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

Card Subject to Change: Pro Wrestling’s Underground (2010)

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three star

Although Card Subject to Change boasts the subtitle “Pro Wrestling’s Underground”, it does very little to define the landscape of underground wrestling as a whole. The small-scale documentary instead mostly follows a single New Jersey indie promotion called NWS (National Wrestling Superstars) with only a few familiar underground faces & former legends popping in from time to time to afford the project some wide-scope legitimacy. Card Subject to Change is pretty decent for a financially-limited wrestling documentary, but its list of notable interviewees & exemplifying tragic stories are likely to only be worthwhile for the already-converted. Anyone looking for an informational gateway into the world of pro wrestling or a history lesson as to where or what the indies have been or meant in the past will likely be disappointed, but ingrained smarks are likely to be generally pleased by what is admittedly a cheap little charmer.

Card Subject to Change may not capture the entire history of local, indie wrestling circuits & how they evolved into (read: were destroyed by) the nationally-televised promotions most people are familiar with (for that I recommend 1999’s The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling), but it does have a nifty glimpse into what the remains of that world looks like in the 2010s. The drop tile ceilings & wooden panelling of VFW halls and the corrugated roofs & raised basketball hoops of middle school gymnasiums set a definitive tone for the limited scope of the indie pro wrestling circuit. As I’ve already griped in my review of Body Slam, though, the bloated spectacle of mainstream promotions isn’t what makes pro wrestling special. It’s entirely possible to put on a great show without the opulence & fireworks of the WWE.

Speaking of putting on a great show, the promoter of NWS that eats up most of the film’s interview time, Johnny Falco, is a rare breed of show business everyman. Starting as a roller derby announcer, Falco tried to make it as a wrestler himself before finding his calling as a promoter. He makes no bones about his humble place in pro wrestling’s “minor leagues”, openly admitting that NWS mostly serves as a limbo for elderly legends, performers between major gigs, and newcomers who are just learning the trade. He poses the indie circuit as the start & end of a career cycle. It’s where wrestlers begin & often conclude their runs, but rarely where they see their greatest heights.

On the performers’ end of the interviewees, a relative unknown named Trent Acid provides most of the film’s insight as a subject. Although Card Subject to Change tends to glorify the indie circuit as a concept, it doesn’t shy away from its downfalls either. The sickening brutality of certain “hardcore” promotions & some on-screen steroid abuse both stick out as examples of where the film pokes holes in the indies’ splendor, but it’s Trent Acid’s specific story that gives the film a face & a narrative to exemplify the more problematic side of the “minor leagues”. A grungy Raven or Hardy Boyz type, Acid made quite a name for himself on the indie circuit, but allowed substance abuse & domestic troubles keep him from “making it big”. Instead of using independent promotions as a start to the cycle of a typical career, he made it a lifestyle & the results are tragic.

Besides the insightful glimpses into Falco’s & Acid’s lives, Card Subject to Change features an interesting list of interview subjects including Terry Funk, Necro Butcher (who had a terrifying turn in The Wrestler), Paul Bearer (billed here as Percy Pringle III), and Sabu (who now eerily looks like a drug-addicted HHH) among others. The movie mostly sidesteps the horrendous soundtrack problem I generally associate with wrestling documentaries (the end credits song is legitimately pretty great if nothing else), but for the most part it isn’t a particularly special example of its genre,  form-wise. Outside of the insights of Falco’s & Acid’s lives, the film mostly just sort of checks in on its subjects, quickly updating the audience on where things were around 2010, larger context be damned. If you aren’t already invested in the world of pro wrestling before you arrive to the film, you aren’t likely to get much out of this limited scope, but if you’re used to marking out on a weekly basis, there’s plenty of interest to chew on, especially in the cases of Falco & Acid.

-Brandon Ledet

From The PG Era to a Solid R: John Cena’s Promising Career in Raunchy Comedies

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There weren’t that many surprises for me in the new Amy Schumer-penned romcom Trainwreck. As was typical with almost all Judd Apatow comedies, the film was generally pleasant and supported a wealth of great gags & a wonderful cast, but also was in desperate need of some third-act editing. Recent over-exposure to Schumer’s more unrestrained writing on her sketch comedy TV show had me looking for something a little more (excuse the pun) off the rails from Trainwreck than the usual Apatow fare, though, so my expectations for something more unconventional were more than a little off base. I liked it; I just wasn’t caught unprepared for most of its content.

