In the sports film – be it drama, comedy or even action – the likes of boxing, American football, baseball, football/soccer and hockey have been produced almost excessively, but what about wrestling?
Wrestling films – be them centred on independent promotions or the world-renowned ones – have quite often been in the shadows of mainstream cinema or far from blockbuster status. With the release of British wrestling film, Walk Like a Panther, below is a list of films, both good and bad, presenting pro wrestling in both fiction and documentary forms.
No Holds Barred (1989)
Sometimes cited as one of the worst mainstream films of all-time, but utterly hilarious, Thomas J. Wright’s No Holds Barred is the first WWF/WWE-produced film. Hulk Hogan stars as Rip Thomas, a fictional version of the Hulk Hogan character, and WWF Heavyweight Champion.
Opening with a wrestling match, specifically starting with Rip’s entrance, we see Rip almost animalistic (sounding like a fusion of a bear and tiger) in slow-motion intercutting with a normal-speed arena crowd, thus creating hilarious imagery. The wrestling match is generic, but it establishes what Rip is all about: he’s the best wrestler in the WWF and is the Champion. At the conclusion of the match, TV execs from a rival production, World Television Network, led by Brell (Ghostbusters II’s Kurt Fuller), have gone into debate over how they can boost their failing ratings against the WWF programming. The answer: establish a rival wrestling programme, but with tougher guys, known as Battles of the Tough Guys. In finding the tougher guys, Brell and friends roam the sleaziest, dirtiest, meanest bars, and end up with ex-con Zeus (The Dark Knight’s Tommy “Tiny” Lister).
Obviously, Brell tries to lure Rip over to the World Television Network, but it’s a no deal from Rip. So eventually, things get more personal, and Rip’s brother, Randy (Supernatural’s Mark Pellegrino), is violently attacked by Zeus. Brill now has the upper-hand after the attack, and Rip is hungry for revenge, meaning the fight between Rip and Zeus will take place to benefit all parties involved.
No Holds Barred rests nicely in the category of “so bad, it’s good”. The best infamous example in No Holds Barred can only be a sequence involving Rip escaping from a limo by launching himself through the sunroof, then ripping a door off, and then forcing the limo driver to make a mess of his pants…dookie is what he calls it.
Hogan, though hilarious for the wrong reasons, is not a great actor in No Holds Barred or in anything in general. However, in this sort of film, the quality of acting is far from overly relevant, as fans or general audiences are expecting action, physical acting, of which Hogan was doing week in week out for the WWF at the time. Lister’s acting is slightly better, but like Hogan, his acting in No Holds Barred is predominantly physical. Fuller is brilliant as Brell – the typical egotistical idiot, just like his character as the Mayor’s assistant in Ghostbusters II, released in the same year.
Crazily, in the WWF shows at the time in the real world, Zeus from No Holds Barred was introduced as a new villain for Hogan to fight, thus Hogan in the WWF shows was fighting against a film character, essentially.
Beyond the Mat (1999)
A documentary featuring behind-the-scenes footage of wrestlers, both indie and professional – that’s an eye opener! Beyond the Mat is, essentially, the dream documentary of lifelong wrestling fan, Barry W. Blaustein.
Naturally, the first story in Beyond the Mat is at the bottom of the food chain: the indies. Indie wrestling promotions are not too different from indie film production, though in Beyond the Mat especially, on a much lower budget, even to the extent where select wrestlers are yet to receive money for their performances, but if they do get paid, and if they’re good, a wrestler could make up to $300. This story within Beyond the Mat is quite extraordinary because it showcases how desperate some wrestlers can be – breaking their back for no money – just for the slight possibility of being noticed by a superior promotion.
On the flip side, you then have the Vince McMahon’s WWF – the biggest player in the game. Hilariously, in an early segment, involving former wrestler “Droz”, Vince is suggesting that Darren A. Drozdov (Droz) be known as “Puke” because the man can cause himself to be sick out of nowhere, and that the skill could be used during matches and for his character in general…gross! In the middle, you have ECW – Paul Heyman’s hardcore East Cost promotion. As Beyond the Mat was a multi-year project, ECW is presented from the lows of having wrestler promo’s filmed in the spare room of their mother’s house to securing their first PPV and praying that TV audiences paid the fee. Terry Funk’s participation in Barely Legal 1997’s main event elevated ECW’s status.
Perhaps the most interesting, but scary aspects of Beyond the Mat are of the three main wrestlers showcased in the documentary: Mick Foley (Mankind), Terry Funk and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Mick Foley, one of the top two good guys in the WWF, is contemplating retirement in the near future to be able to spend more time with his family. Foley’s hardcore wrestling style was synonymous with pro wrestling in the late 90s, but when his wife and two small children are sat at ringside and crying their eyes out at daddy getting butchered by The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and a steel chair, Foley later questions if he is a good dad or not.
