The most refreshing thing about Sylvester Stallone’s recent comeback trilogy (Rocky Balboa, Rambo, The Expendables) is the lack of irony. While a late-period effort like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is full of winking “I’ll be back” callbacks and wacky “what-if-the-Terminator-visited-a-gay-bar?” comic set pieces, a movie like Rambo treats its themes of mankind’s barbarism with utmost sincerity.
On the surface, it’s a bit surprising that Stallone should have followed his 1985 one-two-punch of Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II with two films with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ Cannon Group. When not producing films with words like “Breakin’” and “Electric Boogaloo” in the title, Cannon specialized in a wide variety of the least-distinguished movies of the 1980s: Invasion USA… Death Wish II-IV… Bolero… Superman IV: The Quest for Peace… Masters of the Universe… Cyborg… and of course, Lambada – which, you will recall, was one of two lambada-themed movies to open on March 16, 1990.
On the other hand, maybe it’s surprising that Stallone didn’t make it to Cannon earlier. Similar to Stallone’s late work, to enter the Cannon Universe is to enter a world where irony and postmodernism have never reached… where good is good, and evil is evil, and good cops don’t need no stinkin’ court order to deliver justice… where arm-wrestling is a noble game of kings, and not one of western civilizations’ more embarrassing excuses for a sport… where men are so eye-poppingly muscular they appear to have cleavage in a low-cut shirt… and where there’s nothing even remotely homoerotic about Lieutenant Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti’s tight jeans, glistening abs and V-neck tee-shirt, so watch your stinkin’ mouth.
During their brief reign as moguls, Gorum and Globus presided over a company whose brand identity Roger Ebert called “cheerfully schizo.” Between all the Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson vehicles, Cannon also financed a surprising number of serious films, the likes of which major studios almost never touched in the ‘80s – John Cassavettes’ Love Streams, Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi, Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello. Golan is a lively recurring character in Ebert’s Cannes memoir Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, where he is depicted quixotically trying to raise Cannon’s reputation by relentlessly campaigning Barfly to win the Palme d’Or. Golan comes across as ambitious, well-meaning, and a little bit foolhardy; Ebert repeats the famous story of how Golan signed a contract with Jean-Luc Godard on a napkin to direct an adaptation of King Lear, (the disastrous final product would not emerge for another two years, after constant clashes between Godard and Cannon). For all his intellectual aspirations, Golan evidently hadn’t thought much deeper than “Godard + Shakespeare = prestige.” If Cannon could be summed up in a single “Ars Gratia Artis”-like slogan, it would be “Sincerity, Earnestness, Ridiculousness.”
Now that the appalling politics of the Cannon action films are no longer a threat to society, we can finally stand back and regard them for what they are: extremely entertaining B-movies. In the thoroughly terrible, thoroughly ass-kicking Cobra (1986), a gang of murderous thugs, led by the sinister “Night Slasher” (Brian Thompson), is bringing L.A. to its knees. Only Cobra (Stallone), the L.A.P.D.’s most dangerous and toothpick-chewing lieutenant, can stop them with his deadly arsenal of catchphrases (“I don’t deal with psychos – I put them away”; “You’re the disease – I’m the cure”; “You wasted a kid for nothing – now it’s time to waste you,” et. al.). Alas, in Cobra’s world, the criminal justice system is merely an elaborate ruse designed solely to set dangerous criminals free on technicalities, so our hero must give the constitution a rest and decide who has the right to remain silent… forever. In an explosive climax set in that old ‘80s action-movie standby, the empty/fiery factory, the Night Slasher rhetorically asks our hero, “The court isn’t civilized, is it, pig?” “I’m not,” responds Cobra. “This is where the law stops and I start.”
Also: IMDB says that Brigitte Nielsen is the female lead. I saw this movie five days ago and damned if I can remember her.
Stallone followed Cobra with the custody/arm-wrestling drama Over the Top (1987), which has joined Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Party at Kitty and Stud’s in the elite pantheon of the most-derided Stallone vehicles. Copying the already well-worn underdog-sports formula of Rocky/Paradise Alley/Victory, Over the Top trades boxing/wrestling/soccer for… well, arm-wrestling. As has been observed by many a wag, arm-wrestling is perhaps the least cinematic of sports, even compared to curling, lawn bowling, and skee-ball. There just only so much that can be done with the sight of two sweaty, oversized men holding hands really tightly. Fishing is more cinematic. Chess is more cinematic. Hell, Stallone and Golan (who directed) would have been better off making a custody drama about bearbaiting.
Most of us experiment with arm-wrestling in grade school, abandoning it by fifth grade and returning to it perhaps once each decade for the remainder of our lives. In the bizarre-world of Over the Top, competitive arm-wrestling is a big-money industry, where hordes of fans gather to watch and bet on matches in vast arenas. That’s the world where “Lincoln Hawk” (Stallone, playing his most exquisitely-named character yet) first made him fame and fortune. Now a truck driver who finds himself rebuilding a relationship with the son he left behind after his estranged wife passes away. From there, “Lincoln Hawk” finds himself in a bitter custody battle with his rich and powerful father-in-law (Robert Loggia). Though initially prickly to his biological father, the kid discovers “Lincoln’s” glamorous arm-wrestling past, and suddenly becomes much more enamored with “Lincoln’s” beer-and-sweat-soaked lifestyle than Robert Loggia’s unimaginable wealth. Frankly, if I were Robert Loggia, I’d take this astonishing fact as a cue that the kid just isn’t worth having.
Over the Top netted Stallone an unheard-of $12 million payday; he admitted to Ebert in 1997, “Menahem Golan kept offering me more and more money, and I finally said, what the hell, nobody will go to see it.” Still, if Stallone was anything less than sincere, you couldn’t tell if from the evidence onscreen. While the first two thirds of Over the Top are relatively restrained, the final act is devoted almost entirely to army wrestling, giving Stallone a chance to deliver some of his most tasteful, nuanced acting.
In “The Rocky Factor,” the opening chapter of Sly Moves: My Proven Program to Lose Weight, Build Strength, Gain Will Power & Live Your Dream (2005), the big guy recounts his experience dedicating the Eagles’ new football stadium in 2003: “Standing atop a tower over the north end zone. I looked out as 70,000 cheering fans told me exactly what was on their minds: ‘Ro-cky! Ro-cky! Ro-cky!’” With a prose style to match his directorial technique, he continues:
“I know that until the day I die I will be remembered for playing Rocky Balboa, the club fighter from South Philly who takes his million-to-one shot and goes the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. […] When I was younger I fought it, now I embrace it. Now I’m just thankful, because the Rocky philosophy is my ideal state, the Immutable voice inside my head that says, ‘Never lose sight of what you want to be.’ So many people go through life with unrealized ambitions, reluctant to take the steps necessary to achieve true peace of mind, whatever that may be, because they have been overwhelmed by life’s pressures. Now it’s time to grab life by the throat and not let go until you succeed.
Sounds like something out of the later Rocky movies, doesn’t it? Still, against all odds, he pulls it off. In his SNL hosting gig and in movies like Burn Hollywood Burn and Spy Kids 3-D, Stallone shown himself savvy enough to be, if not exactly “in on the joke,” then at least aware that the joke exists. But once again, the best thing about Stallone (and Golan, for that matter) is that on a basic level, he truly, sincerely believes in his wonderful brand of ridiculousness.