However, I was taken aback by the comedic performance of pro wrestler/in-the-flesh superhero John Cena. My surprise with Cena began before even the opening credits, when a trailer for an upcoming Amy Poehler/Tina Fey comedy called Sisters featured the typically clean-cut wrestler decorated in neck tats & a beanie, informing a hot-to-trot Fey that his safe word is “keep going”. That was just the start. In Trainwreck itself, Cena is even more subversive in dismantling his squeaky clean persona by appearing as he normally would in public, but with much raunchier content backing him up. It was difficult to determine from the film’s trailer how just how much of Cena we’d be seeing outside of that quotable “Mark Wahlberg” one-liner, but it turns out that we get to see way more of him than most people would’ve asked for. His character, Steven, engages (with varying degrees of success) in dirty talk, fully-nude on-screen lovemaking, undercutting questions about his own sexuality, and an intense pantomime of an ejaculation that will . . . not . . . end. As a fan of raunchy sex comedies, I found these gags just the right tone of playfully amusing. As a pro wrestling fan, I found them downright shocking.

For anyone who (understandably) has not been paying attention to the WWE since the creative heights of its so-called Attitude Era of the late 90s/early 00s, John Cena has more or less dominated the company’s narrative for the past decade. Shifting away from some of the more gruesomely violent & overtly sexual content of yesteryear, WWE sorta-unofficially promoted Cena as the face of the company. With his classic military looks & his character’s (almost) forgotten beginnings as a white rapper, Cena has been scripted within the ring to be more or less a superhero for young children to look up to. His stubborn refusal to “turn heel”, constant sloganizing about never giving up & always being respectful, and his never-ending championship victories appeal directly to younger fans, which drives a lot of older, nerdier smarks to disgust, deeming his reign as The PG Era. This behavior has spilled outside the ring as well. In his WWE Studios movies, Cena has always played the unblemished hero, like in his action movie vehicle The Marine, or a superhero version of himself, like in the Scooby-Doo/WWE crossover where he defeats a robotic ghost bear & an Indiana Jones style bolder with his bare hands. Then, there’s the fact that he in “real life” has more Make-a-Wish Foundation charity work than any other celebrity on record. In short, he is a ludicrously wholesome persona inside the ring & out.

The thing about Cena is that he really is likeable. There’s just way too much content out there about him being likeable. If you religiously follow WWE’s two flagship shows, Raw & SmackDown, (God help you) then there’s six hours of content on a weekly basis about how likeable John Cena is. And that’s not even counting the monthly Pay-Per-Views or the reality shows. That’s gotta wear even the most enthusiastic viewers down after a few years. Fortunately, though, things seem to be (gradually) changing. Cena’s niche at the company has been looking more like a respectable midcard position for the past few months (although, as I’m typing this now it looks like they’re pushing another championship match for him at this year’s SummerSlam) and he’s been putting in some of the best in-ring work of his career & helping get over lesser-known talents through his recent John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge angle. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how he’s subverting his spotless image through comedies like Sisters & Trainwreck.

I first noticed this shift during the last few episodes of the now-legendary NBC comedy Parks & Recreation, where Cena appeared as himself on the episode “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” (one of my favorite episodes of the series). Cena did little to taint his superhero image in that appearance, but there was a spark of hope there in his willingness to make a fool of himself, when he so often manages to land on top. It also helped that Parks boasted a deep roster of talented comedians that could land Cena bit parts in worthwhile bigscreen comedies through networking. It’s tough to say whether it was Poehler’s Parks connection that helped Cena land his part in Sisters or the odd fact that Amy Schumer once dated pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler that helped him land his persona-shedding role in Trainwreck, but it couldn’t have hurt in either situation. No matter what the cause, Cena now seems to have his foot in the door for a life on the bigscreen (as opposed to WWE Studios’ straight-to-VOD dreck) and his career could be at a pivotal point because of it.

