The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family (2012)

I was initially skeptical of the recent, Stephen-Merchant-directed biopic of WWE superstar Paige, Fighting with My Family, even as someone who’s greatly enjoyed following her pro wrestling career. WWE’s involvement in the production led me to expect the Dianetics-level propaganda of revisionist history & TV commercial production sheen the company always applies to their hagiographic retellings of their own lore, which is more or less true to the film’s aesthetic. There’s just something about the its Disney Channel Original energy that clashes wonderfully with Merchant’s sharp comedic wit and the working-class crassness of the wrestlers it profiles, though, that gives it a surprisingly effective, compelling tone. There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the way Merchant worked that R-rated Disney Channel Original tonal clash to the film’s advantage, but I might at least have been less skeptical that Paige’s life story was worthy of the biopic treatment if I had first seen the BBC documentary that inspired it. Produced as a one-hour special for Channel 4, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is a low-key, made-for-TV documentary that’s just as saturated with the tones and tropes of the post-MTV True Life reality TV doc as its later, fictionalized version is adherent to the safe commercial feel of WWE’s self-propaganda. In this instance, however, the story of Paige’s peculiar family dynamic and inspiring rise to power story is enough to make for a compelling picture against all aesthetic odds – just like in the biopic. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is not quite as great of an achievement as its fictionalized follow-up, but it is the foundational text for that work – both inspiring its title and being included in clips during its end credits sequence for texture. Most importantly, it makes abundantly clear how Paige’s early-career story is fascinating enough to justify two separate, surprisingly successful movies.

The daughter of two Northern English pro wrestlers who once performed on television but now run their own local promotion in VFW hall-scale venues, Paige was groomed since birth to be a successful pro wrestler herself. Named Saraya after her mother’s in-ring character and commercially exploited by her parents as (in their own words) “eye candy” and “a product,” Paige’s traveling carnie lifestyle is fascinating whether or not you have an interest in pro wrestling as an artform. That familial dynamic only gets more bizarre as she emerges as the only breakout star among her inner circle, inspiring frustrated jealousy in her wrestling-nut brother and conflicted sentimental & financial pangs in her proud, but possessive parents. The Wrestlers has the exact opposite problem than the proper Fighting with My Family biopic; WWE’s strict press lockout keeps the cameras away from Paige’s tryout drama & professional training here, whereas the latter film focuses heavily on those backstage details in an image-controlled environment. Instead, the doc gets a more intimate and (by default) more honest depiction of Paige’s domestic life, as well as insight into the personal histories of her family. For the most part, the core story told in this documentary does carry over into its fictionalized follow-up, except the biopic has the advantage of backstage WWE access as lagniappe. However, seeing the 20-something Florence Pugh portray a fictionalized version of Paige does not give you an accurate idea of how much of a naïve baby she was when WWE signed her as a teenager. There’s something about seeing this young child shouldering massive familial responsibility and navigating deep-seated emotional resentments she has no fault in that comes through much stronger in this reality-TV doc than it does in the more convenient fiction, even if The Wrestlers is ultimately relegated to supplementary material for a much better film.

There easily could have been a scenario where Paige’s WWE career never took off and this one-off BBC doc could instead have developed into an episodic reality TV show. The MTV True Life aesthetics & gawking fascination with the wrestler’s peculiar family dynamic makes it feel like that was the original plan, that her WWE signing was a freak occurrence that threw everyone involved for a loop. That kind of midstream surprise (a swerve, if u will) always makes for a more compelling documentary, and Paige’s continued prominence in the WWE (which has not always been smooth sailing, to say the least) has only assured this one a cultural longevity it would not have achieved otherwise. At the end of the film, Paige promises she will change the shape of women’s wrestling in the company into something respectable beyond the T&A eye-candy roles performers had been relegated to for decades. She did eventually play a major part in achieving that goal, an accomplishment that helped justify blowing this story up to a feature-length biopic treatment. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family isn’t quite as substantial as that biopic, but it does provide additional, essential texture that only strengthens the biopic in retrospect – so essential that it’s featured in clips in that latter text. It’s especially illuminating in getting a grasp on just how young Paige was when she was trained for this business and was signed by the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, which drastically alters how we understand her accomplishments & her family dynamic.

-Brandon Ledet

Fighting with My Family (2019)

Even though I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and Stephen Merchant’s dual credit as writer-director vouched for its quality, I did not expect to get much out of Fighting with My Family. WWE-produced content tends to have a slick, careful, personality-free approach to revisionist history when telling its own story, which usually prompts me to expect the eerie gloss of a Dianetics infomercial DVD rather than heartfelt cinema. Maybe it was that hyperactive skepticism that allowed me to have an intense, unexpected emotional reaction to this picture despite its unembarrassed commercialism and weakness for revisionist bullshit. This is the hardest I’ve laughed and the most I’ve cried in a movie I didn’t expect either from since 2017’s Power Rangers reboot (which was essentially a feature-length commercial for Krispy Kreme donuts). Aesthetically & craft-wise, Fighting with My Family feels like a poorly aged relic from the early aughts, a once-true story sanitized for wide commercial appeal. Yet, as an achievement in screenwriting, it’s a shockingly dirty, oddly inspiring rise-to-power story that somehow does the pro wrestler Paige’s early career & peculiar familial dynamic full justice, against all odds. The clash of its rowdy dialogue & commercial production sheen feels like an approximation of an R-rated Disney Chanel Original Movie – the exact kind of target audience grey area pro wrestling occupies in the real world.

