John Cena is Corrupting Your Children

I attended many strange pro wrestling rituals when WrestleMania 34 descended upon New Orleans like a body odor blanket last month. I watched a cheeseburger/bear hybrid wrestle other kaiju-costumed nerds at a midnight show adorned with cardboard cities. I stood in the world’s longest bathroom line at a Ring of Honor event because the bro-to-lady ratio at indie wrestling shows is way out of hand. I may have even joined in with the “This is awful!” chants that concluded Mania proper, despite the previous seven hours of sports entertainment making me look like an ungrateful turd for doing so (I honestly can’t remember if I participated in that complaint or not, but the show was exhausting). However, no Mania Moment was as strange as watching the raunchy teen sex comedy Blockers with John Cena in a theater packed with his biggest fans, an experience that only feels more bizarre the further I get away from it. This year’s WrestleMania happened to coincide with Blockers’s opening weekend, so a John Cena promotional appearance at a screening of the film makes logical sense from a marketing standpoint, but the event clearly didn’t factor in the nature of Cena’s usual pro wrestling fanbase. Thanks to AMC, John Cena, and the Universal Pictures marketing machine, I watched an R-rated teen sex comedy with a crowd of very young, very impressionable children who only wanted to meet their pro wrestling superhero. It was hilarious.

John Cena’s transformation into R-rated comedy wildcard has been a gradual one. Three whole years ago, I wrote a piece in the wake of Trainwreck anticipating his transition “From the PG Era to a Solid R,” noting how drastically different his comedic presence in films like that Amy Schumer breakout and the then-upcoming Tina Fey project Sisters was from his usual “Never give up”/”Eat your vitamins” superhero character in-ring. Cena was the face of WWE as it shifted away from the gruesome violence & in-your-face sexuality of the company’s storied Attitude Era to a dedication to producing more child-friendly content. Recently, the attention paid to performers on the roster has spread more evenly, leaving Cena free to develop his comedic persona outside of the ring. Unlike The Rock, however, Cena has never fully detached from the WWE and still regularly appears in-ring as a competitor between film productions (including a squash match with the now-unretired Undertaker at this year’s Mania). This division of his time has lead to some truly bizarre self-contradictions in his public persona, like, say, the superhero to children everywhere butt-chugging a beer and handling Gary Cole’s testicles in an R-rated, femme sex comedy. Nothing has illustrated how absurd that dual career overlap can be to me than AMC’s Q&A screening of Blockers in New Orleans, though, which lured young children into a room to meet their wholesome hero, only to be faced with the raunchiest details of his onscreen career to date (including his naked ass in a final humorous coda).

One of the most charming things about John Cena is his self-aware wit, something he’s likely learned from working crowds of thousands simultaneously chanting & booing his name (older, smarkier fans have long soured on his wholesome superhero routine). His first remark during the Q&A portion of the Blockers screening was that “So many kids have grown up so fast” as his eyes nervously scanned the room. His improvisational crowd-work was continually impressive as he fielded questions about what he likes about New Orleans (drive-through daiquiris), his current opinion of The Rock (left WWE too early), and his decision to appear naked onscreen (“I didn’t think anyone could see me”). It’s honestly less surprising that that he has fit in so well with the post-Apatow style of improv-heavy comedic filmmaking than it is that more pro wrestlers haven’t been tapped for the opportunity, given how life on the road immediately responding to vocal crowds train you for the skill. For my own part, I got to directly ask Cena a question that’s interested me since that eye-opening performance in Trainwreck: why has he been so clearly drawn to R-rated, adult comedies in recent years? The answer, unsurprisingly, was a well thought-out and entirely self-aware history of his career onscreen as a film actor, only confirming that the motivation I inferred was a deliberate, personal choice.