It’s a very rare feat for the WWE to successfully launch a career in Hollywood. Hulk Hogan is certainly the earliest example, but even he had a tough time making a lasting go of it after his ridiculous start in titles like No Holds Barred & Rocky III. Outside of a couple 90s goof-offs like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, he hasn’t made much of a memorable mark outside the ring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, on the other hand, has been a much clearer success story with his roles in franchises like The Fast & The Furious and G.I. Joe. Even The Rock’s been struggling to branch out & express himself as an artist, though. Despite a few wildly off-the-wall turns in films like Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, he’s been landing a lot of roles he would have been typecast in over a decade ago. Schlock like Hercules & San Andreas aren’t nearly enough of a step-up from his days as The Scorpion King, considering the talents he’s put on film in his his stranger roles.

Both The Rock & Hulk Hogan have long struggled to expand the scope of their acting careers once they got their foot in the door and now it’s John Cena’s turn to fight that battle. Starting his career in major films by degrading himself in raunchy comedies is honestly a brilliant first step in that direction. Cena’s showing us that his spotless superhero persona does not necessarily define him as a talent. Let’s face it; a lot of the kids who would’ve latched onto the original version of his current “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” routine in its initial run would be in at least their late teens now, so it makes total sense that his content would grow up with them. I could be wrong & Cena could be slipping back into his old ways (starting as soon as SummerSlam next month), but there’s at the very least a glimmer of hope for change in his roles in Sisters & Trainwreck.

I’ve recently grown to like Cena despite my initial misgivings. His repetitive nature really isn’t all that unique within the world of pro wrestling, after all, and he can be really entertaining when he puts in his best work. Besides, it’s really difficult to deny the power of those Make-a-Wish numbers. I’d just also like to see him continue to branch out into these filthy, degenerate characters in goofy comedies until it’s no longer jarring to the audience. It might be his best chance at establishing himself outside of his roles as a “sports entertainer” and an eternal “good guy”. As Hogan & The Rock have proved time & time again, the WWE ring will always be there with open arms for whenever he needs it. There’s no reason, then, not to go out there & make himself vulnerable in a gross-out comedy or two. Judging by his work in Trainwreck alone, he’s already off to a great start.

-Brandon Ledet

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

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onehalfstar

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It was difficult not to go into Leprechaun: Origins without very specific expectations. Given its pedigree as a WWE Studios horror film starring little person pro wrestler Hornswoggle as the titular leprechaun, a role once played by a wisecracking Warwick Davis, it’d be fair to assume you know everything about the film before you even watch it. If you follow the WWE on a somewhat regular basis you might know Hornswoggle as a sort of a walking punchline. The performer is less recognizable for the quality of his wrestling performances (like, say, El Torito) and more for being involved in some of the promotion’s all-time worst storylines, such as ones where he was revealed to be Vince McMahon’s illegitimate son & the Anonymous Raw General Manager. Thanks to this kind of groan-inducing little person humor that Hornswoggle’s usually used for, it’s even already easy to picture him in the leprechaun costume (or to just Google image search it) and just sit back waiting for the Warwick Davis-style quips to be plugged into the script.

I’ll give credit to WWE Studios for this: they most definitely subverted my expectations here, a rare feat for the movie studio. Instead of dressing Hornswoggle up like Warwick Davis & providing him a bunch of Freddy Krueger/Chucky style one-liners about he gold, Leprechaun: Origins gave him a full-bodied prosthetic makeover. The pro wrestler/human punchline was reconstructed to look & sound like a shaved burn victim gorilla that did little more than bite, hiss, scratch, and growl. It seems that I may have spoken too soon when I said that remakes like Poltergeist weren’t doing enough to update their ancestor’s formulas in a means to justify their own existence.

Leprechaun: Origins is a far cry from its actually-fun predecessors like Leprechaun 2: Back 2 tha Hood & Leprechaun 4: In Space, so it does at least sidestep criticisms of being a shameless retread. The problem is that instead of retreading ground already covered by the Leprechaun franchise in particular, Origins instead removed everything that was unique about it & simplified the formula to the point where it felt like a retread of every monster movie ever. In a lot of ways this crime is far worse than the sins of Poltergeist’s by-the-numbers mediocrity.

