Sunday, July 18, 2010

OVER THE TOP (1987) - trucking across the vast expanse of America just to break some poor schlub's arm

You see, when Sly puts his baseball cap on backwards, it's like a switch that goes on. He feels like another person...a truck, maybe. Oh, and the HGH certainly helps.

“the final lesson will come in the crazy neon hoopla of Las Vegas – at the World’s Arm Wrestling Championships where – for Lincoln Hawks – something more than winning the championship is at stake – something like the sum total of a man’s life…”

-plot description for the Over the Top novelization

In the vast junkyard of cinematic wreckage, there are many a film wrongheadedly constructed from thoroughly uncinematic concepts. One such story forms the backbone of Over the Top, a film about a truck driver who drives to an arm wrestling championship. In other words, here is a story about a guy who turns a wheel for an hour (occasionally shifting gears) to get to a place where he can bend his arm for the final half hour (or so). It’s hard to imagine that they made a big budget movie based around this concept. Not only that, but someone wrote a novelization of this story. Oh yeah…I actually bought the fucking novelization. I don’t know which one is more insane.

However, I can’t rightfully criticize a book that uses the phrase “crazy neon hoopla”. Many critically acclaimed books could only dream of creating such a fabulous turn of phrase. I’d like to comment further on the writing, but I’ve only gotten as far as the front and back covers. Regardless, against all odds, the film overcomes this thoroughly unscintillating concept and a shitty script (and a terrible co-lead performance by the kid that plays Sly’s son) to tower above all arm wrestling movies past, present, and future.

Digging deeper, there is a little more to the story than initially appears. Sly (his character is named Lincoln Hawks, but is sometimes referred to as "Lincoln Hawk", which is a level of sloppiness few filmed scripts can claim to have achieved) and his son are reunited after ten years, and Sly forces him along on an 18-wheeler road trip. Their long standing separation is totally artificial, as Sly was kept away from his ex-wife and son by evil asshole Robert Loggia, who even told the son that Sly was a drug dealing scumbag. Their relationship is initially hostile, but quickly turns around with a Kenny Loggins montage at the dawn of a new day, as this is how problems were rectified in the 80’s. I for one don’t understand why he would even want to bond with this annoying ass kid who continually unfurls terrible dialogue, like water balloons of stupidity breaking over the side of my face (if you could fill a balloon with dumbness, I mean). He even asks Sly why he doesn’t have any books in the front cab of his rig (like the Over the Top novelization for example, or maybe the Cobra novelization). There is a good god damn reason why truck drivers don’t read on the job. Books on tape, on the other hand…they have no excuse. Crack open a book on tape you big lug.

Robert Loggia role as the villain of sorts is as hamfistedly written as they come, but man, he’s fucking ace at playing a screaming slimebag under any circumstances. There is also Susan Blakely as the dying mother, giving a wonderfully cancery performance of thorough cancerocity. However, as you might imagine, the movie belongs to Sly. While not a great actor by any stretch (and I mean any), here he gives perhaps, just perhaps, his greatest performance, adding pathos and heroism to a role that should be bereft of both, in a script equal parts inept and cloying.

Of all the movies I own on DVD, Over the Top is certainly one of the most difficult to justify. There is the fall back answer of nostalgia, and that the arm wrestling lexicon in the film has worked it’s way into my real life arm wrestling exploits, like when a dude says “my arm is a spark plug…and I’m gonna light you up!” (that also works if you’re playing volleyball in the backyard). In fact, if I happen to be arm wrestling someone, there is exactly zero chance that Over the Top won’t be quoted as some point. There is also the pitch perfect Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, featuring the talents of Sammy Hagar and Robin Zander (of Cheap Trick, of course). Moroder seems to be at his most genius when forced into the crassest of corners. There is a scene where father and son enter the toughest trucker bar in the world, and a Frank Stallone song is blaring on the jukebox. In this hotbed of potential violence, it is the nepotism-fu on display that stands out the most. Anyway, there is a glimmer of genuine heart that you usually don’t get with these Golan-Globus attractions (the masters of fast food B-movie foolishness). Love conquers all may be a cliché, and a manipulative one at that, but it can also occasionally ring true.

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