Cena answered the question by dialing the clock back to the early years of WWE Studios in the nu-metal 2000s, when he starred in more straight-forward, The Rock-ish action pictures like The Marine and 12 Rounds (the latter of which was set in New Orleans, appropriately enough). He explained that he participated in those productions to satisfy a desire from his “boss” (presumably WWE owner Vince McMahon) to expand the pro wrestling behemoth’s media brand. According to Cena, those were “bad” movies he filmed as a kind of contractual obligation (I personal enjoy both titles he referenced a lot more than he seems to), while newer projects like Blockers & Trainwreck have been much more personally fulfilling. He’s grateful to have “a second chance”s on the big screen and is finally doing what he wants to do . . . by appearing in R-rated sex comedies? John Cena is a 41-year-old man and, thus, not the clean-cut supehero character he’s developed in the ring. In an effort “to grow up” and “expand” his “depth of character” in his public persona, he’s deliberately choosing projects to challenge the wholesome image he’s developed within WWE in a shrewdly practical (and seemingly fun) way. What he didn’t admit, if you’ll allow me some room for editorializing, is that he’s also damn good at it. His roles in Trainwreck & Blockers especially got a lot of comedic mileage out of contrasting his straight-laced muscle man image with comedically incongruous raunch. It only makes the juxtaposition funnier to know that he’s incredibly aware of that image & how to actively subvert it.

To be honest, having children in the room for a raunchy sex comedy wasn’t even the most absurd touch to the Blockers Q&A. What was really bizarre was the image of a theater full of wrestling fans pawing at Cena for handshakes & autographs once they realized security was not going to impede their approach. It felt like watching the third act of mother!, except most of the admirers were children and a pro wrestler was attempting to maintain control at the godlike center. Children love John Cena and it’s not too difficult to see why. Hell, I think I love John Cena, even though I would have had a much more muted, complicated reaction to his persona just three or four years ago. My own turnaround on his presence is partly a response to WWE’s recent allowance for his spotlight to drift to other worthy performers on their roster, but it’s likely just as much due to his deliberate expansion of “depth of character” by participating in R-rated, horned-up comedies like Blockers. However, unlike The Rock, Cena still wrestles on TV fairly regularly, which means he’s maintaining his younger, more wholesome fanbase at the exact same time. For one wonderfully bizarre afternoon at the start of WrestleMania weekend I got to see both halves of that bifurcated fanbase converge for a screening of a very good, very much adult sex comedy. Only one end of the John Cena fanbase divide could have been corrupted or traumatized by that experience, though: the children. Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children?!

-Brandon Ledet

Grunt! The Wrestling Movie (1985)

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three star

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Later today I will be cramped in a friend’s living room with a pile of fellow drunken weirdos shouting at a television screen as WrestleMania XXI unfolds live from Santa Clara, California. It’s an exciting, yet nerve-racking day to be a fan and a difficult feeling to describe to those who don’t share in it. I’m expecting a potent cocktail of camp & violence tonight (along with the usual variety of potent cocktails), the spirit of which is difficult to capture in words. It’s also difficult to capture on film. The allure of pro wrestling is an elusive, intoxicating, yet deeply flawed quality that’s better served experienced in a crowd than it is described on paper or depicted in film. Attempting to accurately capture pro wrestling’s appeal in a fictionalized setting and sell it back to its fans as a feature film has been a struggle for decades, a struggle that saw a significant uptick during the sport’s bloated spectacle heyday of the 1980s (as previously discussed on this site in our coverage of 1986’s Body Slam and 1989’s No Holds Barred). It’s a difficult task for several reasons, but not least of all because both the people making the films weren’t genuine fans of the sport themselves and because there’s a basic blending of reality & fantasy at play that’s entirely lost when a story is fully fictionalized.

Of the few 80s stabs at capturing this particular brand of lighting in a bottle I’ve seen so far, 1985’s Grunt! The Wrestling Movie was by far the most successful. A surprisingly funny mockumentary about the sport, Grunt! exemplifies both pro wrestling’s charms and (unintentionally) its crippling faults. You can tell the film was made by true fans of “sports entertainment” (as well as comedies like Airplane! and This is Spinal Tap). Grunt! captures both the camp and the violence of pro wrestling early and often (like in the opening scene when a competitor is comically decapitated during a match), but also has the good sense to lose itself to the action in the ring, knowing when to drop the mockumentary gimmick and “mark out” at the already-ridiculous-enough spectacle on display. It’s far from tastefully made and can at times be overwhelmingly corny, but those qualities make it all the more akin to the subject at hand.