Paige, born Saraya-Jade Bevis & originally wrestling under the ring name Britani Knight, is portrayed in this simplistic rise to power biopic by acting chameleon Florence Pugh (entirely unrecognizable from her breakout role in Lady Macbeth). Raised by professional wrestler parents (Nick Frost & Lena Headey), she was trained in the ring by her older brother as a family-supporting commodity, just like in any other clan of carnies. When she’s unexpectedly signed by the WWE to wrestle on international TV, Paige has to contend with two separate crises: one with her family and one with the outdated shape of the wrestling community’s inclusion of women. Her family is proud of her professional accomplishments, but also sad to see her go (along with the money she makes for their local promotion) and resentful that her wrestling fanatic brother was not also signed. As a pale mall-goth with a life-long pro wrestling fetish, she’s also at odds with how major promotions treated their female performers until recent years: as eye candy or, in her parlance, T&A. Paige’s major contribution to WWE, what makes her biopic worthy to fans in the wrestling community, is how her unconventional fashion choices & legitimate ring skills helped bring an end to WWE’s Divas era, where women were mostly hired as models & dancers to stir up fans’ libidos. She helped usher in the current so-called Women’s Revolution, where legitimate female performers from the indie circuit are being given an opportunity to wrestle in earnest. What makes Fighting with My Family impressive as a piece of writing, though, is that it never villainizes Paige’s family or the more conventional eye-candy babes she seeks to prove herself against. Nor does it let her off the hook for her shortcomings in handling these conflicts as a naive teen suddenly burdened with massive responsibilities. The movie offers empathy to every character its story touches while not at all shying away from their faults, which is just as important to its success as sketching out how influential Paige was in wrestling’s recent, gendered sea change.

Of course, anyone who’s already familiar with Paige’s WWE career should find plenty to chew on here while picking apart the film’s rearranged timeline & selective memory. Specifically, Paige’s career-ending injuries & backstage controversies are (smartly) excised here to make for a cleaner, more inspiring version of the truth. Yet, the movie surprisingly doesn’t shy away from including WWE pariah AJ Lee from the story of how Paige influenced a massive change within the Women’s Division, which Lee also had a major involvement in before she became a persona non grata within the company (although they do weirdly mischaracterize Lee here as an ex-model Bella-type instead of a fellow wrestling-nerd goth). For wrestling fans, these storytelling decisions (along with the company’s continued support & inclusion of Paige after her body gave out at a disturbingly young age) are an encouraging sign of changing times, and it feels great to see the upswing of that change reflected here in the context of Paige’s early-career accomplishments. I’d like to think Fighting with My Family works just as well for audiences who don’t care at all about wrestling, though. Stephen Merchant’s dialogue (and bit part cameo) is sharply funny. Paige’s familial dynamic as the sole breakout star in a clan of fame-starved wrestling carnies is objectively fascinating (and well-performed by Pugh). The film also makes a genuine effort to convey pro wrestling’s artistic & emotional appeal – both on the scale of communal VFW hall events and on the global stage of the WWE. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have as emotional of a reaction to the film as I did – both because of my personal interest in women’s pro wrestling and because I’m generally an emotional wreck. However, I can at least testify to the movie achieving far more than you would typically expect from something so aesthetically unassuming, given its cheesy guitar-riff soundtrack & Disney Channel sheen. The strengths of Merchant’s writing instincts & Pugh’s fully-committed performance are likely to catch you off-guard in tandem, forming one superb tag team.

-Brandon Ledet

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)

I might be the most forgiving audience in the world above the age of seven when it comes to WWE Studios’ animated children’s media, having given positive reviews for all four of the pro wrestling empire’s crossovers with Hanna-Barbera so far: WrestleMania Mystery, Stone Age SmackDown, Curse of the Speed Demon, and Robo-WrestleMania. Unfortunately, I could not extend my enthusiasm into the company’s latest animated crossover business venture, a sequel to the long-forgotten CG monstrosity Surf’s Up. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania picks up the pieces of that middling work, which barely made back its budget, by continuing its age-old story of penguins who love to surf. Whatever conflicts the CG penguin surfers overcome in that first film will forever remain a mystery to me, as I’ve already suffered through one too many Happy Feet films to have any desire to catch up with their knockoffs. Still, there was something oddly appealing about the absurdity of watching a years-late, direct to VOD sequel to that nonsense where recognizable voice actors like Shia Labeouf & Zooey Deschanel were replaced by WWE Superstars. I was willing to give WaveMania a chance solely based on the potential novelty of pro wrestling personalities voicing muscular penguins who get off on the adrenaline rush of X-Games style sports. Instead of the penguin-themed Point Break I was hoping for, however, I mostly got a feature length screensaver, one that couldn’t even satisfy my own notoriously undiscerning tastes.

Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time‘s Finn the Human) replaces Shia Labeouf as a surf-happy penguin & Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Napoleon Dynamite) returns as his stoner chicken friend. They seem to have beef with a bully penguin & funny feelings for a Hot Lady penguin who lives on the same beach. Whatever relationship issues or internal obstacles that were overcome in the first film mean absolutely nothing here. These few holdovers from the original Surf’s Up film mostly just serve to inflate the egos of the pro wrestling Superstars that invade their franchise space. Their never-ending beach party is crashed by The Hang Five: penguin celebrities who have a taste for X-Games style thrills and suspiciously familiar names like Hunter (HHH), Paige (Paige), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), and J.C. (which either stands for Jesus Christ or John Cena; I can’t decide). Besides these sexed up muscle penguins, the crew is also followed by ring announcer Michael Cole in seagull form and lead by a perverted otter voiced by Mr. Vince McMahon himself. How do we know that this silver haired otter-daddy is a pervert? He repeatedly​ fantasizes onscreen about milking a fish’s udder with his mouth. The Hang Five crash the beach scene both looking for a legendary surf spot and covertly sizing up the original Surf’s Up crew for new members to possibly join their ranks. Along the way Shada’s protagonist penguin learns to control his anger in the face of bullies, the crew indulges in some X-treme sports, and McMahon drools over the thought of those sweet, sweet fish udders.

Of course, the real draw here for anyone who’s not a a surfer who’s suffered one too many concussions or a child with early stirrings of a sexual fetish for anthropomorphic penguins is the novelty of seeing pro wrestlers’ in-ring personas adapted to the equally unreal environment of an animated kids’ picture. For the most part, their individual personalities are coded in a fairly rigid, one dimensional way: J.C. is the face, Hunter is the heel, Taker is spooky, Paige is all about Girl Power, McMahon is the boss/sexual deviant. Watching this dynamic play out is especially strange in this particular moment for a couple extratextual reasons (namely Undertaker’s recent retirement at WrestleMania & Paige’s recent sex tape scandal), but the novelty of that context will only fade with time. Besides McMahon’s fish udder sucking, the most notable contribution to the film is made by J.C./Jesus Christ/John Cena. Cena’s an interesting presence here. His penguin surrogate delivers a lot of the child- pleasing buffoonery that keeps unshaved Redditors awake at night: he sports dog tags & sweat bands, shows off his “You Can’t C Me” five moves of doom routine, and makes eyeroll worthy statements like, “Eat right, exercise, and never give up . . . on being awesome!” There’s something a little self-deprecating about doing all this through the mouthpiece of a CG penguin, though, and he occasionally pokes fun at himself with lines like, “Wanna hear about the time I fought off a shark with only my camo shorts?” I don’t know if I’m warming up to Cena because of the excellent in-ring work he’s put in over the last three or so years or his sudden string of top notch cameos in mainstream comedies, but I found him to be the only significantly memorable presence in WaveMania that doesn’t involve sucking off a fish.

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania‘s main flaw is a structural one, oddly enough. Instead of chasing the over-the-top absurdity of its pro wrestlers as X-Games penguins premise, the sequel attempts to normalize the scenarios by framing it as a mockumentary. Over-familiarity with recent mockumentary-style television like The Office, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, the latest version of The Muppets, and so on makes the casual interview structure of the film feel stale and oddly forgettable, which shouldn’t be possible in any property where John Cena is a muscular bird who surfs and Vince McMahon sucks down “fish milk” (I refuse to drop how jarring that is). I am typically very lenient with WWE Studios cartoons relying on the basic absurdity of their premises, but the results were just too flat & uninteresting here, primarily due to that increasingly ubiquitous mockumentary style of comedy. If the company’s going to continue down this path of teaming up with financially-shaky children’s properties to promote their wrestlers, however, I’d like to suggest that they hook up with Laika next. Not only could Laika use the money most, but I’d be very much down for the stop motion sequel Kubo and the Two Tickets to WrestleMania. That at the very least has the potential to be a memorable watch.

-Brandon Ledet

The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania (2017)

Look, I’m solidly, repeatedly on record as being a fan of WWE’s recent team-ups with long-dead Hanna-Barbera properties. Two Scooby-Doo crossovers (WrestleMania Mystery & Curse of the Speed Demon) and one Flintstones detour (Stone Age SmackDown) into this newborn era of Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling cartoons, I haven’t had a single sour experience yet. The larger than life personalities of “WWE Superstars” entering the far-out worlds of Bedrock dinos, fake ghosts, monster trucks, and Scooby Snacks is a perfect fit, especially since WWE likes to maintain the illusion of producing PG content despite building its entire empire on “fantasy violence.” WWE’s fourth collaboration with Hanna-Barbera, while not my favorite crossover so far, is no different in the way it delivers the absurd, over the top fantasy violence goods in a cartoon setting. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is the first new Jetsons content produced in nearly three decades, a feature that might mark a lowpoint in terms of that property’s overall quality, but still had me giggly over the way it handles a very specific kind of larger than life absurdity that only a pro wrestling cartoon can deliver.

