Note: This Yakamala Rewind will also serve as a page out of The Stallone Diary: One man’s attempt to come to grips with one of the greatest filmmakers of our age, Sylvester Stallone.
Sylvester Stallone’s shadow looms large in the realm of Yakmala. He is a patron saint of questionable quality on par with Tommy Wiseau, Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, and Harold P. Warren. He offered us the second film ever screened at a Yakmala event (Staying Alive), and continues to be a compelling force of cinematic id. The most satisfying thing about him, as a storyteller, is just how his thoughts get muddled in the translation and often get reduced to catchphrases like “Everybody uses everybody,” or “Go for it.”
What sets Stallone apart from those other luminaries is the volume of work he’s contributed to the zeitgeist. He has a writing credit on 22 of the 58 films he’s appeared in (counting The Party at Kitty and Stud’s); 8 of those he personally directed. I’d also argue he directed Judge Dredd, but that’s for another day.
Instead, we’re going to focus on the fact that precious few of his films have actually screened at Yakmala events. Besides Staying Alive, only three other films have made the list: Cobra, Cliffhanger and the world’s first and only film to explore the world of professional arm-wrestling: Over the Top. Like so many other Stallone efforts, it was in a constant rotation on TBS, often right after Red Sonja. It’s one of those movies I grew up with, but never saw from start to finish until I hit college. At that point, I could appreciate it for all it’s muddled glory and important social message.
Plot: Sly plays Lincoln Hawk (or Hawks, depending on the scene), a blue collar trucker with a well-to-do son, Michael, from his marriage to some lady from Bel Air named Christina. She asks Hawk(s) to pick up their son from military school for his summer(?) break. Hawk(s) and Michael have never actually met as Hawk(s) left his wife and infant son for some undisclosed reason.
No, seriously! The actual reason for Hawk(s) leaving is never stated.
Michael is nothing like Hawk(s), he’s prissy, a health-nut, and constantly complaining about his father’s more blue collar ways. Micheal’s displeasure with having to ride with Hawk(s) forces him to attempt suicide-by-freeway. Hawk(s) responds by ripping the sleeve off of his uniform. The plan also angers Michael’s grandfather, ROBERT LOGGIA, who hires goons to kidnap Micheal as he and Hawk(s) bond over the road, arm-wrestling, and delivering Brut.
Along the way, Hawk(s) convinces Micheal to challenge a group of youths to an arm-wrestling contest. When Mike predictably fails and runs away in tears, Hawk(s) imparts the film’s message: “The world meets nobody half-way.” This is subsequently demonstrated when Michael returns to the boys and learns the real secret of success: cheating.
No, seriously! Hawk(s) uses a technique against his opponents where he repositions his fingers around the other guy’s thumb. Micheal uses the same “resolve” and wins two out of three.
Michael is fairly happy with his “success,” telling the whole story to his mother over the phone. This all sounds pretty sweet, but LOGGIA’s goons catch up with them and take Michael. This leads to a pretty sub-par truck chase across … Flagstaff, Arizona(?)
Afterward, they arrive in Los Angeles just in time to learn that Christina died earlier that day. Michael responds with tears and hailing a cab to the safety of Bel Air. Hawk(s) responds by crashing his truck into LOGGIA’s house and demanding Michael come with him. He gets arrested for his troubles.
Somehow, LOGGIA convinces Hawk(s) to give over custody. With nothing else in his life, Hawk(s) accepts the chance to compete the championship of arm-wrestling in Las Vegas. He also sells his truck for $7,000 and bets on himself.
Ooh, time for another aside. Earlier in the film, Hawks is confronted by this gentlemen:
He challenges Hawk(s) to a match right then and there. It doesn’t happen, but you’ll see that Bob “Bull” Hurley reappears when you most expect him.