Outside its Irish setting & a throwaway one-liner about Lucky Charms, there’s absolutely nothing of note in this film to distinguish it from any other cabin in the woods horror film I can name. Even the hideous get-up they use to conceal Honswoggle is oddly downplayed, so that most of the monster’s screen time is through a first-person POV cam à la Pitch Black. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I would almost rather they had just dressed Hornswoggle up in the cliché leprechaun costume and have him tell a bunch of lame ass jokes for 90 min. At least there would be the small chance of the film being fun (or at the very least memorable).

-Brandon Ledet

Russell Madness (2015)

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fourstar

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Once upon a time Air Bud (known by his friends as “Buddy”) was merely a simple golden retriever with an inordinate talent for playing basketball. Not to be pigeonholed, Buddy gradually proved himself to be more of a canine Bo Jackson than just a run-of-the-mill basketball-playing dog, and found formidable careers in football, soccer, baseball, and volleyball. Even more impressive, Buddy found a way to extend his career beyond the playing field, a struggle that a lot of athletes fail to overcome, and has established a second life as a big-time movie executive. At first, Buddy made his film production choices based solely on nepotism, and released six vanity projects starring his own puppies, in what has been labeled as the Air Buddies series. Now, after seven years of straight-to-DVD movies that featured his offspring venturing into unlikely territory like space travel & supernatural crime fighting, Air Bud has finally gotten back to his roots: sports movies. Branching off from his work with Disney and rebranding his film productions as Air Bud Entertainment, Buddy has finally released his first film that does not feature his own progeny: a pro wrestling comedy called Russell Madness. As evidenced by the film’s prominence on the Air Bud entertainment website & this picture of Buddy working hard as a big time movie executive, he could not be prouder of the results.

As the title indicates, Russell Madness strays from Air Bud Entertainment’s usual preference for golden retriever protagonists by casting a Jack Russell terrier in the titular role of a rescued pound dog who finds fame & fortune in an unexpected pro wrestling career. As the title does not indicate, but as you can see in the film’s trailer, the character’s wrestling name is actually “Russell Mania”, not “Russell Madness”. The phrase “Russell Mania” is repeated constantly throughout the film, echoed even in Russell’s killer entrance music (a vital asset to any pro wrestler), but the phrase “Russell Madness” isn’t uttered even once. Why the name change, you ask? As a shrewd business dog, Air Bud was obviously side-stepping any potential legal conflicts with references to the WWE’s WrestleMania brand, dog-based puns or not. That doesn’t mean that WWE got the last laugh here. Oh, no. Air Bud Entertainment not only kept all of the verbal “Russell Mania” references in its debut feature, but also found more subversive ways to criticize the “sports entertainment” giant that robbed them of their movie’s intended title.

Although Russell Madness does not refer to the WWE directly, again thanks to Buddy’s shrewd business sense, its main conflict is built around a WWE surrogate. In the movie’s folklore, all local & regional wrestling promotions were eaten up by an amoral juggernaut that built its empire by violating long-respected business treaties of non-competition. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly how the WWE rose to prominence in the early 80s. Russell Madness even named its fake wrestling promotion the Wrestlers United Federation, or WUF. This not only serves as a reference to WWE’s past as the WWF, but also finds room for another stellar dog pun (“woof”, for those following along), of which there are plenty.  Now that’s efficiency! Just in case that wasn’t enough to drive the point home, a Vince McMahon stand-in, Mick Vaugn (played by Cliff from Cheers), is the evil capitalist head of WUF & makes constant references to his business as more “entertainment” than wrestling. He even goes so far as to ruin the illusion of the “sport”’ by suggesting that (gasp!) the results are fixed and the performers are (double gasp!) only in it for the money.

This little slice of pro wrestling history (with a talking, wrasslin’ dog added for flavor) may seem like familiar territory for even the least committed of marks, but to a child it sounds like ancient history. When the father figure of Russell’s adoptive family recaps the WUF takeover of his own father’s business as a bedtime story, he starts, “Back in his heyday, in a time called ‘The 80s’ . . . “ and instead of imagining the world thirty years ago, his kid (played by one of Mad Men‘s many Bobby Drapers) imagines a sort of dust-covered vaudevillian aesthetic that places the events about a century back. Indeed, even the Ferraro Family Wrestling (an Italian slant on the Guerreros?) arena looks like an ancient vaudevillian theater (that’s in incredible shape for a supposedly blighted building) or as the dad puts it, “midcentury guido”. There’s no denying that this one classy joint, especially once Russell’s family cleans it up & revives the old Ferraro family business. Once again, the comparison between the charming, warmhearted wrestling indies and the cold, mammoth WUF is made clear in how much more character the old-timey digs have than the blue-lit corporate arenas.

