Kevin: We kicked off our series on the late great Hollywood schlockmeisters Cannon Films with “Missing in Action,” the surprisingly good Chuck Norris POW rescue drama that beat “Rambo: First Blood Part II” to theaters by a year. I had planned on tackling “Invasion USA” next, but unforeseen circumstances (I lost the copious notes I took during the film) conspired to delay that one a bit (although I think most of my notes were “Norris shows up out of nowhere again and kills everyone”). Fortunately CJ and I had a chance to do a Tough Guy Tag Team on another Cannon “classic” thanks to a recent screening at the Alamo Drafthouse of Sylvester Stallone’s “Over the Top”:
In case you have somehow forgotten, “Over the Top” portrays the efforts of long-haul truck driver Lincoln Hawk to reconnect with his incredibly whiny and annoying son Michael on a cross-country trip, while occasionally arm wrestling people. Yes that’s right, it’s an earnest family melodrama that somehow climaxes at a professional arm wrestling championship in Vegas featuring opponents named Bull, Smasher, Grizzly, and Salesman (oh wait, I think that actor was actually just playing a salesman). Cannon paid Sly a reported $13 million (although some say closer to $20 million) to star, betting that “Over the Top” would do for arm wrestling what their “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” did for breakdancing; perhaps now you have an idea about why Cannon Films no longer exists.
The movie starts with a montage of Hawk driving across the country to the strains of “Meet Me Half Way,” by Kenny Loggins, a song which will be forever stuck in your head whether you like it or not since the movie plays it again like nine more times.
Before we go further we should point out that the title of the song kind of goes against Hawk’s entire philosophy – stated several times during the movie – that actually the world doesn’t meet anyone half way. So which is it, should I listen to professional arm wrestler Lincoln Hawk or to the genius behind “Highway to the Danger Zone”? As with every choice in life, I’ll go with the guy who could kill me.
Also we should note that even though the character’s name is Hawk, people accidentally refer to him as “Hawks” several times in the film (including the guy narrating the trailer above at the :22 mark). Even Stallone does it himself late in the movie, which I take as a sign that he didn’t care about doing any more retakes than needed on this movie and just wanted to get home.
Either way, when Hawk arrives at his son’s military academy in his rig, the security guard tells him deliveries are in the back, even though he is clearly not hauling anything behind him. Also as he is walking through the school grounds everyone stops and stares at him like he’s the Elephant Man, even though other than not having a sports coat he is well-dressed and wearing a tie. But I don’t know, maybe if you saw someone dressed like this you’d be as shocked as these people that such lowlife scum is allowed on school property:
CJ: “My god, they let the JANITOR’S kid go to this school? I thought we paid tuition precisely to keep out this kind of riff-raff!”
I don’t know about you, but Hawk/Hawks/Hawx didn’t arrive in any way that made me want to sound the alarm. Seemed respectful, dressed up in his best clothes to meet his son. He didn’t just pull up blasting “Paradise City,” slap the dean’s wife’s ass, and throw Michael in the back of his truck. Also, when Michael asks to see his ID he actually gives it to him instead of backhanding him and calling him a mouthy little shit like the rest of us would.
That being said, after we meet Michael and realize we hate him, would anyone have blamed Lincoln if he’d just gone “Oh uhh … that’s actually not my kid, my mistake” and sloughed off? Apparently Lincoln never considers that, as he is a truly great father who loves his son 12 years after he abandoned him and only sent shitty one-page letters instead of money for food and clothes. Frankly, if I’m Michael’s evil rich grandfather Cutler (Robert Loggia) and have been footing the bill for this little pansy, I’d be pissed at Lincoln too.
Kevin: I really don’t understand why Hawk hasn’t seen his kid in more than a decade, especially since from what we see he and his ex still care about each other deeply, he calls her “honey,” and she wants him to have custody of Michael rather than her mega-rich dad. I mean Hawk wouldn’t be the first trucker who ditched his family, but that’s because they are usually criminal alcoholic deadbeats.
But since Stallone obviously didn’t want to play someone with actual human flaws, everything is just chalked up to Cutler hating him for no reason other than the fact that it’s the 1980’s and rich people in movies back then acted like working-class folks were barely a step above serial killers. Cutler is so maniacally obsessed with Hawk that if he tried to hire a hitman to take him out it would not be out of character for him in this movie.
I also don’t understand Hawk’s status in the world of professional arm wrestling. He and Michael go to a truck stop, where Michael recoils at the idea of eating fried chicken and demands tuna salad instead (what kind of sissy boy military academy did they send him to?). They’ve barely been there two minutes before some gent named Smasher approaches him and says, “I’ve been hearing on the road lately that this Hawk is the man to beat!”
(This leads to my favorite moment in the film. When Hawk says he shouldn’t believe everything he hears, Smasher responds, “I don’t, I don’t believe in anything!” You really don’t believe anything you hear? Like you don’t believe the Earth is round, oceans contain salt, or that ALF is just a puppet? Listen Smasher I admire your ability to maintain an open mind about things but there has to be limits.)