Grunt! is a nerdy wrestling comedy made by wrestling-loving nerds, as is on full display when the director (as depicted in the film) explains, “Ever since I was a young child and I walked into my parents’ bedroom and my father said to me ‘Get out of here! We’re wrestling,’ frankly I’ve been fascinated by it.” That brand of juvenile sex humor isn’t the only thing the movie gets accurate (trust me, it’s accurate) about pro wrestling’s appeal. It also captures the chair shots, interfering managers, rings pelted with trash by booing crowds, snarling promos and shameless merchandising that surrounds the matches as well as the sport’s less savory features, like racial & cultural caricature and the embarrassing mockery of little people. Grunt! isn’t entirely purposeful in its documentation of the sport’s faults, but even when it’s incidental it’s fascinatingly accurate. For instance, the film’s absolutely horrendous rock & roll soundtrack is all too close to the reality of wrestling. Original songs that make declarations like “I’m only happy breaking bones”, “Do you wanna dance? Do you wanna body slam?”, and “Wrestling tonight! Everything is bigger than life!” are almost so bad that they’re downright punk and it’s that exact sentiment of unashamed cheese (along with the bone-crunching violence) that makes the sport appealing.

Grunt! isn’t a necessarily well-made movie, but it is one that serves its subject well. Its decision to tell its tale through mockumentary was downright brilliant in that it allowed the film to blend reality & fiction the same way pro wrestling does in the ring. There are some artistic touches to the way the actual matches are shot, especially in its disorienting reliance on a strobe light effect, but for the most part the film is a straightforwardly cheap comedy about a straightforwardly cheap sport. Much like the way Grunt! occasionally stops telling tawdry jokes and loses itself in the spirit of the in-the-ring action, there are times tonight when I will lose my grip on what’s “real” or what’s funny and lose myself in the actual consequences of WrestleMania XXXI. Even when the film’s jokes don’t land (though it’s surprising how often they do, considering its pedigree) it’s still incredible that they managed to capture that aspect of the sport on film, intentionally or not.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Slam (1986) and the Often Superfluous Nature of Bloated Spectacle in Pro Wrestling

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Like most adults find themselves doing from time to time, I spent this past Friday night yelling myself hoarse at sweaty, costumed men as they wrestled each other in a middle school gymnasium. It was my first exposure to New Orleans’ own pro wrestling promotion Wildkat Sports, at an event called Wildkat Strikes Back. Sitting in a cramped, hot gymnasium with a crowd that ranged from screeching children to their elderly grandparents to hardcore, middle-aged wrestling nerds to roving gangs of way-out-of-place crust punks was a welcome alternative to the way I usually enjoy the sport: in the cold, TV-provided glow of living rooms. There was an intense, communal vibe in that gym that can be lacking in the larger, televised promotions and it made me realize just how much of a spectacle the sport can be on its own merit. When stripped down to its bare bones (sans the slapstick comedy sketches, celebrity cameos, pyrotechnics and half-baked stunts that can exhaust a more bloated program), pro wrestling is still entertaining in a genuine, visceral way.

Sometime in mid-80s pro wrestling had reached its most bloated point in history. With the rise of Hulkamania, the undeniably potent likeability of Andre the Giant, and the cutthroat business-sense of juggernaut promoter Vince McMahon, WWE (then WWF) reached the pinnacle of its cultural dominance when WrestleMania III broke the all-time attendance record of an in-door sporting event with more than 93,000 fans present in the stands (a record that still holds today). The level of sheer spectacle that accompanies events like WrestleMania is as disparate from the brand of pro wrestling you’d see at events like Wildkat Strikes Back as the difference in size of their respective crowds, but that spectacle isn’t exactly necessary to make “sports entertainment” . . . entertaining.

Arriving just a year before that record-breaking crowd at WrestleMania III (and a whole three years before WWE got into the film business themselves with No Holds Barred), the 1986 film Body Slam similarly gets confused about what makes pro wrestling entertaining, putting more value into the spectacle surrounding the sport than the sport itself. In the film’s laughably convoluted plot (it is a comedy, after all) rock ‘n’ roll manager Harry Smilac is struggling to make it with only one client under his wing (a band called KICKS) when he fortunately expands his roster by signing on pro wrestler “Quick” Rick Roberts (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), mistakenly assuming that he is a musical act. Despite his initial repugnance toward pro wrestling, Smilac discovers that there’s good money in the sport and pretty much dives head first into the wrestling business until he (late in the film) has the brilliant idea of combining KICKS & Quick Rick’s talents and voila! Smilac gives birth to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Wrestling”. The spectacle of a live rock band playing while sports entertainers perform is treated here like the discovery of the cure for cancer. Smilac is lauded as a genius.

