35 Years Ago: Sylvester Stallone Flops in ‘Over the Top’
A decade after Rocky turned him into a star, Sylvester Stallone tried his luck with another, weirder sports drama — centered around arm wrestling.
Over the Top premiered on Feb. 12, 1987 and starred the Italian Stallion as Lincoln Hawk, a long haul trucker pulled into the world of professional arm wrestling tournaments. “Some fight for money... Some fight for glory... He's fighting for his son's love,” the tagline read. Presenting hokey lessons on love and family alongside maximal, sweaty arm wrestling battles, the oh-so-eighties film lived up to its title.
Over the Top begins when Hawk is called upon to reunite with his only son, Michael (David Mendenhall). Though the trucker left his family a decade prior, he’s tasked with driving Michael cross-country from military school when the boy’s mother falls ill. At the start of their journey, Michael is bratty and spoiled — at complete odds with his father, a toughened loner played by Stallone with predictable macho reserve. But the pair grow close on their way to California, stopping off to hustle in roadside arm wrestling scrapes. (A soft rock montage, scored with Kenny Loggins, also stands in for a good deal of their bonding.)
Upon reaching their destination, however, it’s revealed that Michael’s mother didn’t make it. Angry at his father for failing to bring him in time, Michael’s relationship with Hawk crumbles and he’s left in the custody of his rich, meddling grandfather (Jason Cutler). Naturally, Hawk decides to win back Michael’s respect the only way he knows how: by entering the World Arm Wrestling Championship.
Watch a Trailer for ‘Over the Top’
Set in Las Vegas, the championship is a colorful, high-production affair that ascribes the subculture with the zany mania of pro-wrestling. Pitted against the big, bad competitors with their muscular arms, even Stallone looks puny. Many real-life arm wrestlers were featured here in hulking cameos, with Rick Zumwalt towering above them all. Playing Bob “Bull” Hurley, he is eventually bested by Hawk in a final, dramatic match.
Watch Hawk vs. Bull in Final Scene of 'Over the Top'
It’s a sweet victory. In addition to winning $100,000 and a new semi-truck, Hawk had also bet on himself 20-to-one — ever the underdog. At the box office, though, Stallone did not fare so well with Over the Top. On a budget of $25 million, the film made back just $10 million and received poor reviews all around.
When Over the Top was featured on Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, both critics shared a laugh together over its weaker aspects. “Arm wrestling does not have the speed and poetry of boxing or, for that matter, any other sport,” Roger Ebert remarked. (Cuts between the wrestlers’ gritting, glistening expressions get old fast!) Meanwhile Gene Siskel’s gripes centered mainly on Mendenhall’s sniveling performance as Michael.
Watch Siskel and Ebert Review ‘Over the Top’
While it comes as no surprise that cinema history has largely forgotten Over the Top, fans of rock and roll may remember the film for their own reasons. Director Menahem Golan hired the esteemed Italian composer Giorgio Moroder to oversee the movie’s soundtrack, which is chock-full of epic rock power ballads. The track list, featuring original songs by Loggins, Eddie Money and Sammy Hagar sets Over The Top apart as a true period piece of 1987.
Stallone also appears in the video for Hagar’s "Winner Takes It All," in which he arm wrestles the singer himself. Hagar, though, was not enthusiastic about the final product, expressing regrets about the song years later on DVD commentary for his documentary The Long Road to Cabo. And it seems he’s not alone in that opinion. In a 2006 interview, Stallone voiced a few regrets about the production of Over the Top, chief among them: “I would’ve not used a never-ending stream of rock songs, but scored music instead, and most likely would’ve made the event in Vegas more ominous – not so carnival-like.”
Listen to “Winner Takes It All” by Sammy Hagar