Film Reviews

Grappling For Respect

It's OK. You can say it. Just five little words. Don't be shy. "I… am… a… wrestling fan." You certainly wouldn't be alone if you said it. Recent surveys show that as many as one in four Americans watches professional wrestling, and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) routinely has the number one- rated program on the UPN network and on cable. And yet many fans would echo the sentiments of Nutty Professor screenwriter Barry Blaustein when he says, "I still watch wrestling. I just don't tell a lot of people about it. Can you blame me?"

As any wrestling fan will tell you, it's still an uphill battle for respect from nonfans. That's one of the reasons Blaustein set out to make Beyond the Mat, a movie that proves that, while wrestling is not a competition and is most definitely staged, "It's not as fake as you think." Blaustein traveled with wrestlers for more than two years, learning the business from the inside. He focuses his lens on three principals: 32-year veteran Terry Funk, former '80s superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and Mick Foley (a.k.a. Mankind, Cactus Jack, and Dude Love), a top draw in today's WWF and a best-selling author to boot. (His autobiography, Have A Nice Day!, reached number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.) If you wonder why the movie focuses primarily on WWF stars, it's because Eric Bischoff, the then-president of Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (which features Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, among other big names), refused to give Blaustein access. WWF head Vince McMahon would ultimately make a similar decision, but more on that later.

Wrestling programming in recent years has gotten more and more like a soap opera, to the point where Larry Sanders- style, behind-the-scenes staged politics are at least as important to the show as the actual grappling, but truth proves to be even stranger than fiction. Witness Terry Funk being told by his doctor that, after years of action, his good knee has degenerative arthritis, and that "you oughta get by with it just hurting all the time." When the other knee is described as needing an immediate replacement, Funk asks the doctor if he'll be able to get around comfortably later in life without a replacement, to which the doctor responds, "You shouldn't be able to get around comfortably now." And yet Funk still carries on, jumping off ladders, into barbed wire, and so forth. Though he does announce his retirement shortly afterward, the film's closing sequence tells us that it lasted about three months, and in fact Funk still wrestles today for WCW.

On the other hand, witness Jake Roberts, a man who probably should retire but hasn't, as he needs the money to fuel his crack addiction. When Blaustein interviews him shortly after he gets high, the results are chilling to someone who grew up idolizing this man in the '80s. His drug habit is understandable, however, given his history: Jake was conceived when his father raped the 13-year-old daughter of a woman he was dating; his sister was murdered by the ex-wife of her elderly husband, the body never found; and his favorite stepdad was accidentally electrocuted. And the cycle continues: Jake's relationship with his daughter is every bit as dysfunctional as his own uncomfortable parental communications. Think VH1's Behind the Music without the requisite redemption at the end.

Mick Foley has a happy and loving family, but there's one problem: his tendency to take drastic physical risks with his body for the sake of entertainment. Over the years Foley has lost an ear and four front teeth to the mat wars and suffered numerous scars and concussions, most famously when he was thrown off the top of a 15-foot steel cage into a table. He tries to convince his children that none of it's real, but when they see him getting stitches, the deceit becomes impossible. During a main-event match in which Foley takes 12 chair-shots to the head, Blaustein's camera captures Foley's family in tears in the audience, and when Foley himself is finally confronted with the footage, it hits him harder than a fall through a table. "I don't feel like such a good dad anymore," he says, and in fact Foley recently announced his retirement from active competition, following yet another fall from a cage.

Beyond the Mat is successful on two fronts: First, by showing the men behind the larger-than-life personas and the hard work that they do, it makes a case for why nonfans should respect the business. Second, for those who already respect the business, there's all kinds of trivia and backstage stuff you've never seen before: Jim Ross during his bout with facial paralysis feeding Jerry Lawler lines from backstage, head writer Vince Russo giving Sable some last-minute stage directions, Ross and Jim Cornette critiquing a rookie bout from backstage at Raw Is War (WWF's weekly number one-rated cable show), and Vince McMahon giving encouragement as Darren "Puke" Drozdov demonstrates the foul ability that earned him his nickname. Fans can also play "before they were famous" with the background shots of the likes of Tazz and the Dudley Boyz during their ECW days and a backstage look at Stephanie McMahon before she became an on-camera personality. And just in case you were wondering, we do indeed get to see perhaps the most well known ex-wrestler in America today, Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, who stresses the importance of knowing when to move on.

Wider in scope than the recent Canadian documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, Beyond the Mat is a must-see for both fans and skeptics, but it's facing an uphill battle. In a twist worthy of a wrestling story line, Vince McMahon has decided that, since he's not making any money from the film, none of his stars, Foley included, may promote the movie. He even used his clout to get TV spots yanked from the USA and UPN networks. McMahon comes off well in the movie, but he was stung by a 20/20 segment with Blaustein and Foley, in which some of Foley's remarks were taken out of context and Foley's wife, Collette, spoke out about the damage wrestling had done to her husband. (In typically tactless form, McMahon responded by going on a sports talk radio show and compared Collette Foley to Robin Givens.) True fans will flock to the movie anyway (it sold out most shows during a one-week L.A. engagement last winter), but one hopes that a few "nonbelievers" will also show up and perhaps leave with a greater appreciation for "sports entertainment," as wrestling is categorized nowadays.

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Luke Y. Thompson
Contact: Luke Y. Thompson