At this point it’d be fair for you to have a few lingering questions like, sure the arena is swell, but what about the wrasslin’? And how does a dog even wrestle in the first place? And we know about Russell’s entrance music, but what’s his signature move? First of all, Russell can wrestle. Oh boy can he wrestle. He’s a good boy, yes sir. Who’s a good boy? Russell is. That’s right. As a Jack Russell terrier, Russell obviously isn’t going to be dishing out any suplexes or pile-drivers, but he gets by on some surprisingly adept (CGI-assisted) choke holds and rope work. He may not have the height, strength, charisma, body mass, opposable thumbs, or lung capacity normally associated with pro wrestling’s top acts, but Russell uses his light frame’s aerial abilities to their full advantage and he’s got three very important things than many a wrestling legend have made careers out of in the past: novelty, heart, and raw talent. Of course novelty, heart, and raw talent alone won’t make a champion, but Russell finds a great manager in a (talking!) monkey (voiced by Will Sasso!) who has been haunting the Ferraro Family Wrestling arena since it shut down in the 80s, just waiting for a young talent to shape into a wrestling god. With his monkey manager’s help Russell proves himself champion in a sea of lesser opponents that include a mummy, a cave man, a pirate, a clown, an escaped convict, and a California surfer who says things like “Dude, that’s gnarly.” He even has a unique finisher: he pisses on the competition. It’s not a very physically taxing move, but it is wickedly brutal in its own demoralizing way.

If watching a (talking!) Jack Russell terrier fight his way to the top of the pro wrestling world with the help of his (talking!) monkey manager and a family who loves him sounds like a hokey mess to you, please keep in mind that Air Bud Entertainment is primarily made for children. Russell Madness is just one of the many hokey messes of children’s media, but it’s one with fairly deep love & understanding for both the art of pro wrestling & the art of the pun. Comedy workhorse Fred Willard resurrects his clueless sports announcer role from Best in Show here to deliver some of the best puns of the film, including a personal favorite of mine that involves chimney sweeps. That doesn’t mean he gets to have all the fun, though. Russell even gets a good one in himself when he tells the film’s central heel “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Of course, there’s some occasionally tedious humor to the movie that will cause many-a-eye roll (Will Sasso’s literal monkeyshines certainly push it), but that’s to be expected in a straight-to-VOD kid’s movie that was greenlit & produced by a retired-athlete golden retriever. What’s more surprising is how much of Russell Madness strangely works. There’s a particular shot of the child protagonist (Bobby Draper IV) enjoying his birthday cake with a life-size cutout of his absent father that has a particularly strong pathos to it. Also, as silly as the idea of a wrestling dog might be to some people, it works surprisingly well at garnering heat for his opponents. What heel behavior could possibly trump beating up a dog for money?

If you can get past the cheap CGI weirdness, the awful little moving mouths on the talking animals (à la The Voices), and the idea that people would somehow be more impressed by a wrestling dog than a talking monkey with managerial skills, you might find yourself enjoying this little wrestling cinema oddity. Personally, I marked out to the point where I was totally on board with even its most ham-fisted messages like “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” and “The strongest tag team is family.” Film producer “Air Bud” Buddy may not have touched every heart with his tale of a dog who takes the pro wrestling world by storm and finds a family to call his own (or even got the film title he wanted), but he at least touched my heart. I’m actually not entirely convinced that Russell Madness wasn’t made specifically with me in mind & it’s highly likely that it will remain my favorite “bad” movie of 2015. Once again, Buddy took it to the hoop.

