s old mansion and wants Michael for himself as he doesn’t have any family left and Stallone is a no-good lower-class loser. This is the TV Movie of the Week conflict that drives two-thirds of the film’s narrative unfortunately. Mendenhall is an unlikable brat who can’t act, performing with a dimpled grin that bespeaks of great talent in fast food commercials but no great shakes as a naturalistic thespian. Maybe this was an intentional move as placing Mendenhall next to Stallone makes Stallone look like he is Robert Duvall with the soulful underplaying on display. Now Stallone co-wrote this sucker with Stirling Silliphant (who also wrote The Swarm) yet it doesn’t seem a lot of time was spent on dialogue as the film can’t last five minutes of screentime without throwing in another montage of father-son bonding with a cheesy Giogrio Moroder-produced soft-rock anthem (the musicians involved are a Murderer’s Row of Middle-of-the-Road 1980s Pap like Eddie Money, Kenny Loggins, Asia, Sammy Hagar and of course Frank Stallone).

Now the reason you should watch Over The Top is the climax as it’s a hilarious nightmare orgy of arm wrestling. Under the glitzy lights of a packed Vegas arena, we get contestants who are all basically grotesque ogres with beards and tight muscle t-shirts and giant shoulders. My favourite was the one named John Grizzly who is a mass of crazy hair and wears a military single with ‘Fubar’ written on it and munches down on a cigar before he faces off with Hawk. All these tight shots of grown men face to face with each other in eye-popping, forehead vein emphasising, muscle quivering pain, arms bulging from the exertion, it’s like a 1980s approximation of Dante’s Inferno, particularly when Golan goes for a slow-motion arty vibe at certain points. It’s pure art, totally in the spirit of Francis Bacon, what with all this flesh and rage flying at you, especially manifested in the showdown between Bull and Stallone, “or should we say David and Goliath” as the announcer helpfully informs us, with Goliath, I mean Bull, continually bellowing threats like “GET IN HERE!” and “I OWN YOU!” I mean, this is why cinema was invented basically. Oh yeah, there is also some time for characterisation with fake TV interviews with these arm wrestling titans and Stallone informs us as to why he seems to turn his cap around before he wrestles: “I turn it around and it’s like a switch that goes on, it’s the switch... I feel like another person. I feel like... a truck, a machine.” Improvisational brilliance worthy of Cassavettes! Eventually, in the spirit of Rocky, Stallone climbs from despair into victory, suffering a few setbacks from Bull’s rage (the dude even clocks him one in the nose with no penalty from the ref!) before overcoming the odds with the power of his son’s love and his own trusty winning move where his fingers slip over the opponent’s hand, basically going OVER THE TOP. Cue another inspirational 1980s soft-rock anthem over slow-motion re-runs of the Rocky finale but this time with a stupid kid instead of Talia Shire and crusty old Robert Loggia moved to tears by the combination of man-flesh wrestling and father-son bonding. The message is clear: respect the pumped wrist of a honourable trucker in a ripped t-shirt who has the love of his son on his side. Nobody puts Stallone in the corner.