In his prime, Sylvester Stallone was the kind of Hollywood actor who made big movies meant to be big movies. Rocky. Rambo. Tango & Cash. Demolition Man. Cliffhanger. Stallone didn’t just do tentpoles, he was a tentpole. His movies never snuck up on you because they were incapable of doing so. You stick his name on a movie poster and the rest usually took care of itself.

Perhaps that’s what makes Over the Top, released 30 years ago this month, such an anomaly. It’s a Sylvester Stallone vehicle during his prime that bombed in theaters, but gained cult status in the years since. Directed by schlock peddler Menahem Golan (just look at his IMDB page), it’s a movie with a plot so absurd that it’s hard to imagine someone would bankroll it today, let alone 1987. Such was the power of Stallone, whose hubris made him believe that he could turn an arm wrestling movie into the next great Hollywood blockbuster. And we thank him for it.

For the unitiated — and I weep for you if you are — Over the Top is the story of Lincoln Hawk (something Hawks, because that’s how focused they were during production of the film), a truck driver who also dabbles in the world of professional arm wrestling. The story picks up as Hawk learns his estranged wife is dying and she wants him to take care of their son Michael, who is in military school. As for why Hawk left them 10 years ago, we never really get a good answer. But then again, that’s not the kind of thing the screenwriters were too worried about anyway.

Hawk immediately runs into two problems. First, his son hates him. Second, his rich father-in-law Cutler (played by never-better Robert Loggia) doesn’t think Hawk should be in his son’s life and sends goons (one of which is wrestling legend Terry Funk) to get his grandson back as Lincoln and Michael drive from Colorado to California in his big rig.

It’s at this point I always like to stop and mention something that Jason Mantzoukas said during the How Did This Get Made episode about Over the Top.

“This movie is structured like a romantic comedy between a man and a child. This is a straight-up pedophile, incestuous love story.”

That sounds horrifying, right? And no, there are no scenes in this movie where Stallone and his on-screen son cross an uncrossable line. However, once you’ve got that nugget of information stuck in your brain, it takes this already insane premise and rachets the absurdity up to inconceivable levels.

And we haven’t even gotten to the World Armwrestling Championship in Las Vegas yet.

Before we get there we have to go through the machinations of Michael going from hating his father to understanding his father and eventually loving his father. All of that culminates in Michael stealing a truck from his grandfather, going to the airport by himself, boarding an airplane by himself, and arriving in Las Vegas where he meets up with Lincoln at the aforementioned World Armwrestling Championship.

Now, this is a good time to mention that this movie posits the notion that the Venn diagram between arm wrestling and truck driving is basically one circle. The prize for winning the World Armwrestling Championship? $100,000 in cash and a $250,000 semi-truck. Hawk’s arm wrestling competitors? Also truck drivers, including overwhelming favorite and “five-time arm wrestling champion” Bull Hurley. When some of the competitiors pose in front of the semi-truck for a candid on-camera interview (we never find out who they’re talking to), it’s the culmination of everything this film is about. Large men arm wrestling for trucks.

While the final act of the film is interspersed with the remaining plot strands, like Lincoln and Michael reconnecting and Hawk saying no to Cutler for the last time, the final 25 minutes is all about the spectacle and glory of professional arm wrestling in all its sweaty, glistening, gargle-yelling glory. In what basically amounts to a series of montages and a final David vs. Goliath showdown, there are almost too many amazing moments to count. And yet, I will call out the very best:

  • The announcer saying at one point that competitors “come from every nation on Earth,” which is a dubious claim considering everyone seems to have gotten there by driving their truck.
  • Lincoln Hawk is introduced as being from “the truckers division,” which is confusing given that a major aspect of the grand prize is a giant frigging truck. He’s later introduced as being from “the independent truckers,” which makes a whole lot more narrative sense.
  • John Grizzly (sic?), wearing a camo shirt with F.U.B.A.R. stenciled across the chest, eats a cigar that he was in the midst of smoking and soon after chugs a can of Valvoline oil, the combination of which cannot possibly be good for him in any conceivable way.

  • Hawk explains that his secret weapon his his trucker hat, which when flipped backwards Ken Griffey, Jr. style, gives him magical powers or something. Later on, when his hat magic isn’t enough, he learns a new magic trick… moving his four non-thumb fingers from the side of his opponent’s fist to the top of it.

Why does any of this work? Because it’s all taken deadly serious in a way that could only have happened in the 1980s. Many a sports parody owes a debt to the final third of Over the Top, and the funny thing is that the parodies don’t do things all that differently than how this film does it. The difference is that Over the Top isn’t in on the joke. It’s under the impression that arm wrestling is the most serious sport in the entire world and, by God, it finds a way to convince you of that indisputable fact as well.

It also doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack for the film is… not bad? At least as far as 1980s montage soundtracks go. You’ve got your requisite Kenny Loggins anthem (“Meet Me Half Way“). Larry Greene’s “Take It Higher” is the perfect kind of 80s cheese to hit the credits with. And you’ve got Sammy Hagar at the height of his powers with “Winner Takes It All” during the first arm wrestling montage. There are “better” movies with worse musical accompaniment.

There are so many better Sylvester Stallone movies and yet Over the Top represents The Most Sylvester Stallone Movie. It’s a 1980s vanity project that probably should have been a better film and yet is better for not being so. It deserves credit for using so many actual arm wrestlers in an actual arm wrestling tournament, and yet it’s absurd that the production went to such authentic lengths for something that required no such thing.

Before Netflix and Amazon, Over the Top was one of those midday movie mainstays you could find on the local superstation every few Saturdays, nestled in a rotation with the likes of The Beastmaster, Commando, and Big Trouble in Little China. Like most movies of its ilk, it’s easy enough to watch Over the Top any time you want these days (it’s free on Crackle right now).

To be honest, the old way made more sense. You never went looking for Over the Top, you waited for it to find you. And you were glad to waste an hour and a half watching all those sweaty arms flailing about one more time.

About Sean Keeley

Along with writing for Awful Announcing and The Comeback, Sean is the Editorial Strategy Director for Comeback Media. Previously, he created the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and wrote 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle where he is complaining about bagels. Send tips/comments/complaints to

2 thoughts on “Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top lived up to its name in more ways than one

  1. You just mentioned about 40% of the movies I watched during my summer breaks. Add in Terminator, Predator, the Star Wars Trilogy (there were ONLY 3 back then), Escape from New York/LA, the American Ninja series (Golan-Globus again), anything Chuck Norris…a lot of the movies that entertained me in the 80s/90s were absolute schlock, but boy did I love them, including Over the Top.

    Still do, really…

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