Over the Top

December 7, 2010

Winner takes it all, loser takes the fall: this is Over the Top

Over the Top is distinctive in that it gives Sylvester Stallone more dialogue to wresle with than his previous three films combined. But, it stands to figure that with something in the neighborhood of $13 million in his paycheck, Stallone could bloody well be induced to contribute something more than just his physique.

The people behind the $13 million are Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the owners of Cannon Films (the former also directed this outing). Cannon, which has produced a torrent of movies in the last couple of years (mostly of the exploitation kind) has lately found itself in financial trouble, and it desperately needs a hit. So the money is a tribute to Stallone’s track record.

I’ll be surprised if Over the Top is a monster hit, however. It’s just enough of a departure from Stallone’s formula to displease his fans, but it’s not interesting enough to find a different audience.

He plays a footloose trucker who left his family some time before. Now his wife (Susan Blakely) is dying of an unnamed disease. We can tell she’s dying because she wears no makeup.

Which means that the couple’s 12-year-old son (David Mendenhall) needs care. But he hasn’t seen his father in years, and is used to being pampered by his rich grandfather (Robert Loggia, a fine actor trying his best not to look embarrassed about collecting a good fee for a nothing part).

Stallone picks the kid up at an exclusive Colorado military academy, in order to get to know the boy as they truck to the mother’s hospital in Los Angeles. This sets the scene for plenty of cute exchanges. The kid pointedly tells his father that, “There’s a lot more to life than muscles, y’know.” Sly responds by teaching the lad how to find self-worth by challenging loiterers at a truck stop to an arm-wrestling match.

See, the movie is mostly about the relationship between father and son—a Kramer vs. Kramer on 18 wheels—but there’s this arm-wrestling thing mixed in. This insures that the ending, on which Stallone gambles everything, will involve a sporting competition a la Rocky. In this case, it’s a glitzy Las Vegas arm-wrestling championship.

Now, the art of arm-wrestling may have its attributes. Its proponents may be fine people, although the participants in the film are bellowing walruses, one of whom drinks motor oil to rev up for a match.

But there’s something about arm-wrestling as the big event that seems fundamentally giggle-worthy. I mean, arm-wrestling?!? Say what you will about the boxing in the Rocky movies, as least it’s cinematic. The sport here is heavy and static.

The mishmash script is credited to four writers, including Stallone (as usual) and veteran Stirling Silliphant. The most dishonest thing they have done is to have Stallone repeatedly tell his boy that winning isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, etc. Of course, son, that applies everywhere except Sylvester Stallone’s movies, which make victory the only option.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Having consumed my own fair share of motor oil before matches, the sanctimonious tone I took in my review here seems hardly sporting. Anyway. Just typing the words “Cannon Films” brings back the cheesy aroma of about half the movies of the 1980s, that bizarre Golan-Globus mix of grindhouse fodder and arthouse experiments. I spent so much attention on Stallone’s price tag because it was much-remarked on at the time, and because well before the movie opened it was clear that this was one of those stupid ideas that wouldn’t have happened if an actor hadn’t decided to cash in and take a giant, absurdly-inflated payday.

For Sammy Hagar’s theme from Over the Top, which reminds us that “Winner takes it all/loser takes the fall,” click here. But hey, possible spoilers.

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Rambo: First Blood Part II

November 28, 2010

Jesus Christ, it's Rambo.

The sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s smash First Blood is here, and it must be noted that the new film is superior to the original, if only because it is even more single-minded and uncluttered than the first orgy of violence.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (I figured they wouldn’t call it Second Blood) continues the adventures of John Rambo, a soul-dead Vietnam vet who is the muscle-bound personification of a fighting machine. He laid waste to most of British Columbia in First Blood.

In Part II, he’s tapped by an Army higher-up (Richard Crenna, repeating his role from the original) to take a secret mission back into Vietnam (the movie was filmed in Mexico). This time, Rambo is to find a prisoner-of-war camp with American GIs, collect photographic proof that they’re still there, and bring the pictures back. That’s all.

Rambo finds the camp. And, being an excitable fellow, he decides he doesn’t like photography. He grabs one of the prisoners and hauls him away to the Army pick-up point.

Then: a double-cross. Turns out the big cheese in charge of the mission (Charles Napier) actually wants the mission to fail, so that the books can be closed once and for all on the POW question. The presence of prisoners distresses him, and he yanks the rescue effort—leaving Rambo at the mercy of the Viet Cong and their Russian allies.

When Rambo finds out he’s been crossed—well, stand back and duck. Stallone shifts into high sneer and the carnage becomes widespread.

It’s hokey and manipulative, and in plot and bam-bam style it’s reminiscent of the recent Chuck Norris Missing in Action quickies. It’s certainly got action, though, and that’s what this kind of movie is all about. The screenplay is credited to Stallone and James Cameron, the man who brought us that quirky hit The Terminator last year. Ultimately, however, Stallone’s collaborators are irrelevant. When he gets involved in a movie, he becomes the whole show, and he rewrote Rambo to suit himself.

Stallone contrives to make this action movie into a message picture by including a protest at the way the returning Vietnam veterans were treated by the war-weary American public. It is difficult to know how sincere Stallone is: he makes his statement at an emotionally effective moment, but appearing within the context of a brutal, bloody gorefest, the sentiment strikes a weird chord.

One note for connoisseurs of presumptuousness: Stallone plays with a Christ motif for his hero here, as he has in the recent Rocky films. This appears to be his lone, feeble attempt at intellectual ambition—similar to the way he uses 50-cent words when he appears on talk shows, as if to say: “See? I think.”

He loves to stretch his arms out into a meaningful, Christlike posture, and when Rambo arrives at the Army camp, someone greets him by saying, “So, you’re the chosen one, eh?”

Sylvester Stallone has no shame.

Originally appeared in the Herald, May 25, 1985

The movie, of course, become a monster hit, and a defining film of its decade. Feeling the need to explain who James Cameron was is a charming little reminder of where we were in ’85. I erred in suggesting that Stallone’s only attempt at intellectual ambition was his beloved Christ imagery; of course he’s tried many other stabs at heaviosity over the years.