Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Over The Top
It was only a matter of time before we got to Sylvester Stallone. Few actor/writer/directors offers as much cheese as Stallone does while still maintaining an air of legitimacy. In terms a more classic so-bad-its-good vibe, you’re looking at the quantity and consistency of an Edward D. Wood Jr. In terms of reverse-prestige, he stands next to Tommy Wiseau and Harold Warren Jr. But then you remember he delivered Oscar-worthy scripts and performances. In his goal to create some of the most memorable moments and characters in screen history, Stallone is willing to make infamously cheesy movies.
In at least a few ways, Sylvester Stallone was conjured from our own impish cinematic desires.
And then he worked with Cannon Group principal Menahem Golan and magic was made with 1987’s Over the Top; a film which lives in infamy as the arm-wrestling movie. Well, it attained that infamy because Hollywood never made another arm-wrestling film. But even if there had been a craze of arm-wrestling films to rival the short lived gymnastics movie craze of ’85 and ’86 (and don’t think I missed you swinging on those uneven bars, Gymkata), this flick would still be the premiere film about professional arm-wrestling.
The plot concerns one Lincoln Hawk (Stallone); though, sometimes, people call him “Hawks.” He’s a truck driver who long ago separated from his well-to-do wife for reasons the movie never cares to explain. It may have had something to do with Hawk’s father-in-law (Robert Loggia!) or maybe he was running Coors across state lines. It’s really vague. Anyway, Hawks left behind a son and as the film opens, he offers to drive the boy, Michael (David Mendenhall), home to California from his military school. The two bond over a few days of hauling Brut across Utah, some arm-wrestling, a foiled kidnapping, and not talking about why Hawk left all those years ago. While he never learns the story he really wants to know, Michael meet’s Hawk’s truck driving nemesis, Bull Hurley, who expects to face off against Hawk at the National Championships of Arm-Wrestling in Las Vegas.
When they finally get to Los Angeles, Michael discovers his mother’s died of some undisclosed form of cancer while they were moving cologne across the interstate. Yeah, this family sucks at telling each other stuff.
So as the boy goes through the stages of grief, Hawks decides that he wants custody of his son. Loggia, meanwhile, also wants the boy for himself. Which, writing it out that way suggests something the film is definitely not doing. Thankfully. Meanwhile, Hawk is the sort of man who believes custody can be settled by ramming one’s big rig into the side of a Bel Air mansion. As you might guess, it doesn’t work out too well for him and he signs away all his rights to Loggia. But it’s just to set up the climatic conclusion at the Arm Wrestling Championships where Hawk must take on Bull Hurley and prove he can be over the top.
Now, I realize I may have written more about this plot than my established norm, but this insane storyline is chief among this film’s charms. Written by respectable Hollywood screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and Stallone — from a story by Gary Conway and David C. Englebach — it manages to mash-in a road movie, an angry custody dispute movie and arm-wrestling into a boil that almost makes sense. The fact it’s built of so many opposing elements is enough, but part of the thrill of the film is watching director Menahem Golan not understand the American tropes of the Silliphant/Stallone script.
Which means I should talk about Golan.
He was an Israeli filmmaker infamous in his own country for producing its first major teen sex comedy, Lemon Popsicle. It broke box office records (40% of the country saw it) even as it was panned for its, um, exploitative elements. Ever restless, he and his cousin Yoram Globus bought The Cannon Group, an American C-grade distributor, with an eye toward becoming a major Hollywood power. Some of their films will no doubt be cheesy movies on future weekends when you consider that the Cannon library includes the Death Wish sequels, those bizarre Lou Ferrigno Hercules movies and King Solomon’s Mines among many others. Golan loved movies with a gleeful disregard for the rigor required to make them; which led to most of his product being schlock. And as long as Globus had a positive balance in the ledger, Golan was free to finance flicks like Ninja III: The Domination and The Apple.
The latter was his first real American film as a director and it’s … special. Like, an early-80s attempt to please the hippies kind of special. Golan loved American movies, but never understood the idiom and was always a decade out of date. Consequently, his directorial efforts feel like fever dreams of the American experience and Over the Top is no different. From scenes of the boy running into traffic to Hawks using a photo of his wedding as an ID, moments are staged in a way that do not make sense to the American mind, but still manage to stimulate a reaction. This only increases when Hawk gets to Las Vegas and the film suddenly features talking head documentary footage of the arm-wrestling finalists.
And yeah, the return of the custody plot is as strange in context as it is the above video. Come to think of it, the custody plot is never resolved. Though Loggia has all legal rights to the boy, he gives them up at the film’s climax for no discernible reason. It manages to amplify the emotional crescendo Golan is trying to get to, but it also reflects his disinterest in logical resolutions. As both a producer and director, he was fond of getting out of a movie as soon as the hero blew up the villain. But in Over the Top, we’re left with a few seconds of banter between Hawk and son to get us from the climax to the credits.
Again, everything that might sound like a criticism of this film is part of why it’s entertaining. It’s a maelstrom of poor decision making and a thoroughly entertaining film despite deep conceptual flaws. It’s also one of a handful of cheesy flicks I come back to at least once a year.
Over the Top is available to stream right now with an Amazon Prime membership.