8/2/07

R023 Over The Top

(1987, Sports Drama, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson

He’s putting him on the accelerated redneck training course.

Rating: **1/2

In a nutshell:

A trucker rebuilds his relationship with his son and wins an arm-wrestling contest.

Summary:

A truck bursting through a wall?  What, is the Kool-Aid guy driving it?A sensitive trucker named—don’t laugh—Lincoln Hawk (Sylvester Stallone) pulls his big rig into the parking lot of a junior military academy to pick up his long-lost son Mike. Twelve-year-old Mike is not too thrilled, especially after all the vicious anti-Hawk lies his wealthy, elitist grandfather (Robert Loggia) has been telling. Nevertheless, Mike’s dying mother has asked him to go on a road trip with his father, so Mike reluctantly leaves with Hawk, leading to Relationship Development Section A: Obligatory Loathing.

The Obligatory Loathing sequence is mercifully short, represented solely by an ill-advised footrace across a busy freeway and a couple of salad/spring water combination plates. In the midst of their salad bonding session, a thick, growling slab of human bacon (improbably named Smasher) challenges Hawk to an arm wrestling duel. Everyone screams and waves money in the air while he and Smasher grunt and sweat. Hawk wins. Mike pretends outrage, but it’s no use. The display of his father’s prowess leads to inexorably to Relationship Development Section B: Grudging Acceptance.

The Grudging Acceptance sequence is a bit longer, and includes en route weight training, driving lessons, and generic self-affirmative advice that culminates in an impromptu junior arm-wrestling tournament at a roadside arcade. Mike loses his first match and flees in tears. Hawk follows him out. Further aggressive self-affirmation steels Mike to return and win his next two matches. The excitement of victory is short-lived, however, as Elitist Grandpa’s jackbooted thugs take custody of Mike while Hawk’s not looking. Hawk gives chase, throws some punches, and takes Mike back. This is the harbinger of Relationship Development Section C: Contrived Setback.

The most exciting 0.4 seconds of sports.The Contrived Setback sequence starts when they show up at the hospital to visit Mike’s dying mom. A mustachioed doctor gravely informs them that her condition has been downgraded from “dying” to “dead.” Mike blames Hawk for some reason, and flees the hospital to return to Elitist Grandpa. After the funeral, Elitist Grandpa’s jackbooted thugs turn Hawk away from the wrought iron gates that guard his nine trillion dollar mansion. Hawk pretends to leave, but returns moments later in his big rig. He knocks down the gates, ploughs under a lot of elegant landscaping, and demolishes the mansion’s front hall. He runs to find Mike, but the thugs get him first. Mike comes out to see his dad being led away by the cops. Later, he meets his dad in jail and explains that he’d rather live in a mansion than a truck. Hawk is disappointed, but sees his son’s point. He signs full custody over to Elitist Grandpa in exchange for his release from prison.

Depressed, Hawk sells everything he owns and bets heavily on himself to win the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas. (It’s a double elimination tournament. If you miss this the first time it’s announced, don’t worry. They’ll announce it again. And again, and again, and again...) Meanwhile, Mike finds a secret stash of letters from his father, sent to him while he was growing up, but intercepted and hidden by Elitist Grandpa. Mike determines to meet his dad at the championship, setting up Relationship Development Section D: Joyous Reunion.

The Joyous Reunion sequence is montage of arm-wrestling tournament footage interposed with scenes of Michael stealing a car from his grandpa’s garage, breaking traffic laws, parking illegally, and then stowing away on a plane to Vegas. Elitist Grandpa figures out where Mike is going and gets to Vegas first; he offers Hawk a new truck and half a million dollars to “go away.” (A puzzling move, when you consider that Hawk already signed away his custody rights and left Elitist Grandpa’s town. How could he possibly “go away” more?) Hawk pushes a particularly recalcitrant henchman through a window by way of refusal. Later, he meets Mike on the competition floor. Mike regurgitates some of the generic self-affirmation from earlier in the film, inspiring Hawk to win the championship. A trophy is raised triumphantly. The prize money is used to start a new trucking company. Custody of Mike is somehow regained.

Thoughts:

This legally binding hug restores all my custodial rights as your father.If you look closely at this movie’s story, the first thing you ought to notice is that it doesn’t have one. Sure, it has the trappings of a story. There’s an uneasy father/son duo, some fistfights, a road trip, a sporting event, and an unqualified working-class loathing for the privileges of wealth. Without the connective tissue of reason, however, these are merely story events. Reasons are not to be found in this film. There’s no reason for Mike to leave his father. No reason for him to change his mind afterwards. No reason for Robert Loggia’s character to cause so much trouble. No reason for him to stop causing trouble at the end. No adequately defined reason for Hawk to have left his family many years previous. No one even acts as if these reasons exist, which leaves the events depicted to lie inert in a story-like pattern, like a rough artist’s rendering of an as-yet-unbuilt house. “The climax will go here,” the filmmakers probably said, pointing to a particular spot. “The denouement here, and inspirational message there. We’ll fill in the details later.”

Mike goes this one alone, with comments about strained facial expressions of the arm-wrestlers, e.g., “Now I know what Stallone looks like constipated.” Several comments are made about the inappropriate easy listening incidental music, such as, “The music says I’m watching Cinemax at two a.m.” Later, he refers to the act of arm-wrestling itself as “The most exciting 0.4 seconds in sports!” Near the end, he sums up the action by saying, “I’ve seen nature films of musk ox that were way more sophisticated than this.” It’s not a good movie, nor is it even halfway competent, but it’s broad, goofy, and overearnest in a way that seems to beg for this kind of treatment. It’s worth a look.