At the same time, some guy named Bull who is apparently the most fearsome undefeated champion wrestler in the world happens to show up at this out-of-the-way shithole truck stop just to try and psyche out Hawk before the big showdown in Vegas. So apparently Hawk is known across the land, but at the championship we find out he is a 20-1 underdog. So which is it? In the first half of the film he’s Peyton Manning, but in the second half he’s Ryan Leaf.
CJ: They never really do explain any of that backstory do they? Do you think it’s cause the reasons weren’t any good, or they never could come up with one?
Before we move on, we missed a key moment from the movie which shines a harsh light on the breakdown of our society in the face of a child in danger. As Hawk is beginning his long journey from trucker to arm wrestling champion, in order to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a … trucker, Michael escapes from the truck and runs wildly across the freeway with his school jacket torn apart. Hawk chases after him and then gets him in a bear hug as Michael screams.
Now any normal person would notice this and think this is probably a kidnapping. Not these fine folks though! Despite having no context to the situation, they are content to continue on their way with no intention of helping. But I guess it makes sense; if I ever saw a veiny muscled-up man chasing a crying child across the freeway, I’d think “Haha, Italians!”
Kevin you make an interesting point about Hawk going from a well-regarded contender to not having a shot. I guess the writers (of which Sly was one) realized half way through that the only way we’d cheer for Hawk is if we think he doesn’t have a chance. I don’t like that. In fact, I think the movie should be about Bull. He just goes around America beating everyone easily and has absolutely nothing to show for it at the end. Roll credits.
Kevin: So after a day’s worth of driving, Hawk pulls his truck off to the side of what looks like the Pacific Coast Highway, even though they just left Colorado. The movie makes it seem like they’ve been driving across the country for several days, yet no matter where they go it always looks like southern California. Perhaps that is because they filmed the early military academy scenes in Pomona, California, although it doesn’t explain why Hawk’s biggest rival just happened to be at the same truck stop in what was supposed to be Colorado.
Either way, I remember you telling me CJ how homoerotic Hawk and Michael’s relationship seems for this stretch of the movie. I just chalked that up to the fact that you think any close friendship between two men is super gay; you probably think Riggs and Murtaugh have been cornholing each other for years on the side. But yeah it’s hard not to laugh when Hawk suggests they sleep in the truck for the night.
I anticipated him showing that he had a sleeping compartment in the back, but no, he just expects the two of them to sleep upright in the same seats they’ve been in for the last 12 hours, and somehow Mr. “I only eat tuna salad” Michael is surprisingly cool with that. I couldn’t believe he didn’t throw a fit until they got the Presidential Suite at the nearest Ritz-Carlton.
Then Hawk throws it out to Michael that it would be okay with him if he wanted to use his shoulder as a pillow, and after Michael rebuffs his advances we cut to the next morning and Hawk is resting his giant head on Michael’s chest. This is how I know that Stallone is not a weirdo pedophile in real life, because when he wrote and acted in this scene he never for a second thought anyone would think it odd for an obviously super macho ladies man like himself to be doing this with a pre-teen boy. Let’s just say Roman Polanski might have second thoughts.
Then after what was probably a horrible night’s sleep, the two apparently bond by doing some calisthenics accompanied by, yes, “Meet Me Half Way” by Kenny Loggins. I seriously thought part of the movie had been accidentally cut out here. Michael now seems to be a completely different kid from the one who ran screaming and crying into oncoming traffic to get away from his dad like eight hours earlier.
CJ: After this Hawk inexplicably forces Michael into multiple arm wrestling fights with some local kids. My first question is: where are their parents? My second question is: is “Over the Top” actually a warning about bad parenting? First we have the father who abandons his son but still keeps up with his ex; we’ve got the weirdly controlling grandfather who is the de facto father, a mom who just up and dies like a jerk, and all the parents who thought it was a good idea to bring their kids to an arm wrestling event in Vegas.
I guess it’s okay though. Michael only ran out into traffic, then later steals a car and gets on a flight as an unattended minor, navigates his way through Vegas, and opts for the truck-driving arm-wrestling dad he barely knows over a rich grandfather who has given him a pretty sweet life. I look forward to the sequel where we learn Michael is the CEO of a high-end tech company, or fighting bums under the bridge for a bus pass.
Kevin: Yeah not only is it very weird that Hawk walks up to a bunch of kids just minding their own business and challenges them to arm wrestle his son, but that “Over the Top” exists in a world where this is not unusual. I feel like you could walk into any establishment in this fictional universe and challenge a random person to arm wrestle, and the other person would agree no questions asked. Not only that but half the bars and truck stops seem to have arm wrestling stations set up right in the middle of their establishments.
Anyway, Michael loses his first match but wins the next two after his dad tells him to “lose like a winner,” a phrase that the Buffalo Bills immediately adopted as their slogan for the next several years.