Fellow hardcore wrestler Terry Funk is close to announcing his retirement too, as at 53 years-old and close to infinite pain – a result of his lifetime of wrestling – it looks to be the logical decision. Amazingly, doctors suggest that Terry should be in chronic pain, but somehow, he is continuously able to put his body through hell.
Perhaps the toughest of the three viewings is with Jake “The Snake” Roberts. In the present day, Jake is a clean and healthy individual, though back in the 1990s, he transitioned from being a popular WWF star to performing on the indie circuit for cheap money, as a result of horrendous drink and drug problems. Some shocking revelations regarding drug addiction are present, but the scariest of all, is that at the conclusion of Beyond the Mat, Jake has gone off the radar.
Ready to Rumble (2000)
In WCW (World Championship Wrestling), Jimmy King (Lake Placid’s Oliver Platt) is the World Champion, but unbeknown to him, WCW CEO Titus Sinclair (The Matrix’s Joe Pantoliano) has set King to lose the belt to DDP (Diamond Dallas Page), and is then fired from WCW! Only two men can help Jimmy King return to stardom: his two biggest fans, Gordie (Scream’s David Arquette) and Sean (Ocean’s Eleven’s Scott Caan).
Both Gordie and Sean are so immersed in WCW and pro wrestling that they recognise the business as a legitimate sport and not pre-determined, thus they aim to track down the off-the-radar Jimmy King and convince him to somehow rejoin WCW and challenge DDP for the World Championship. In tracking down Jimmy King and then subsequently training him by the legendary Sal Bandini (Ed Wood’s Martin Landau) in order to fight DDP, a variation of weird and wacky characters and locations are presented on-screen, thus creating the feel of the “road movie” in Ready to Rumble.
An issue with Brian Robbins’ Ready to Rumble is that, obviously, Jimmy King is given his rematch against DDP for the World Championship, however, the rematch is treated as a legitimate fight, and not the pro wrestling way, thus creating a fair bit of confusion. So essentially, Jimmy King is legitimately fighting DDP to win a belt that will subsequently be pre-determined to be defended or lost in the next title matches.
Ready to Rumble came at a time when WCW’s opposition, the WWF/WWE (World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment), were flying high, whereas WCW eventually closed its doors the following year after having been purchased by Vince McMahon of the WWF – the death of WCW was not a result of Ready to Rumble, though some haters will have you believe that!
Admirably, Ready to Rumble boasts not only a nice range of WCW wrestlers including the likes of DDP, Goldberg and Sting, but in an utterly ludicrous story, the good characters are likeable and the comedy is fun.
The Wrestler (2008)
The most serious and well-received film to deal with pro wrestling, The Wrestler presented the Oscar-nominated Mickey Rourke in sufferance from an unfashionable side of wrestling and an underwhelming lifestyle that runs parallel with it.
Rourke is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a post-prime wrestler working on the indie circuit, living in a trailer and selling 80s nostalgia to audiences for cheap money – not quite the glamorous lifestyle as lived by other 80s icons, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, for example. After winning a hardcore match, covered in both blood and staples, Randy suffers an almost-fatal heart attack, thus putting a halt on his wrestling career.
In his time away from the ring, Randy tries to connect with daughter, Stephanie (Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood) of whom he has never really cared for because he spent too much time and dedication to pro wrestling. At the same time, Randy tries to establish a stronger connection with his favourite sex worker, Pam aka Cassidy (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Marisa Tomei). In the middle of Randy’s quest for developed involvement with Stephanie and Pam, he acquires a weekend job at the deli counter in the local supermarket.
The Wrestler’s director, Darren Aronofsky, terrifically parallels a wrestler’s walk from backstage, through the curtain and into the arena with Randy’s debut in the deli section of the supermarket. Randy emerges from the staff area (instead of the wrestler lockeroom), walks through the backstage hallways, approaches the plastic curtains (instead of traditional black curtain), and enters the deli counter with the buyers waiting for his appearance (instead of entering an arena’s exhibition area with the traditional stage, ramp, wrestling ring and fans). To solidify this parallel, Aronofsky uses an increasing crowd noise as Randy approaches the plastic curtain of the deli, but for only the sound to disappear as Randy enters the counter.
The Wrestler, like Beyond the Mat, displays the gritty side of professional wrestling – the side not meant to be absorbed by general audiences of professional wrestling. Though dramatised, the wrestling-related content in The Wrestler is truly incredible, and eye-opening if unknowledgeable of behind-the-scenes of wrestling, but also frightening to an extent. Drug injections, staple penetrations and cuts getting sewn up are not frequently associated with WWE in this day and age, but out there, there are still promotions that produce wrestling that is hardcore and questionably legal.
Interestingly, WWE subsequently established a brief angle (storyline) involving Mickey Rourke and one of their top superstars, Chris Jericho. This wrestling angle entailed the appearances of Rourke at both the 2009 WWE Hall of Fame Ceremony the night before WWE WrestleMania XXV and at the PPV itself where he endured a brief fight with Jericho.