In Body Slam’s logic, Smilac not only improves pro wrestling with this invention, but he also improves rock ‘n’ roll. These are two forms of art that don’t need improvement. Both rock and wrestling are perfectly appealing when reduced to their most basic parts; they don’t need 80s-tinged grandstanding to make them worthwhile. It’s fitting, then, that the band Smilac manages, KICKS, is an obvious stand-in for the band KISS, who are no strangers to using theatrics & merchandising to distract audiences from their okay-at-best brand of rock ‘n’ roll. In the movie’s logic, KICKS’ songs (as well as their deep love of pyrotechnics) are not only a draw for the crowd, but they also give the wrestlers (well, the faces at least) strength to overpower their opponents. They’re breathing life into a far-from-dead brand of entertainment that really didn’t need their help in the first place.

Of course, Body Slam is a silly trifle of a film that shouldn’t be judged too harshly about what it has to say about pro wrestling as a sport, because it doesn’t have too much to say about anything at all, much less wrestling. However, the film does have some charms as a campy delight. The 80s cheese is thick enough to choke you as early as the opening scene, which features Smilac hanging out of a convertible, hair slicked back, hitting on bikini babes by showing off his gigantic car phone. There’s also some corny humor in exchanges like when a friend asks Smilac, “What are you gonna do, Harry?” and he responds “What I always do: manage!” The campy appeal of the rock ‘n’ roll wrestling plot doesn’t really get going until the last third of the film, but the montages are so worth it, especially the one that’s accompanied by the Body Slam theme song. There’s also, of course, a wide range of 80s wresters to gawk at here. Besides the aforementioned Roddy Piper, the film includes “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Captain” Lou Albano, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “The Barbarian” Sione Vailahi, and several members of the Samoan Anoaʻi family (including Roman Reigns’ father Sika), among others. Besides the innate fun of seeing them all in a feature film, they’re also more or less abysmal at acting, which helps keep the mood light. With all of this 80s-specific cheese flying around, the inclusion of always-welcome Billy Barty & Charles Nelson Reilly is somehow just icing on the cake.

It’s not a great movie, but Body Slam is effective as a time capsule of the 80s as an era of corny comedies, show-off musicians, and the birth of bloated spectacle in wrestling. The time capsule aspect goes both ways, though, both funny in its quaintly out-of-date aesthetic and disturbing in its penchant for finding cheap humor in topics like misogyny, racial caricature, cross-dressing and pedophilia. Those offenses aside, there are moments late in the film when they finally get the basic appeal of pro wrestling down when during a rock ‘n’ roll wrestling performance the band KICKS is attacked by a group of heels and the whole show devolves into chaos. There’s also a particularly bloody street fight match involving chains that feels pretty close to what a lot of hardcore fans are looking for in the sport, despite an announcer’s exclamation that “This is setting wrestling back 1000 years!”

When considered from the perspective of an enterprising showman (like a Harry Smilac or an Eric Bischoff), Body Slam is an interesting case study of what outsiders often get wrong in their assumptions about what makes pro wrestling entertaining. I’m not saying that local promotions like Wildkat Sports are inherently better than their televised, large scale, rock ‘n’ roll wrestling competitors; I’ll still be eagerly watching all 4 bloated-spectacle hours of WrestleMania XXXI this coming Sunday. I’m just saying that the sport is entertaining enough on its own merit, even when stripped of the fireworks, the KISS-knockoffs, and the David Arquettes. There’s a basic appeal to its violence & pageantry that’s evident whether you’re in a middle school gym with 1,000 sweaty nerds or an outrageously packed stadium of 90,000 rabid fans. The bloated spectacle is delicious lagniappe at its best and unnecessarily excessive at its worst. In Body Slam, it’s mostly the latter, though the film argues otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery (2014)

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three star

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Look out, garbage lovers & overgrown children everywhere. WWE Studios has officially gotten in the business of making cartoons. It’s a brilliant move by all accounts, since professional wrestling itself could be described as a sort of live-action cartoon. The garish costumes, over-the-top personalities, and campy approach to violence should all be familiar to fans of animation and the two worlds have, of course, crossed paths before. Wrestling cartoons have generally been Saturday morning cartoon fodder, with dire projects like Hulk Hogan’s Rock & Wrestling and ¡Mucha Lucha! bringing no discernable level of prestige to the genre. As the WWE is currently in its long-lived, so-called “PG Era” (in which the company intensely markets its content to children) and its movie-making division WWE Studios is churning out more feature-length content than ever before, it’s a beautiful work of synergy that the company has gotten into bed with Hana-Barbera for a few proper straight-to-video animation crossovers.