Hawk(s) competes in the preliminary rounds while Michael discovers all the letters Hawk(s) wrote to him but, for some reason, his mother never gave to him. Which, when you think about it, is pretty dumb. Early in the film, Hawk(s) is surprised to learn that his son never received any of the letters. There’s a story point missing here. Was she mad that he left, but later they reconciled? All the letters were in her dresser, so it wasn’t like LOGGIA was intercepting them. Much like the real reason for Hawk(s) leaving, this is never addressed.
Michael makes his way to Las Vegas using the blue collar smarts Hawk(s) gave him. LOGGIA, meanwhile, beats Michael to Vegas and offers Hawk(s) a new truck and $500,000 to leave them alone. Hawk(s) responds by putting one of his goons through a window. Of course, it’s all for naught because when LOGGIA watches Hawk(s) win the championship by cheating against — you guessed it — Bull Hurley, he decides Hawk(s) is a good man after all and gives him back custody of Michael. Together, they roam the country in their new truck, which came as part of the arm-wrestling prize. I assume he also collected on the 20:1 odds bet and the prize money. So, all in all, Hawk(s) did okay … now if he could just convince the world that his last name is the singular “Hawk.”
Analysis: Let’s start with the prize quote of the film:
“What I do is I just try to take my hat and I turn it around and it’s like a switch that goes on. And when the switch goes on, I feel like another person, I feel … I don’t know, I feel … like a truck; like a machine.” This comes from the odd interview portions with the semi-finalists during the arm-wrestling championships. I’ve always found their inclusion really strange. To introduce what is, essentially, The Office‘s “talking head” inserts so late in the film is bad structure. Despite that, they’re utterly charming for the pearls of wisdom the wrestlers have to offer, for instance:
“There is no second place. Second sucks.”
“When I get to that table — that person — I don’t care who they are, they’re my mortal enemy. I that them.”
“I’m not so enthused about people coming up and patting me on the back, saying, ‘You’re the best.’ I don’t need people to do that to me.”
See, they really do anticipate The Office by fifteen years.
Despite being directed by Menehem Golan (who also gave us The Apple and produced Masters of the Universe), the film sure feels like Stallone had a hand in its final shaping. The film contains three montages and one Frank song. It also features that sort of “suggested” story progression that he was fond of at the time. Like Rocky IV, very little actually seems to happen over the course of the film. Great portions of the story are implied, and while that is a sophisticated storytelling device, I’m not sure Stallone or his partners wield it effectively. For instance, I had to look up the name of Hawk(s)’s wife on IMDB because, surprise, the name is mentioned once under Stallone’s breath. I’ve already bought up the film’s failure to address Hawk(s) real reason for leaving his family in the plot re-cap. I keep coming back to it because so much of the strife between Micheal and Hawk(s) could be solved if the truth just came out. The screenplay, credited to Stallone and the improbably named Stirling Silliphant (who also wrote The Swarm and The Towering Inferno) goes out of its way to avoid asking or answering the films central question: why did Lincoln Hawk(s) abandon his wife and newborn son?
Answering this question would actually be a good use of a flashback montage, but — and this might indicate Golan was in charge — the film offers us none. Instead, it devotes a full half-hour to the arm-wrestling championship. I suppose some would argue the film should’ve featured more arm wrestling, but that only works if Hawk(s) was unencumbered by the family drama.
And really, this film is more a family drama than a sweaty action movie.
Of course, there’s plenty of sweat, too.
Over The Top was released between Cobra and Rambo III, a time when Stallone’s instincts were unquestioned and not yet faltering. Rocky V, his poorly received forays into comedy, and Tango & Cash awaited him. What we see in this film is a man chaffing at the confines of action stardom. After over-turning the outcome of the Vietnam War and ending communism forever in his previous films, Stallone was anxious for a new challenge. Sadly, the American public could not meet him half-way (snicker) and he returned to straight action with Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, and Judge Dredd … which just about brings us to the roughest patch in his career.
But before we get there, we have a lot of classic Stallone actioners to get through. I wonder where we’ll begin …
Oh, one last thing. The presence of LOGGIA in the film gives me an excuse to post, once again, what I think is the best commercial of all time:
Next time on The Stallone Diary: Rocky III