Why is arm wrestling so funny? Is it just because of its adolescent origins? Or do its immature stakes—I will smack your hand on the table to prove I’m the best—combined with the aesthetics of its premiere participants—burly, bulky Popeyes that’re definitely enhancing their performance with more than spinach—make it inherently click in our minds as a silly piece of slapstick? There’s something endearingly campy about the sport, somewhere near pro wrestling’s meat slab soap opera, that makes it particularly cinematic and amusing. Many of us know the fun Over the Top, in which an Oscar-winning writer (Stirling Silliphant) and an Oscar-nominated writer (Sylvester Stallone) tell the tale of a trucker (also Stallone) who’s got to arm wrestle his way back into his young son’s life. Fewer know Champion, the excellent Korean arm wrestling dramedy starring Train to Busan big boy Ma Dong-seok. But, as director Maureen Bharoocha’s new Golden Arm grabs us by the funnybone, perhaps it’ll encourage everyone to turn their baseball caps around and revisit a sports movie subgenre that’s never missed.
“That’s not a real sport,” a cop laughs in writer/director Kim Yong-wan’s Champion. Maybe it’s that designation that makes arm wrestling such a strangely winning subject. It transcends language and has few rules. There’s something so base and primal and simple about it. It’s like playing with a ball or a stick: It’s elemental, a natural fit to genres focused on physicality. Action? Of course we want the contests to be exciting spectaculars of twisted wrists and bulging biceps. Comedy? Nothing begs for a sight gag like a pair of musclebound toughs holding hands while a crowd goes wild.
Arm wrestling also lends itself to the tropes of sports movies, where achievement, passion and perseverance are so often tied to worth. Over the Top sees a man wrestling with his estranged relationship with his son; Champion sees a man wrestling with his cultural, familial and personal identities; Golden Arm sees a woman looking to wrestle some self-love into her life.
But it all starts with Over the Top. The utterly himbo film lives up to its title in all forms. Every element of the movie is dialed up like its star’s vanity muscles, whether the film breathlessly frames Stallone turning his hat around like Ash Ketchum in order to more honestly tap into his vast reserves of bro power or luxuriates in the ridiculous testosterone of its characters’ names: Stallone plays Lincoln Hawk, though the movie also features Bull Hurley, John Grizzly and Smasher. Over the Top is such a locker room of a film that Stallone’s son is literally named “Mike Hawk.”
The film ends up being a joyous, earnest and funny delivery on its premise’s manly promise. It gives us the rules, the techniques and the logistics of matches with sweaty ‘80s elegance. Stallone’s visual charisma and the bells ‘n’ whistles approach to the Vegas finale sparkle with an ultra-straight flamboyance that becomes a captivating study in performative manliness and its relationship to fatherhood. Hang on, son, Daddy’s gotta prove he’s capable of raising you by going full caveman on this giant. Over the Top’s also stuffed to the brim with rock, like the Learning and Loving anthem “Meet Me Half Way” from Kenny Loggins and the absolute musical muscle car “Winner Takes All” from Sammy Hagar.
Over the Top’s shockwaves still resonate through the elbow pads and steel grip rods of its descendants. Champion—with its crash zooms, moving family finale and basketball biceps—follows directly in the spirit of Over the Top’s arm-crunching victories, while Golden Arm openly embraces its event’s absurdity and is more closely tied with the original premise of truckin’ and chuckin’. However, even if Champion sees the sport in more professional terms, its hero is also canonically inspired by Over the Top, using it as inspiration to overcome racist bullying as a kid.
These two latter films take different tacks when it comes to openly implementing the humor that was implied in Over the Top’s over-the-top antics. Champion’s laughs come from deadpanned reactions and dry gags that accentuate its star’s acting prowess. And Ma Dong-seok nails it. His tired eyes and exasperated demeanor, combined with his casually jacked frame, make him just so…cool. His relaxed (even over-it) charisma balances out the extravagance of the sport itself, every calculated sigh or glance enhancing not just the performance but its relationship to its subject matter. It’s the kind of body control, used to convey the quiet emotion and subtle slapstick that play on his large frame, that the best athlete/actors bring to the table—it’s what helps make wrestlers, fighters and even bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger into stars. It also helps if the movies they’re in are able to match, or at least be in conversation with, their (literal) strengths.