This is one of those situations where an IMDb plot synopsis is all the information you really need to know if you’d be interested: “A snowstorm freezes Big Show solid for decades. When he finally thaws out, Elroy and George help him build wrestle bots. When Big Show uses them to take over their city, the Jetsons go back in time to enlist help from WWE Superstars.” Well, technically, that synopsis isn’t exactly accurate. You see, The Big Show doesn’t build wrestle bots himself; he overtakes pre-existing robots with his wrestling prowess after discovering in horror that World Wrestling Entertainment has evolved into World Wrobot Entertainment (the second “w” is silent) while he was frozen, making his livelihood an obsolete practice. There’s a dual level of fantasy going on here: one where The Big Show is currently in contention to be the World Heavyweight Champion (those days are long gone) and one where WWE is still thriving 100 years in the future. Whatever automated dystopia pro wrestling slips into is likely imminent too, as the wrestling bots featured in the film are mechanical versions of current superstars: Robo-Roman Reigns, Robo-Seth Rollins, Robo-Dolph Ziggler, etc. I guess there’s a third level of fantasy at work too, you know, the one where lil’ Elroy Jetson invents time travel for a middle school science fair. That aspect of the film can’t really compare to the spectacle of human vs robot pro wrestling, though. Really, what could?

The Jetsons’ presence in Robo-WrestleMania is secondary at best. Besides the initial thrill of having the long dead television show’s iconic theme music (a cheap pop that’s later repeated for a gag where WWE Superstars are similarly introduced) as well as the dead-on impersonations of the new voice cast, the Jetsons mostly just provide an appropriate backdrop for the robotic & time-traveling hijinks of the much more interesting pro wrestling personalities they mix with. A lot of the property’s “women be shoppin'”/men are workaholics humor feels uncomfortably outdated in a modern context. Rosie the sarcastic robot maid remains the only fresh & amusing aspect of the original Jetsons dynamic. She gets in some great lines here about how “If [The Big Show] makes a mess on the carpet, I am not cleaning it up” or about how Robo-Roman Reigns really turns her on/pushes her buttons. I also appreciated a gag where George accidentally wins a wrestling match and when asked to provide his in-ring name, he bills himself as the amusingly generic Future Guy. Again, though, it’s mostly just the Jetson’s futuristic setting that provides anything of value for the WWE Superstars to bounce off of, but it’s a context that pays off nicely

The biggest surprise of Robo-WrestleMania​ is how much effort The Big Show put it his vocal performance. I didn’t have much confidence in watching a kids’ film starting the lug after suffering through the abysmal (even by WWE Studios standards) Knucklehead. He plays a great heel here, though, anchoring the film with the larger than life, enraged growl of a classic decades-old wrestling promo, redundantly declaring himself to be “the world heavyweight championship of the world.” I’d even dare say there’s an ounce of genuine pathos to the way the living giant feels physically awkward in an automated future where his body & his profession are essentially now obsolete. I even wonder if that robo-wrestling angle was a mode of sly writer’s room commentary on the way pro wrestling has been morally sanitized & made less physically risky in the PG, publicly traded modern era. There’s some similarly satirical jabs at Roman Reigns’s persona here: he charges his fist as if he’s gearing up for his patented “Superman punch” only to fire off an autograph for a fan; Rosie only likes his robo-version for his good looks; his robo-version’s stilted, mechanical delivery of his “Believe that” catchphrase sounds oddly reminiscent of some of his on-mic botches in real life; etc. For the most part, though, Roman and the rest of the WWE Superstars take just as much of a backseat as the Jetsons do. This is The Big Show’s, uh, big show and he delivers surprisingly strongly in that animated spotlight.

I was mildly, pleasantly amused by Robo-WrestleMania just as I have been with all of these Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling crossovers. Still, I feel like the opportunities presented by these cartoon backdrops aren’t being fully exploited to match the inherent absurdity of the wrestlers who populate them. Besides the wrestling robots & off hand references to Seth Rollins’s frequent claim that he’s “The Future of WWE,” the 100 years in the future setting of Robo-WrestleMania isn’t pushed to its full potential. Imagine all of the places a cartoon about a time traveling pro wrestlers could go; I’d argue this movie settled on the least interesting one. Thinking about the self-aware psychedelia of what could pop up in a New Day cartoon or how much weirder a Jetsons crossover could’ve been if it were produced while Stardust was still with the company (something I’ve called for in every review of these damned things so far) makes me mourn for the things that could be if these crossovers strayed a little further from the wrestling ring and a little deeper into the personas of the weirdos who work in it. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is admirably silly as is, though, and it works remarkably well as a redemptive palette cleanser for The Big Show, who really needed it after the dregs of Knucklehead.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #12 of the Swampflix Podcast: The Marine (2006) & Pro Wrestling Documentaries

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Welcome to Episode #12 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twelfth episode, James & Brandon discuss five essential pro wrestling documentaries with friend & WTUL radio DJ Brandon Lattimore. Also, James makes Brandon watch the John Cena action vehicle The Marine (2006) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Scooby-Doo! & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon (2016)

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I’ve gone on record as enjoying the first WWE/Scooby-Doo collaboration WrestleMania Mystery (the Flintstones collaboration Stone Age SmackDown was even better), but was a little skeptical that a sequel could find much more room to play around with the concept of a Scooby-Doo pro wrestling picture than what’s established in the original. The first film brings the gang to WrestleMania where they meet a bunch of famous “WWE Superstars” at the company’s biggest annual event & help solve the mystery of an improbable specter threatening to ruin the spectacle, in this case a bionic ghost bear (seriously). I expected a sequel would simply repeat the same exact scenario with a fresh batch of pro wrestlers & lazily call it a day, but Curse of the Speed Demon accomplished much more than that on the creative end. Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox.

Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. (Though, I guess if McMahon were to start a dirt track monster truck racing division of his brand, that name might not be far off, considering the long-gone XFL.) The film gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon race tracks you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal. Much like the ghost bear of the last Scooby-Doo/WWE picture the proceedings here are mucked up by an otherworldly threat, in this case a literal speed demon known as Inferno, which may or may not be someone involved with the company trying to sabotage the success of Muscle Moto X. Although the wrestlers are not in their usual squared circle habitat, they’re more than willing to bodyslam & tussle with Inferno on the dirt track until the demon’s true identity can be revealed. WWE personas mix with Scooby-Doo’s harmless, trademarked stoner humor and, viola!, you have an enjoyably campy kids’ picture that captures the spirit of pro wrestling without all that pesky pro wrestling getting in the way.

Of course, as a pro wrestling fan, a lot of the fun of indulging in disposable trash like this is in seeing beloved WWE performers doing their thing in animated form. For the most part, the contributions are enjoyable, if not predictable here. Michael Cole & Seamus do their usual thing: inanely providing play-by-play & interspersing action with unprompted shouts of “Fella!” respectively. Paige bounces some of her mall goth sarcasm off the similarly difficult to read Lana & Rusev, which is an interesting dynamic that would likely never occur in a wrestling storyline. In-the-ring high-fliers Kofi Kingston & Los Matadores defy gravity in some really goofy cartoon logic. Vince, HHH, and Stephanie McMahon present a human face for the company & A-Lister The Miz constantly points to the absurdity of the whole ordeal in lines like “Another monster attack? Really?” & “Strangely enough, I’ve been mauled by a monster on a midnight jog before,” referring to events of the first film. It’s the more over the top characters who really steal the show, though. The Undertaker is especially game, gravely reading lines like “Rust in Peace” [to his deeply mourned, irrevocably smashed vehicle] or gleefully driving a souped-up, sandwich-shaped food truck & saving the day with a sausage link lasso. It actually makes sense that Taker would be in the center of this film’s story, given that the auto-performer Grave Digger is pretty much the monster truck version of the wrestler & I suspect that exact dynamic is what the film was initially built around. Taker fills the role well, bouncing off the Mystery Gang’s comedic sensibilities (with the voice of Velma now filled by half of Garfunkel & Oates, Kate Micucci, and Shaggy being the eternally imprisoned in the role Matthew Lilard), but he’s not the most interesting player in the game. That would be the Rhodes family.

I think there’s great camp value potential in WWE’s collaborations with the Hanna-Barbera brand that’s not quite fully realized yet at this third-film-in juncture. Curse of the Speed Demon finds a lot of goofy room to play with its basic “super stars & super cars” concept, like in the Michael Cole-shouted line, “Only The Undertaker could fly a sandwich out of the jaws of oblivion!” However, I think they could push the cartoon absurdity even further, as evidenced by the way the film uses the Rhodes brothers Goldust & Stardust. Because the temporal demands of production necessitate that these collaborations will be behind on current WWE storylines, Curse of the Speed Demon brings Goldust & Stardust back to the delightful heights of their absurd, magical “Cosmic Key” era of promos, which I believe was back in the late summer of 2014. Including other now-outdated storylines like The Authority (or, for that matter, the now departed from the company/galaxy Stardust and, even more sadly, the departed from this mortal coil Dusty Rhodes) is a little awkward, but the magic of The Cosmic Key silliness suggests an even more out-there kind of goofery the company could reach for, with all of the characters’ magic dust &strange hissing. At the end of my review for the first Scooby-Doo/WWE film I suggested that I’d like to see a Stardust Meets the Jetsons picture (something that’s pretty damn unlikely now). I want something like Huckleberry Hound in a New Day unicorn & rainbows cartoon. I want to see the concept pushed to the point where Hanna-Barbera characters meet WWE performers in their own strange worlds nestled in their gimmicks instead of their profession.

