The Royal Rumble is the last major pro wrestling pay-per-view before Wrestlemania. It’s a chaotic, cluttered mess of an event, and one of the highlights of the annual wrestling cycle. My friends & I partied hard for this year’s Rumble, filling a tiny apartment with chips, dips, liquors, “royal rum balls” and drunken shouting. It was a blast until the disappointing, telegraphed conclusion to the main event, an inevitability that had the crowd both in our living room and on the TV screen openly booing. Knowing what was coming before the Rumble even started, I psyched myself up with a ludicrous YouTube clip of an infamous wrestling incident in 2000 that was met with its own open ridicule: the time professional goofball/actor David Arquette became WCW’s World Heavyweight Champion.
A wrestling fan himself, David Arquette knew an actor becoming the WCW World Heavyweight Champion would not go over well with the crowd. He reportedly protested the angle, but WCW’s booking insisted it would be great promotion. The product they were pushing? Arquette’s pro wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble, a massive critical and financial flop. Although it failed in its time, Ready to Rumble has gradually proved itself (through its mere existence) as a time capsule of a bygone era. It’s a strange relic of wrestling’s unexpected late 90s, early 00s boost in popularity. The fact that WCW felt it could justify a $24mil production alone frames the film as culturally significant, even if they were ultimately proved wrong. Their preposterous plan to promote the film by making Arquette a real life heavyweight champion makes the movie a truly singular oddity. Usually, if a wrestling promotion is going to push a film career, like with Hulk Hogan or The Rock, they promote from within. Bringing a Hollywood outsider (a real life fan or not) into the ring is not without precedent, but handing them the belt is beyond ridiculous and not something fans will suffer quietly.
Another strange facet of the Arquette debacle was his relationship with actual pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. In Ready to Rumble DDP plays the heel, the villain to Arquette’s unlikely hero. In the real WCW ring they were tag team partners. The inconsistency is even more bizarre when you consider that Oliver Platt played the film’s fictional face, wrestler Jimmy King. If you were trying to logically promote the film in a WCW match, the natural choice would be for Platt (as Jimmy King) to wrestle DDP on television in a quick, one-off promotion. Platt, despite being a legitimately talented actor, seems to consistently be slumming it in his choices of roles, so a 5 minute promotional wrestling bit doesn’t seem all that out of the question. Instead, WCW opted for a long-form angle featuring David Arquette (as David Arquette) becoming their undisputed champion, a decision that suggests a lack of respect for the sport & its fans, including Arquette himself.
In isolation from its ridiculous real-life promotion, Ready to Rumble displays a humble reverence for pro wrestling as a sport, falling clearly on the mark side of the mark/smark divide. The movie opens with claims that pro wrestlers are “the greatest athletes of all time” and “heroes of history”. These “superior athletes, superior men” are given plenty of screen time with the kind of overstated cameos that take an audience’s adoration for granted. Appearing here alongside DDP are the likes of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Sting, Goldberg, Booker T, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and a few other big industry names, including a brief glimpse of a young John Cena. There are a few smarky admissions, like wrestlers discussing choreography during matches and an unusually violent Martin Landau playing a Stu Hart stand-in, but for the most part this is a world where wrestling is both real and real important.
The movie’s major misstep is in its long stretches outside of the wrestling ring. The road trip segments of the film are overloaded with gross-out, non sequitur, teenage boy shenanigans: porta-potties, horny old ladies, and toothless hicks all played for unfortunate humor. There are some transcendent moments to be found in this frat house amusement, like Rose McGowan’s hot to trot wrestling fan engaging in “bedroom matches” and a van full of flatulent nuns performing a cover of “Running with the Devil” that’s less Van Halen and more The Roches, but for the most part it’s flat & forgettable. It’s the exact brand of dumb fun that plays well in a wrestling ring, but fails to translate well to the big screen.
I’m not sure that the film’s comedic failure is necessarily a bad thing. Ready to Rumble is unashamed of being a mindless trifle, marketable only to an audience already receptive to pro wrestling & complete garbage, a rather large audience at the time of its production. There’s a working class veneer to the film, complete with a Kid Rock soundtrack and Insane Clown Posse t-shirts. Arquette’s protagonist is the son of a cop who works in sanitation, loiters in front of corner stores, and dreams of meeting his favorite pro wrestler. He & his buddy rough house at their menial jobs and fantasize about executing wrestling moves on their bullies. It’s a pandering approach to comedy, but at least it’s closely familiar with the audience it’s catering to.
In the film’s promotion, however, all of this goodwill for pro wrestling fans was destroyed by Arquette’s championship victory cheapening the (already cheap enough) WCW title. 15 years later, that heartfelt betrayal plays more like a bizarre historical footnote, one with a feature film attached. Arquette’s championship may have helped ruin Ready to Rumble & WCW as financial enterprises in the year 2000, but it also gave them a strange longevity in cultural significance. It’s an occasionally funny movie with a thoroughly ludicrous context & execution that’s still worth scratching your head over in 2015.