Then because Stallone hasn’t punched anyone yet, Michael gets kidnapped by some goons hired by his grandfather. Hawk quickly rescues him, and if you think this will have any impact on the movie going forward you obviously haven’t seen “Over the Top.” You seriously could have cut this part out and it wouldn’t have affected anything; Michael seems totally unfazed that his grandfather put his life in danger, and in fact he goes right back to him after finding out his mother is dead. And I don’t think Hawk even brings it up later, it is just treated as something you expect from old man Cutler.
He does decide that the best course of action in winning custody of Michael is to drive his truck through Cutler’s gate and destroy about 20 of the giant Greek statues in his completely tasteful and non-ostentatious yard.
In exchange for dropping the charges, Cutler forces Hawk to sign a paper giving up custody. Later Cutler offers him a new truck and $500,000 to start a new life even though he doesn’t have to, which Hawk is incensed by but which I found rather nice. I forgot that rich guys offering checks to make their daughter’s blue-collar boyfriends go away was a big thing back in the ‘80s (see “Cocktail” for another example of this).
Also note that the custody issue is never really resolved. Michael and Hawk drive off together at the end, although Loggia still technically has custody, and he doesn’t seem like a “water-under-the-bridge” (to quote a lyric from, yes, “Meet Me Half Way” by Kenny Loggins) type of guy.
CJ: What’s even harder to understand is why Hawk is in this competition to begin with. He has a truck already and seems to run his own trucking business, so why does he need the new truck offered as the grand prize? If it’s cause it’s a better truck, why not just save up until he gets a new one? He’s shown he doesn’t mind sleeping in his truck so he doesn’t really need his apartment (assuming he lives in one). It seems like the whole point of the movie is to get him back to where he was at the start, except based on the ending he also has a kidnapping charge.
What I’m more curious about is that the competitors at the “World Arm Wrestling Championship” are allegedly from “around the world,” yet they are mostly Americans, one Canadian, and an Asian guy who the movie tried too hard to ignore. And they are all walking around communicating in the only way they know how: grunts interspersed with weirdly specific threats. (Kevin: Such as the guy in the “F.U.B.A.R” shirt who tells Hawk, “I’m gonna go through you like gas through a funnel!,” before drinking an entire can of Valvoline motor oil for some reason.):
What I’d like to know is what are they like in their day-to-day lives? Do they walk around in wife beaters challenging random people to arm wrestle? And what is the outcome for them not winning? For Hawk we saw he’d have nothing since he bet his savings on himself, but is the same true for these other guys? Do they go back home with nothing, or do they manage an HR staffing company in their non-wrestling time?
Kevin: Yeah the “international” representation was really disappointing. I was hoping for some good stereotypes like a Mexican in a sombrero or a Japanese guy dressed like a samurai; instead it’s just a bunch of hairy white dudes who look to Randall “Tex” Cobb for their styling tips:
Although who cares because during the opening competition montage we finally get another song in this movie besides “Meet Me Half Way”: Sammy Hagar’s “Winner Takes It All,” which not only includes the phrase “over the top” in the lyrics (one of two songs in the movie to do so), but also had a music video featuring a cameo by Stallone wrestling Hagar at the end. You’ll never guess who wins!:
Speaking of, we haven’t even talked about Hawk’s finishing move. What exactly is it about moving his fingers over the top of his opponent’s fist that makes him unbeatable (when he does it at the climax Bull immediately screams like he’s getting castrated by a chainsaw), and why doesn’t he start every match by doing that rather than always waiting until he’s about to lose?
Also, what does Cutler do for a living to be so rich? From what we see he does nothing but dedicate his life to fucking with Hawk, and he’s obviously evil since he’s constantly trailed by a bodyguard/henchman played by one of Ben Gazzara’s enforcers in “Road House.” And why does he need his lawyer by his side 24/7? Wherever Cutler goes that guy is right next to him. Does he really need constant on-site legal advice, and is he paying by the hour because that can’t be cheap.
CJ: Hawk does that move so slowly, why didn’t any of the other guys counter by moving their fingers too? And a part of me really hopes Cutler runs the Boy Scouts.
I also don’t understand how Cutler seemingly lets Hawk have Michael because he won in arm wrestling. How did this all of a sudden qualify him to take custody? If anything Cutler should have been like, “He won the arm wrestling championship, clearly I have misjudged him. He has my respect as a good man and father. What’s that? He just walked out of here with Michael despite not having custody? Motherfucker!”
Kevin: Since we are near the end is there anything else you want to touch on CJ?
CJ: I’ll conclude by noting that this movie is about a man reconnecting with the son he never knew while trying to make his dreams come true though arm wrestling.
So where the hell is any of that conveyed in the movie’s poster?
Post Script: Since we ended our “Tango & Cash” Round Table with a clip of Sly promoting the film on Oprah while dressed almost exactly like his character Ray Tango, let’s end this one with a clip of Sly promoting “Over the Top” and discussing violence in the movies, while looking exactly like Lincoln Hawk(s). Apparently back then Sly had a tough time letting go of his characters:
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