Curse of the Speed Demon starts to hint at that go-for-broke cartoon logic potential by giving Goldust & Stardust so much strange screen time (along with their now deceased father, which was about as sincerely touching of an inclusion as you could expect from a Scooby-Doo pro wrestling feature) & by removing the action from the wrestling ring in favor of an outlandish monster truck racing setting. I say push it even further. Much like the works of Mario Bava & Dario Argento (who I’ll admit I’m only referencing for the absurdity of it), the mysteries at the heart of Scooby-Doo are not nearly as important as the style in which they’re told, which is typically a campy take on old-fashioned haunted house horrors. There’s a lot of room for playing within that dynamic while sticking to kayfabe in the in-the-ring gimmicks of folks like Stardust or the Undertaker or The New Day or, hell, even the Wyatt Family (who I loathe to watch due to their monotonous promos, but could totally work in a haunted house cartoon). Curse of the Speed Demon finds the right tone of the cartoon-wrestling hybrid I’m describing in certain moments (The Miz putting the speed demon Inferno in a figure four leg lock or the Undertaker tombstoning him come to mind, as does the film’s basic premise, which feels like something I might’ve come up with while riding my WWF Big Wheels as a kid). It just needs a little more of a push into that detached-from-reality direction for this cartoon WWE Universe to really stand out as a memorable campy delight. As for now, they’re doing some surprisingly amusing work & I’m sure a lot of the wrestling-obsessed kids out there are eating it up, which is good enough to keep my attention for now.

-Brandon Ledet

12 Rounds 3: Lockdown (2015)

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In the first two 12 Rounds films, disgruntled domestic terrorists set up convoluted twelve round scavenger hunts (very similar to the one in Die Hard: With a Vengeance) as a means to teach lessons about perceived wrongs from the past. In the first film pro wrestler John Cena plays a police officer whose journey through the twelve round gauntlet works as a makeshift guided tour through New Orleans’ vast sea of tourist traps. In 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded pro wrestler Randy Orton plays an EMT whose scavenger hunt experience functions as an elaborate anti-drunk driving PSA, one with a bodycount. Curiously, 12 Rounds 3: Lockdown discards the twelve round scavenger hunt concept completely. Pro wrestler Dean Ambrose stars as the film’s good cop protagonist, John Shaw, who finds himself locked inside his own precinct with a gang of crooked narcs looking to end his life before he can expose evidence of their illegal deeds to the proper authorities. In this scenario, the “12 rounds” of the title refers to the dozen bullets in the sole gun Ambrose’s cop has to protect himself with as he faces an armed to the teeth gang of officers who are somewhat similar in character to the gang of DEA scumbags Arnold Schwarzenegger helms in Sabotage.

Removing the high concept silliness of the twelve round scavenger hunt was a huge mistake for 12 Rounds 3: Lockdown. Limiting the action to a single space & replacing the first two films’ mind games with a periodic reminder of how many of Shaw’s twelve bullets are left in the clip (“9 rounds left,” he vocally reminds himself, completely for our benefit) makes the film to be somewhat of a bore. All that’s left to distinguish the film, then is Dean Ambrose’s disappointingly underwhelming screen presence & an unusuallly large stockpile of dead cops. After the guided tour of New Orleans in the first film & the anti-drunk driving diatribe of the second, it’s interesting that 12 Rounds 3 tries to make up for its own narrative shortcomings with an onslaught of bloodshed & gunfights that result in a slew of deceased police officers. Shaw is surprisingly crafty in his cop-killing ways, careful not to waste a single one of his precious twelve rounds. In one scene he beats an officer to death with weights in the presinct’s gym. In another he ends a fight with a vicious head-stabbing. Other kills make thrifty use of electically charged doorknobs & his enemy’s own grenades. My personal favorite moment is when Shaw uses a taser to activate the body of an already dead cop to squeeze the trigger of an assault rifle resting his lifeless hand, creating enough cover fire for Shaw to escape through a comically small air vent. As much as these MacGyver shenanigans can be amusing, it never becomes clear why Shaw doesn’t collect guns or ammo from the crooked cops he kills & instead relies so heavily on those precious twelve bullets of the title.

Dean Ambrose has recently established himself as somewhat of a fan favorite in his run at the WWE. Posed as a sort of pretty boy Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ambrose is a chaotic nuetral element in “sports entertainment”. His character is a whirlwind of bad boy chaos that (heterosexual) female fans seem to find irresistibly attractive, despite the slight hint of a comb-over meant to mask not only the beginnings of male pattern baldness, but also the damage to his forehead left over from his history of extreme, hardcore “death matches” in minor wrestling promotions. Lockdown only makes minimal use of Ambrose’s wrestling background, which (like the disregard for the original 12 Rounds concept) is a damn shame. It is funny, as a fan, that women are the only characters who are nice to his down-on-his-luck cop Shaw in the film and during a boyfight in the precinct’s locker-room there’s a shot of him bodyslamming an opponent through a wooden bench that almost had me chanting “We want tables!,” but otherwise there aren’t nearly enough references to his wrestling career here. Who do they think is watching this movie?

Ambrose’s performance is a calm, brooding sort of good guy bravado that makes little use of the explosive, rebellious personality that makes him so compelling in the ring. Also, although these pro wrestlers are always understandably adept at selling pain during their martial arts sequences, it always surprises me that no use is made of their signature wrestling moves in their motion picture vehicles. The only time I can remember ever seeing that done was The Rock delivering a Rock Bottom to Jason Statham in Furious 7 earlier this year. Why couldn’t Lockdown find a way to work in an Dirty Deeds for Ambrose? It certainly bent over backwards to make its ludicrous locked-inside-a-precinct concept work. Even an elbow drop would’ve been nice, preferably with Ambrose taking out ten opponents at once, as he is known to do. Watching him conserve bullets, hack into the mainframe, and search for a cellphone signal aren’t nearly as entertaining as a little old elbow drop could’ve been. In fact, the film’s villain (Roger R. Cross) is far more exciting than Shaw, providing a full-form example of Roger Ebert’s Talking Killer trope to an often hilarious degree (favorite line: [after punching Shaw] “That was my good cop. Wait til you see my bad cop.”). That’s not to say that Ambrose is entirely underwhelming in Lockdown. At the very least he’s far more compelling than Randy Orton was in12 Rounds 2. It’s just that the film’s muted, stardard action movie concept & his protagonist’s restrictions as a consummate “good guy” make for an overall dull combo that all the dead cops in the world can’t seem to overcome, whether or not their corpses are being tased or exploded.

