Stirling Silliphant wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, as well as The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Village of the Damned, Telefon, The Enforcer, Shaft In Africa and more than 700 hours of prime-time television drama to his credit. He was also a close friend and student of Bruce Lee, who he featured in the movie Marlowe and four episodes of the series Longstreet. They also worked together on a script called The Silent Flute, which was eventually filmed as Circle of Iron.
Those are some pretty amazing credits. Somehow, someway, he eventually found himself working with Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay for the movie that would take arm wrestling from the bar to the mainstream. And who was ready to direct?
None other than Cannon Group co-owner Menahem Golan, the director of Delta Force, Enter the Ninja and The Apple. Yes, that Menahem Golan.
Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) is a man trying to rebuild his life. While he does that, he’s driving a truck and arm wrestling. His ex-wife Christina (Susan Blakely, My Mom’s a Werewolf, The Concorde … Airport ’79) wants him to bond with their son Michael (David Mendenhall, Space Raiders, Streets and the 12-year-old drug dealer in the Diff’rent Strokes episode where Nancy Reagan shows up), because she knows that she’s dying.
Michael’s been in military school and calls everyone sir. His grandfather, Jason Cutler (this movie is yet another in my question to see every film with Robert Loggia in it) hates Hawk and never wanted him in their family.
On the way from Colorado to California, Michael comes to love his father, who teaches him how to arm wrestle and be a man. Yet when they get to the hospital, Christina is already dead. Michael blames his father for not getting to see his mother before the end and goes back with his grandfather. Hawk tries to break him free but gets arrested. If the mansion that Cutler lives in looks familiar, that’s because it was also the home of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Michael visits him in jail, informing Hawk that he will stay with his grandfather, so our hero leaves to compete in the World Armwrestling Championship in Las Vegas, which has the prize of $100,000 and a brand new, larger semi-truck. He then makes a desperate bid by selling his truck and placing a $7,000 bet on himself at twenty to one odds to win it all. Then Michael finds the letters that everyone kept from him, with Hawk writing him for years and trying to connect.
Hawk advances to the final eight, but suffers his first loss in the double-elimination tournament and hurts his arm. Cutler summons our hero and tells him that he’s always been a loser, but he’ll give him $500,000 and a better truck than the prize if he leaves forever.
Hawk refuses and makes it to the finals, taking on his rival, the undefeated Bull Hurley. His son finds him and gives him the emotional energy he needs to survive, just as Hawk doesn’t only beat Bull, but gains his respect. Somehow, Cutler gets over ten years of being a complete asshole and is happy about Michael and Hawk being reunited, because that’s how eighties movies work. Oh yeah — the guys get so sweaty in the final battle that they have to get the strap, with people going wild for it. It’s pretty amazing and you’ll yell “Get the strap!” too.
If you’re into pro wrestling, Terry Funk, Reggie Bennett and Scott Norton both show up here (Ox Baker, who was in Escape from New York, as well as Manny Fernandez and The Barbarian almost made it into the movie). There are also plenty of professional arm wrestlers, like professional arm wrestling personalities such as Allen Fisher, John Vreeland, Andrew “Cobra” Rhodes, John Brzenk (who inspired the story) and Cleve Dean.
The music in this movie is astounding. You’ve got Kenny Loggins singing “Meet Me Halfway” numerous times, some Giorgio Moroder, some Asia, some Robin Zander, some Eddie Money and Sammy Hagar singing “Winner Takes It All,” which was also made into a music video to promote the film.
The film received three nominations at the 8th Golden Raspberry Awards in 1988. David Mendenhall won two for both Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star, which seems kind of crappy for them to abuse a kid. Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Worst Actor, an award he’s won four times, but this time he lost to Bill Cosby in Leonard Part 6.
Stallone has claimed that if he had directed this, he would’ve changed the setting to an urban environment, used scored music instead of rock songs, and made the Las Vegas finale more ominous. So why was he in it? He answered, “Menahem Golan kept offering me more and more money, until I finally thought, “What the hell – no one will see it!””
Speaking of Stirling Silliphant, he only did the screenplay. Actor/writer Gary Conway (American Ninja 2: The Confrontation) and director/writer David Engelbach (America 3000, Death Wish II) created the original story. Engelbach cried when he saw the finished movie, remarking that his original draft “wasn’t nearly as dumb as the final film and that it was more about truck driving and arm-wrestling than it should’ve been.”
When this movie came out, my brother and I were in our early teens and couldn’t wait for it. There was an entire line of toys that had knobs in their backs that allowed them to arm wrestle and even better, an actual competition table. We begged our parents for it nearly every single day for six months, but our mother continually just told us to use an actual table. She had no vision. At this point, I could have a father in law that hates me, a bedridden ex-wife and a son who doesn’t know me, but I could flash anyone and put their arm down in no time. Get the strap!
Even more magical, fifty miles from the filming of this movie, Sergio Martino had assembled an Italian/American crew to create Hands of Steel, the only Road Warrior by way of The Terminator truck driving movie that also has arm wrestling in it. Coincidence? Do you know anything of Italian cinema?