Last year’s gloriously titled Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery was the first of the WWE/Hanna-Barbera crossovers. In the film, which is more fun than it should be, the Mystery, Inc. gang is dragged to WrestleMania against their will by the overenthusiastic Shaggy & Scooby. The film sets up an interesting mark/smark divide here, as the characters engage with the product in a variety of different ways. At one end of the spectrum, Shaggy & Scooby are completely obsessed with WWE’s brand of sports entertainment, sinking endless time & energy into the company’s video games and worshiping the talent like living gods. Fred takes an interest in pro-wrestling as a subject for his photography, eager to take some “wicked action shots.” Daphne falls in love with wrestling’s masculine sexuality the second she witnesses a wrestler (John Cena, specifically) removing his shirt. Velma’s all the way on the other end of the mark/smark divide, attempting to engage with the product on a purely intellectual level. She researches the history of the sport in favor of actually losing herself in the matches until the sheer spectacle of the WrestleMania main event wins her over into a little bit of mark territory and she becomes a true fan. To be fair to Velma, it is an especially spectacular main event. John Cena, Kane, Sin Cara, Shaggy & Scooby all join forces to fight a gigantic robotic ghost bear or, as the boys would put it, a “g-g-g-ghost b-b-b-bear”.

The ghost bear is a formidable threat, but nothing too out of the ordinary considering the history of Mystery, Inc. What is out of the ordinary is the sheer amount of pro-wrestling personalities that get involved in the proceedings. In addition to Cena, Kane, and Sin Cara (who get the most screen time), the movie also includes the likes of Triple H, AJ Lee, Brodus Clay, Santino, The Miz, and The Big Show (as well as cameos from Sgt. Slaughter & Jerry “The King” Lawler curiously portrayed as if they were still in their youth). Ringside announcer Michael Cole even gets in on the fun (lamenting the loss of his “favorite” table when Big Show gets smashed through it), as does WWE chairman & CEO Vince McMahon. McMahon is treated like some kind of deity by the boys, who do a “we’re not worthy” Wayne’s World routine at the billionaire’s feet. However, despite McMahon’s idol worship, Sin Cara’s apparent ability to literally fly, “See No Evil” Kane’s portrayal as a true-to-life demon, and AJ Lee’s brute strength that earns her the boys’ fearful concession that she’s “like Kane with lipstick”, no one gets quite as much ego massaging as longtime face of the company John Cena. Cena’s persona as an unstoppable superhuman can get tiresome on a weekly televised basis, but it’s kind of adorable here. He can seduce a beautiful woman with the mere removal of his shirt, conquer Indiana Jones-sized boulders and undead bears with just his hands, and is an instant friend to everyone, because he’s just so gosh darned likeable. It would be sickening if it weren’t so ridiculous. On the raw end of that deal, The Miz is just utterly abused here. His character pops in for some occasional goofball comic relief, which is totally fair all things considered, but looks absolutely nothing like him. Just no resemblance at all to the money-maker. If it weren’t for the sound of his voice or the cartoonish narcissism it would be near impossible to tell it was him.

For fans of either Scooby-Doo or pro-wrestling, the movie should be a fairly easy sell. It’s not a mind-blowing feat of animation, but it is remarkably likeable. In some ways the WWE does glorify itself a bit here, even if it’s tounge-in-cheek. For example, within the story the company has its own fully-functioning WWE City, which features a Mount Rushmore style tribute to the heavyweight championship belt. At the same time, both Hanna-Barbera & WWE poke a good bit of fun at themselves as well. Shaggy jokes that the gang wears the same outfits every day, so they have no need to pack for their trip to WrestleMania and there are also surprising references to WWE City’s environmental impact on the forest surrounding it & more realistically, former wrestlers’ career-ending injuries. The film also features some ridiculous asides like Scooby wrestling mutated junk food in outer space and Sin Cara telling the gang “The Legend of the Bear” through interpretive dance. It’s a very silly, inconsequential movie all in all, so it’s difficult to fault it for any shortcomings. Personally, I look forward to the upcoming WWE/Hanna-Barbera crossovers (which include a Flinstones picture as well as a Scooby-Doo sequel) and hope that they’ll go on at least long enough for a Stardust Meets The Jetsons feature. That’s the dream anyway.

-Brandon Ledet