-Brandon Ledet

12 Rounds 2: Reloaded (2013)

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In my review for the first 12 Rounds entry I found myself asking if I would’ve enjoyed the film at all if it weren’t for its New Orleans setting. There were a couple cheap, but entertaining action movie thrills here or there, but for the most part the ludicrous ways the John Cena vehicle interacted with its local setting were the highlights of the film. That movie’s sequel, 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded strips almost everything enjoyable from its predecessor in favor of an endless slow drip of hopelessly generic action movie tropes. WWE Studios’ decisions to downgrade its star pro wrestler attraction from John Cena to Randy Orton (I like him okay in the ring, but he cannot carry a film on his own the way Cena can), to swap out its theatrical-release budget for a straight-to-DVD distribution, and to disregard any specificity in setting (this could’ve been filmed in any major city, unlike the first 12 Rounds, which is intrinsically tied to New Orleans) all sink the ship here, leaving very little of interest in the way of entrainment, mindless or otherwise.

Very little has changed in the set-up of this “reloaded” version of the 12 Rounds concept. Orton plays an buff EMT instead of a buff supercop, but he still gets wrapped up in a terrorist-conceived scavenger hunt that drags him all over the city (whatever city that may be) in an effort to rescue his potential-victim wife. Where did this concept of the 12 round scavenger hunt originate? Do terrorists collab on this kind of stuff? No matter. It’s a yawn of a journey with very few bright spots, none of which touch the heights of the first film’s silliness. Even the film’s villain is a downgrade from legit-actor Aiden Gillen’s turn in the first 12 Rounds; this time we’re being threatened by a much more generic bald dude with a leather fetish who has very specific ideas about drunk driving & political corruption.

The villain, no matter how typical, is at the very least a interesting oddity in an otherwise dull proceeding. His determination to turn the film into an anti-drunk driving PSA is at the very least not something I’m used to in my action movie dreck. There’s also some interesting cheapening of the general vibe, including some sleazy, nude hotel sex that felt wildly out of place in such a tame picture & a makeshift stoner sidekick that turns out to be more than he initially seems. The only true kickass moment in the film’s entire runtime, however, is a brief gag in which Orton employs some of his pro wrestling acumen & body slams a cop onto the hood of a car. That’s a two second clip I would’ve much rather experienced as a .gif, though, whereas I got many more small moments of light amusement from the first entry in the franchise. 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded should be reserved solely for Randy Orton’s most rabid fans & generic action movie buffs who really, really hate drunk driving. Otherwise, you’re better off avoiding it entirely.

-Brandon Ledet

12 Rounds (2009)

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three star

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Generic Action Movie #8 (I counted!) from WWE Studios was a (surprise!) John Cena vehicle meant to follow up his acting debut in The Marine. When considered outside of time & cultural context, 12 Rounds has very little going for it as a genre film. Its villain, played by (The Wire & Game of Thrones vet) Aidan Gillen, is mildly interesting in his playful scavenger hunt that he uses to keep Cena’s supercop off his trail, but the plot isn’t anything we haven’t seen done better in the past, particularly in Die Hard 3: Die Hard with a Vengeance. There are explosions (!!!) and helpless wives used as collatoral/potential victims (!!!), but nothing too exceptional to be found therein. No, what makes 12 Rounds distinct is the place & time of its setting.

Filmed in post-Katrina New Orleans on the back of those sweet, sweet Louisiana film tax credits, 12 Rounds is a potentially fun watch for locals looking to roll their eyes at an action movie determined to cram every possible New Orleanian cliché (short of maybe beignets & gumbo) into a single picture that honestly has nothing to do with the city outside of its setting. Our tour guide for this trip is NOPD officer John Cena (God, I love the way that sounds), who shows us through such great landmarks as “The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway”, Algiers Point, Decatur, a brief glimpse of The Saturn Bar, Bourbon Street (of course), etc. Sometimes the movie accidentally gets New Orleans right, especially while stumbling through the French Quarter’s drunks & street performers, but it’s most entertaining when it gets the city horribly wrong.

For instance, there’s a scene where Cena’s potential-victim wife boards the ferry at Algiers Point & he can’t reach her in time, so he steals a car, drives down the levy an somehow crosses the Crescent City Connection before the ferry reaches the other side. Incredible. There’s also some silliness involving using Katrina X-code markings (which are gravely serious business) as clues on the scavenger hunt that felt particularly tasteless. The most ludicrous detail of all, however, is an effort in which supercop Cena has to stop a runaway streetcar on Canal before it “smashes through” the end of the line. The strained effort to make the streetcar look fast & dangerous might be the height of the film’s New Orleanian silliness.

