1987 Week: Pitting parental ethos against each other in ‘Over The Top’ vs. ‘Raising Arizona’

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

All throughout 1987 Week, Vanyaland film editor Nick Johnston will be looking back fondly at a year that happened three years before he was born, and taking a critical eye to some of the worst and best films of that year. Today we have two films about parenting in the ‘87, each with drastically different tones and approaches to raising children: the Menaham Golan arm-wrasslin feature ‘Over the Top’, and the Coen Brothers’ screwball comedy Raising Arizona.

Over The Top

Over the Top, at first glance, might seem like a bizarro outlier in the history of ’80s cinema. It’s a weird little father-son movie, the kind they used to make in the “let’s all heal” post-divorce cinema era, about a kid’s struggles bonding with a father he don’t know very well, after his mom gets sick from cancer and his grandad sends him to a military academy, and holy shit his dad’s ripped as fuck and he arm wrestles! And he owes a bunch of money to some scumbags that we forget about over the course of the film, and he’s gotta win a giant arm wrestling competition in Vegas to get his son back and get the bastards off his back! And there’s a Kenny Loggins song that was written for the movie?! Jesus Christ, we were totally wrong! It’s a great idea, actually, and it’s a wonder why it didn’t do better at the box office.

The problem is that it’s a tonal cluster-fuck, and essentially spends a decent chunk of the runtime arguing against its own existence. Oh, and it was made by The Cannon Group, and starred Sylvester Stallone, who contributed his expertise to the script as well, so it was set up for failure from the start. Obviously, this means America needed a toy-line based on the film as well.

As we mentioned in yesterday’s piece about Superman IV, the Cannon Group was also responsible for making this film and handling its international distribution (Warner Bros. released it over here), and it’s one in a handful of movies in the Cannon’s canon (lol) to be directed by one of the studio heads, Menahem Golan, who is single-handedly responsible for some of the most insane films of the ’80s.

His 1980 release The Apple lives on in our hearts as a candidate for one of the strangest musicals to ever be given theatrical distribution, and his ‘81 effort Enter the Ninja basically gave us the ninjitsu craze that swept the country for the rest of the decade. Golan tried to do something different here. He wanted to blend things that were “popular” in Steel Country — arm wrasslin’ and long-haul truckin’ — with things that could capture an audience nationwide; namely, Sylvester Stallone and what was thought to be an adorable child actor. He didn’t really care to notice that the long-haul fetishism had gone out the window with the CB radio fad, and didn’t really consider that, say, arm-wrestling is significantly less cinematic or interesting than, I don’t know, boxing; the competition scenes are weird as hell, and feel like they come from a totally different film. Add to that a healthy mixture of family drama, kids yelling, and Robert Loggia, and you have yourself a recipe for something that no one on Earth really wanted in the first place.

Stallone was at the top of his ’80s ego-trip here, fresh off of a critical failure in the 1986 actioner Cobra that still made a boatload of money at the box office, and he was only two years removed from the one-two punch of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV, which, for better or worse, defines much of the ’80s ethos in the popular consciousness.

He’s not very good here, though he’s still got that wonderful young Stallone honesty and heart to him that won over millions, and he’s failed by his own writing and Golan’s direction. He’s never believable enough and his motivations for wanting to be with his son never come across as anything more than an excuse for the events of the movie to occur. His parenting is the kind of “tough love” horseshit that we occasionally fellate ourselves over enjoying before remembering that only a thin veil of conscience justification demarks the line between that and abuse; and the film ultimately makes a wonderful argument near the end of the film for why he shouldn’t ever be in his son’s life. But Loggia’s an asshole here, so it’s okay that he inflicts harm on the dude’s employees and drives his truck through the guy’s property to get his son back from his caring grandfather, I guess. Over the Top would begin his slow and subtle decline, where he’d wander the wilderness, starring in the occasional money-maker or cult curiosity, but never at the same heights he’d hit before.

Perhaps the worst thing about Over the Top isn’t its lead, or its directors, or the shameless pandering to what the producers thought kids of the era wanted to see in their movies: It’s what the critical community at large did to David Mendenhall, the child actor who played Stallone’s son in the film. Sure, he’s not good — the kid’s written as a stuck-up little shit, the writing’s bad enough that he’s never able to evolve in any meaningful manner, and Mendenhall’s adolescent voice is disturbingly similar to Martin Prince’s on The Simpsons — but all of these faults (save the pitch and tenor) don’t lie with him. And yet a bunch of older people ganged up on this kid, who was barely 15 years old at the time of the film’s release. The guileless fuckheads at the Razzies gave him two awards that year — Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star — and effectively neutered the guy’s career before it could even start. It’s a remarkable act of cruelty, one that we’d see repeated three years later once every male critic in the business decided to blame a young Sofia Coppola for her father’s failed attempt at making Godfather III into something close to the heights of the first two. A bad movie isn’t worth ruining a kid’s career over.

Raising Arizona

From the worst, to the best.

Raising Arizona took so much from the American indie movement as it stood in 1987 — Malickian voice-over, Jarmusch-esque ridiculousness, and the Coens’ own noir trappings amongst others — and synthesized it into something totally new that we’re still reckoning with on the national level some thirty years later. There’s so much to love here — the characters themselves and their hysteria, the stoic kidnapped child, Nathan Jr., John Goodman’s sideburns, the rapid-fire hilarity of the dialogue, evoking the work of masters like Howard Hawks, and the setting itself — that it’s astonishing that it’s lost in the Coen miasma. And while Holly Hunter may be one of the true standouts of the year (as her work in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News would fully demonstrate later that year, so much of the film rests on Nicolas Cage’s shoulders, and he pulls it off with a unique aplomb.

Cage, the Grumpy Cat for a certain segment of bored-ass college graduate white people reddit, deserves significantly much better than he gets from all quarters. His proclivity for easy paychecks has tarnished his career in recent years, I guess, and his tendencies to overact have slowly eaten away at what respect the dude had, but he’s an utterly fantastic actor, especially when the material suits his style. He’s absolutely perfect here as the recidivist criminal H.I., striking the right balance between comic caricature and soulful honesty. He’s as essential in the Coen canon as The Dude or Marge Gunderson, and it’s kind of weird how this film’s been buried by the rest of their filmography. Perhaps it was the cool reception it received at release that tainted it forever (Ebert’s pan is quickly found by Googling the film’s title), but it’s an utterly fantastic and strangely melancholy film that should be listed in the best American films of its year.

Come back tomorrow for a glimpse at one of the worst scenes in all of ’80s filmmaking.