That’s where arm wrestling comes in. Champion, which also stars Han Ye-ri (even more impressive here than her excellent turn in Minari), bolsters its great matches with greater emotions. The latter would feel too melodramatic without the inherent levity and adrenaline of the former. To generate this, the film leans into the hyper-masculine ridiculousness at hand: One bruiser is shown arm wrestling an opponent’s hand into a pile of broken glass. Opponents are named Punch and Combo. All this supplements a winning bilingual performance (Korean, English) from Ma Dong-seok that rivals the bilingual performance (English, Stallonian) of Sly in Over the Top. It’s understated and savvy, undercutting its own dramatic heights with beefy bursts of energy and goofiness—something Over the Top only kind of does accidentally.
On the other bone-crushing hand, Golden Arm’s a little more improvisational and loose than the rowdy camp of Over the Top. Bharoocha and writers Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly hang the ornaments of a modern indie comedy (Just riff! We’ll clean it up with some ADR!) on the film’s far more compelling and silly ‘80s-style jock schlock. But the visual jokes are rock-solid—far tighter than the dialogue—and the workout montages are just as satisfying. We just don’t get enough women flipping tires or flexing their guns in movies. Thankfully, even when selling genital jokes, star Mary Holland provides.
Golden Arm, much like the recent Mortal Kombat, features a mano-a-mano Chosen One (Holland)—only this time, for arm wrestling. Holland rises to every challenge and her supporting cast, including scene-stealer Big Sexy (Dot-Marie Jones), keeps the tone just right.
Golden Arm is a movie where the women have names like Randy and Danny, where arm wrestling contests are as much a staple in roadhouses as Patrick Swayze resisting the urge to rip out bar brawlers’ throats is in Road House. It brings a little GLOW flavor thanks to some flashy costumes and the general DIY vibe of the affair—enhanced even further by the manic Chris Farley energy of co-star Betsy Sodaro (playing the actual arm wrestling trucker of the film). It’s also filled with more (but not much more) subtle Over the Top references: A wrestler shows up in a Rambo costume; a competitor wrestles under the name Grizzly Gina.
Where Champion works within Over the Top’s vulnerable-yet-macho framework, Golden Arm intentionally undermines its testosterone overdose—even going so far as to literally gender-reverse tropey sports-romance shots and ubiquitous dude phrases (“balls out”). But even with these added and welcome complications, Golden Arm never glistens more than when it’s in the moment, grips clenched and elbows on pads. It’s reclamatory, giving the world’s simplest sport to everyone. The diversity of body type and musculature, the seriousness of competition and committed unseriousness of everything else—it’s got all the underground, egalitarian excitement that make indie leagues of any sport so thrilling. From the stocky to the stick-armed, Golden Arm makes its sport accessible to everyone.
That ease of entry is part of what makes arm wrestling so damn fun to watch. Like the ultra-cinematic sport of boxing, you can understand and empathize with its actions no matter who you are or where you come from. The other part is its inherently heightened slapdash of tones. Nobody’s getting socked in the face here, so its intense battle has a charming harmlessness to it. It’s extremely serious yet utterly doofy. Childish yet the battleground of bikers, brawlers and barflies. Homoerotic yet painfully straight. Dramatic yet comic. It’s a tight tank top of a subject, the “suns out, guns out” of movie sports. But as the arms struggle back and forth like a hunky metronome’s pendulum, it’s hard to resist your excitement (accompanied by a big dopey grin) growing in rhythm. Arm wrestling may not be the center of many movies, but those succumbing to their pull will find nothing but fun in the over-the-top niche.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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