It’s difficult to tell if non-locals will find any enjoyment in this inaccurate foolishness, but there are a couple non-New Orleans moments of camp to be found here or there in 12 Rounds. The way Cena talks shit about punching Gillen’s mad terrorist in the face feels like a goofy extension of his pro wrestling promo work. There’s a scene in which he has to drive a bomb to the Mississippi River before it destroys “three city blocks”, but once he tosses it underwater, it barely makes a splash. In the grand finale, as Cena’s supercop & his wife are exiting a helicopter, she shouts “You land it, bitch” & the couple jump without parachutes into a rooftop pool as the sky rains money & fire around them. These moments may be mildly amusing, but they are by no means the height of action movie hijinks. Because of the exaggerated use of its setting, 12 Rounds‘ best chance for entertainment is in perplexing New Orleanian action movie fans looking for an incredulous chuckle or two as a uniformed John Cena takes them on an impossible city tour.

-Brandon Ledet

The Backyard (2003)

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fourstar

Pro wrestling is a form of escapism for me (and countless others), a hyperreality in which the eternal battle of Good vs Evil is played out weekly in a something that resembles a combination of a soap opera & a violent ballet. The violent physicality of that equation is of course a large part of wrestling’s appeal, but some promotions push that violence to a level that I can’t stomach as a fan. “Hardcore”, blood-soaked wrestling bouts often delve into some grotesque barbarism that’s difficult to stomach for someone much more interested in the sport as escapist entertainment than as source for macho street cred. Back in the late 90s & early 2000s, however, when pro wrestling was enjoying one of its peak moments of cultural success, there were countless youngsters who were way too into the bloodier aspects of “sports entertainment” to the point where they were risking their bodies & lives to be active participants.

The small-scale documentary The Backyard tries its best to capture the chilling phenomenon of early 00s teens attempting to recreate extreme, hardcore “death matches” in their own backyards. Each participant voices dreams of earning fame in the ECW or the WWF (now the WWE), but what they’re more or less doing instead is senselessly beating the shit out of each other with barbed wire, plywood, lightbulbs, thumbtacks, mouse traps, tables, chairs, and fire for modest Internet fame. It’s genuinely disgusting. These are young, overly confident kids with bedrooms covered in pro wrestling toys, posters, and bedsheets, growing up in a time before a publicly-traded WWE would repeatedly warn them not to try their stunts at home. There is some mimicry of the pro leagues’ catchphrases & over-the-top characters in the kids’ creative gimmicks that include some interesting concoctions like Bongo: The Pot-Smoking Monster & A.D.D. Dave, but mostly the kids are trying to make a name for themselves by trading VHS tapes of their most brutal stunts over the Internet & local cable access television.

To be fair, not all backyard promotions covered in the documentary are entirely grotesque. There’s a pair of brothers who kinda cutely chokeslam their mother onto mattresses & create barbed wire covered plywood gauntlets in the middle of the desert to entertain a small handful of friends. An upstate New York promotion is a world away from the brutal chair & lightbulb smashings and even includes moral support & spectatorship from the youngsters’ parents & teachers. Then there’s (the true star of the show) The Lizard, a charismatic young father with some legitimate athletic talent & screen presence, who’s mildly concerned for his own safety at least for his young daughter’s sake. There’s plenty of darker personalities mucking up any unintended wholesomeness, however, including an especially gruesome crew of young juggalos who liken their violent wrestling habits to the “fun” of “gaybashing” & a heartless 17 year old promoter who takes advantage of his young employees & somewhat ironically calls himself the “Vince McMahon of backyard wrestling”. Most of the kids profiled here are generally likeable & interesting as subjects, though, especially The Lizard & a kid named Scar who uses hardcore wrestling as a form of therapy to help himself emotionally recover from a childhood spent under the knife due to liver complications.

There are very few voices of reason included here; The Backyard mostly allows its hubris-mad interviewees to voice their dreams without consequence or ridicule. Pro wrestling legend Rob Van Dam is the only authority figure with any clout and he downplays what happens in backyard promotions as worlds away from what he does for a living. He encourages the kids to treat wrestling like any other professional trade & that “You have to go to wrestling school” if you truly want to make it. Besides RVD’s entirely sensible pleas for logic, there’s really only one other voice of dissent, a contestant’s apoplectic mother who cries things like “Not the thumbtacks! Not the thumbtacks!”, but her contribution is much more amusing than it is effective.

Moralizing is mostly absent from The Backyard‘s horror show of teens putting themselves in needless danger & the documentary smartly instead lets the disturbing facts speak for themselves. A lot of the film’s brutality is difficult to watch, but there’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating historical document of a very specific DIY pro wrestling culture that may still exist, but is certainly less prevalent than it once was. I may not have enjoyed every minute of the film as entertainment (due to my personal squeamishness for real-life gore), but it made strong enough of an impression overall that I’m considering making room for it on my list of all time favorite pro wrestling documentaries.

-Brandon Ledet