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Over the Top (1987)::rating::3::rating::3

Over the Top is a strange, coked-out fever dream of a movie, replete with arm wrestling montages and pounding 80s power ballads.  Everybody’s drenched in sweat, whether they’re the wrestlers, the audience, the waitress in a diner, or even the wimpy little kid.  By the end, I had beads streaking down my own forehead.  Of course, Over the Top is a bad movie.  Terrible, in fact.  But its badness also takes on an ungainly magnificence, like an ugly weed that sprouts between seams of concrete.  Top might fail as a drama, but it resoundingly succeeds as a comedy.

The story is a humdinger:  Sylvester Stallone plays Lincoln Hawk, a loner truck driver with a square jaw and big ol’ rippling biceps.  The film opens with Hawk on the winding Oregon roads, as a mediocre rock tune about ‘Merica fills the soundtrack.  We then cut to some graduation scene at a kids’ military school, in a bizarre flair of editing that ensures these first few minutes make little sense.  We figure the Hawk is probably going to this ceremony, and it must be a big deal, because he’s scrubbing his armpits and shaving his scuzzy beard.

Turns out, Hawk’s son is one the cadets at this…graduation?  Promotion?  Group photo?  Hell, I don’t know.  In any case, little Mikey (David Mendenhall) hasn’t seen his dad in ten years, and doesn’t much want to see him now.  The Hawk informs the boy that his ailing mother (Susan Blakely) has asked that father and son take a road trip to California, in the hopes they might bond.  This raises the hackles of Jason (Robert Loggia), Mikey’s starchy maternal grandfather.  It seems that Jason’s sole function in the movie is to growl at wormy subordinates and generally act like a leftover villain from Caddyshack.

Anyway, the wobbly second act of the movie amounts to a road trip/buddy comedy, wherein Hawk and Mikey (his name is Mike Hawk–My Cock?  Really??) hit the open road and share stilted bonding scenes.  This presents the film’s biggest problem:  Mikey is one of the most obnoxious little sum’bitches in cinema history.  When Hawk suggests a diner for lunch, Mikey immediately begins blathering about the cholesterol and saturated fats, on a menu he hasn’t even seen yet.  Later, he chides Hawk for being a slow-witted cretin (fair point, but still), and puts down his chosen profession.  Seriously, Mikey is such a whiny goody-good, he makes Ricky Schroeder look like one of the Sex Pistols.

This could’ve been another middling father/son drama, but the screenwriters have a gnarly curveball for ya:  In the diner scene, we learn that the Hawk is a world-class arm wrestler.  Because, you know, of course he is. A burly, wild-eyed strongman challenges ol’ Hawk to a match right then and there, and the Hawk kicks his ass.  Because, you know, of course he does.  In case y’all are wondering, this is the first scene where everybody starts dripping in clammy coke sweats.

There’s so much to unpack with this movie, but let’s start with the performances.  Stallone alternates between two modes here, and you can pick which is your favorite:  First, we get scowly, mumbly Sly, who makes you turn on subtitles so you can decipher his garbled dialogue.  (Spoiler:  You ain’t missin’ a whole lot.)  On the other side, there’s straining, sweating, constipated Sly, who screams like he’s in labor and the contractions are two minutes apart.  Neither vibe is gonna win Stallone an Oscar, but hey, it’s a shambling performance in a shambling movie.  In a weird way, this ineffectual turn actually works in Top‘s favor.

Mendenhall has been raked over the coals for his work as little Mikey, including a Razzie nomination.  We can debate whether it’s fair to throw darts at a child actor another time, but I honestly think a lot of the problems with the character boil down to shoddy writing. (Strange, as both of Over the Top‘s screenwriters, Stallone and Sterling Silliphant, have won Oscars.)  All of the conflicts and dialogue in this movie ring completely hollow, as if the writers have never witnessed real human interaction.  Sure, Mendenhall comes across as a wimpy, weepy little know-it-all, but he’s also playing the part as written.  You can’t blame the kid for doing his job so well.

Really, you have to just shut your brain off for the entire movie.  Take the scene where Hawk first picks up his son, and the little brat bolts out of the car and across several lanes of highway traffic.  Cars are screeching and slamming into each other.  The boy’s screaming his head off.  So, you’re telling me that nobody’s gonna intervene or call the cops when they see:  A little kid, dressed like a WWII general, running for his life, and a muscle-bound trucker chasing him?  That’s the most unrealistic thing in the movie, and that includes the scene where a guy gulps down a quart of motor oil.

All that probably sounds like a one-star review.  Maybe it should be.  But damned if I didn’t chuckle through this entire film.  That begs the question:  Can you put down a joke if it actually makes you laugh?  Yes, Over the Top is Razzie-caliber cinema.  Yes, it tanked at the box office.  Yet few movies have ever worked so hard to be this bad.  Go back and look at that diner scene again.  Even the extras in the background are sweating buckets, and they’re doing it all for your entertainment.

93 min.  PG.  Freevee.

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