1987 in Film – Over the Top

Release Date: February 13th
Box Office: $16,057,580

Before we get properly started: I do always appreciate it when the movie title credit matches the one that was on the cover of the box in the video library.

This might seem like a small thing, and it is. But when you had to go to a video library, that front cover was the first line of attack that was used to draw you in. Then when you get home and pop in the tape and the name of the film appears in a standard font? Well, thats just annoying. Puts the film on the back for me straight away.

Anyway.

Over The Top (1987) gets one thing right by having that correct front and centre in the opening credits. Tick. Excellent.

We have Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawk, a man who should be destined for life as a GI Joe specialising in aerial warfare with a bird as his best friend. However, he’s a down on his luck truck driver who is meeting his son for the first time in years. Said son attends a prestigious looking military academy and isn’t too pleased to see his father.

Why this? Because Stallone left the family years ago for some reason leaving the son with his mother and her domineering Father played by Robert Loggia. The mom is sick and about to undergo surgery and asked that Stallone would drive his son to the hospital cross county to give them a chance to bond.

So far, so 80s: the theme of the estranged Father is one that winds its way through the decade. You have the Spielberg films like E.T. (1982) where the father is essentially missing to something like Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989) where a father and son relationship is mended. Obviously more people than Spielberg made films about this but those two act as a natural start and finish to the era.

Over The Top lands squarely in this type of film mixing in a good dollop of road movie. The ‘Over The Top’ bit is for when the son finds out Stallone is a high level arm wrestler.

Now. If there was one thing that the early 80s was about it was the blue collar American. Reagan had assumed the presidency on the back of these voters which was reflected in the wider culture. Just think of Springsteen in his denim, of Travolta strutting down the street with a paint can in his hand. Think of Smokey and The Bandit (1977) killing at the box office and of all that media celebrating being a trucker. It was the time of the working class hero, one who admittedly was in the middle of having their guts ripped out by greedy corporations before the yuppies would finish the job.

The point is, blue collar sold and Stallone knew this as he had already created two class icons in Rocky Balboa and John Rambo.

Lincoln Hawk is a clear attempt to tap into that market, only without the whole half crazed Vietnam veteran thing and a whole different kind of sport.

The arm wrestling initially is just a back room thing done in a bar but turns out there’s a big World Championship coming up in Vegas which Hawk wants to win. Not for the trophy, mind you, but the new truck you get for winning. That way he can start his own trucking company potentially with his son.

Not that Robert Loggia wants this: turns out the whole reason Stallone left was Loggia’s hatred for him and thinking he wasn’t good enough for his daughter. He sends people after them on their road trip to kidnap the son back which is how we crowbar in the chase scene.

Of course this all builds to an if climax with Stallone in the final looking to defeat his longtime nemesis to win the championship, the truck and his son and all that.

Problem is that arm wrestling isn’t the most cinematic of sports. I mean boxing, yeah. It looks great in the hands of a good director. Arm wrestling is essentially two sweaty people at a table straining really hard and there’s only so much you can do with that. That means that big climax ends up being lots of cheering with gurning faces cut in every now and then.

That makes the film sound worse than it is. Stallone’ script isn’t bad and hits all the beats you would want it to, it’s just not that interesting a film. Hawk is a bit too honest character with much nuance to him. It’s decades removed but Real Steel (2011) tells essentially the same story but does it much better by injecting a bit more darkness into the father character, played by Hugh Jackman. The kid is also borderline annoying and probably earned his Razzie award for the year.

But you can’t argue with a film that has Terry Funk as a chief goon character. The regular mainstream audience clearly could as it failed to set the box office aflame which puts it in that box of “Stallone’s attempts to make films in the 80s that weren’t Rocky or Rambo”. It’s not great company, but it’s probably where it deserves to be.

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