If someone wanted to make a case that arm wrestling is just as thrilling as any other one-on-one sport, they should use the 1987 Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top to prove it. At its core, this is a story about a man and his son. However, most mainstream films need a hook, so we are led to believe from the poster that this movie is mostly about arm wrestling. But it’s far more than that.
Stallone plays Lincoln Hawk, a truck driver who arm wrestles on the side to make some extra money. He’s asked by his estranged wife, Christina (Susan Blakely), to pick up their 10-year-old son, Michael (David Mendenhall), from military school in Colorado. Michael has never met his father and has only been untruthfully told by maternal grandfather Jason Cutler (Robert Loggia) that his dad is a drug-dealing loser. Jason also hid the letters that Hawk wrote to Michael over the years. Michael thinks his father doesn’t want him, so he has no love for him in return.
Hawk and Michael are on their way to California to see Christina in the hospital as she undergoes heart surgery. Brainwashed with his contempt for his father, Michael is unhappy about the situation and even tries to run away a few times. But Hawk isn’t giving up. He loves his son and regrets leaving, vowing never to do so again. There are some great shots of the open road and desert landscape as they trek through the beautiful American southwest to try and work out their relationship.
Upon hearing that Hawk’s returned, the grandfather tries everything he can to steal Michael back and bribe Hawk into not coming back for his son. It turns out that Jason bullied Hawk into leaving in the first place all those years ago. There are some frustrating levels of elitist superiority that Hawk faces to make you truly angry.
Hawk has a big plan to win back his son and get enough money to give them a better life. He goes to Las Vegas to compete in an arm-wrestling championship in hopes that winning will gain the respect of Michael and allow him to get enough money to start his own business so he can spend more time with his son.
The last third of the film takes place during a surprisingly candid arm-wrestling competition sequence. However, we don’t learn a lot about the intricacies of the arm-wrestling world, like Rocky does so well with boxing, considering how much time is spent on it.
Stallone plays his usual charismatic everyman who must overcome adversity with his back against the wall. And Mendenhall gives an unexpectedly convincing performance for a youngster. Unlike most kids in movies, Michael is able to alternate between bratty and lovable when appropriate. Usually, child characters are either one or the other. While the father-son relationship starts off rocky (pun not intended), the bond between Stallone and Mendenhall is impressive right out the gate, providing a certain amount of believability amidst a stereotypical ’80s sports drama. Stallone knows something about this dynamic from his time with the Rocky franchise, and even serves as co-writer on Over the Top as well.
Directed by Menahem Golan (The Delta Force), the film finds intensity where you least expect it, not necessarily avoiding cliches, but also putting enough small twists on a couple of them to make itself stand out amongst its action-’80s contemporaries.
While uneven at times, Over the Top has a very kinetic narrative. I’m sure the movie was built around the arm-wrestling premise, but the filmmakers soon realized they could make a truly gripping story surrounding its father-son plot as well. This is one to watch if you’ve never seen it, holding up pretty well over 30 years later.