-Brandon Ledet

The Sheik (2014)

wrasslin

three star

Much like with hip-hop or viral content, professional wrestling is all about self-promotion. In pro wrestling, you don’t necessarily have to be the best, you just have to convince your audience that you’re the best. Just ask Hulk Hogan. As the 80s era’s choice for the face of the company (that company being the WWE, of course), Hogan seemingly tore through every formidable opponent tossed his way, from Andre the Giant to “Macho Man” Randy Savage to Zeus. His rapid rise in popularity caused a version of mild cultural hysteria that was even afforded its own name. The Hulkster was smartly branded as not only a single wrestler, but an entire movement. Hulkamania was an 80s phenomenon that gave birth to both the annual cultural juggernaut WrestleMania and the lesser, round-the-year spectacle of WWE as a household sport. Hulk Hogan’s shameless self-promotion in the 1980s built that empire, supported with major backing from the multi-million dollar company pulling the strings, of course.

Last year’s profile documentary The Sheik’s most ambitious (and yet still believable) claim is that the success of Hulkamania (and, by extension, WrestleMania) was largely dependent on the appeal of Hogan’s main opponent, The Iron Sheik. Playing off of Americans’ Islamophobic prejudices during the Carter era Iranian hostage crisis, The Iron Sheik is credited here for being the ideal heel for Hogan, essentially single-handedly putting him over with the crowd. Born in Iran in the 1940s, Hossein Khosrow “The Sheik” Ali Vaziri was raised in a culture where traditional wrestling was a national obsession, where a healthy body meant a healthy state. Describing his teenage life in The Sheik, Ali Vaziri says “I was married to the wrestling mat. I didn’t care about girls; I cared about wrestling.” It was this dedication that landed him the position as bodyguard for the Iranian shah and, after emigration, an all-American coach for the Olympic wrestling team. The Iron Sheik was a mild-mannered American hero with an exceedingly sweet Midwestern wife & three adorable daughters before he found his true calling as a pro wrestling heel (a “bad guy”) that perfectly counteracted The Hulkster’s “I am a real American” persona simply by being a foreigner (nevermind that he has a depthless love for the country that he adopted).

The Sheik is not only credited in this flattering profile as contributing to the success of Hulkamania, but also for creating the priceless term “jabroni” (later popularized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, of course) as well as the arguably-more-important public revelation that pro wrestling is, in fact, rigged. Once upon a time the ultra-macho ballet known as pro wrestling was assumed to be a true-to-life physical competition until (as this doc tells it) The Iron Sheik & supposed opponent “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were arrested together on a beer & drug binge. It was the first time a face & a heel were ever proven to be hanging out as buds outside the squared circle. This “revelation” eventually lead to WWE magnate Vince McMahon seeking (and achieving) the tax breaks that come with being classified as a form of entertainment and not a professional sport.

If The Sheik is to be believed its subject would be credited as the sole launching pad for the very existence of modern pro wrestling itself and not just as the highly effective, very much timely heel that’s most likely closer to the truth. However, it isn’t until the film relaxes on the revisionist history lesson and profiles The Sheik’s more recent transition from drug addict with a broken body & a heart of gold to reformed family man that it loses a good deal of its credibility. It’s true that The Iron Sheik has a truly fascinating Twitter, YouTube and Howard Stern presence, but the movie conveniently sidesteps the racist & homophobic tendencies of his statements in those forums. As a journalistic, documentary endeavor, The Sheik fails to uncover answers that doesn’t support its central thesis that The Iron Sheik is 100% awesome, no faults. As a rose-colored profile of a very storied man who calls everyone “Bubba”, never says anything offensive about minorities, and most definitely quit mountains of crack cocaine, it’s much more effective. Supporting interviews with pro wrestling staples like Jim Ross, The Rock (who was apparently babysat by The Sheik’s wife as a child), Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Mick “Mankind” Foley, Brett “The Hitman” Hart, Jimmy Hart, and King Kong Bundy are sure to please any “sports entertainment” fan who are looking for a collection of anecdotes and not a controversial expose. The Sheik may be an exercise in shameless self-promotion, but that’s far from a new concept in the world of pro wrestling and (much like with the “sport” it covers) it’s a much more satisfactory proposition if you know what you’re in for before you arrive.

-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

The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown (2015)

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threehalfstar

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As I noted in my review of Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery, professional wrestling & animation were practically made for one another. Their shared love for campy violence, garish costumes, and corny jokes make them a heavenly pair. Crossing over the WWE brand with characters from the classic Hanna-Barbera universe is even more of a genius move, as it allows for some of wrestling & animation’s most over-the-top personalities to coexist in a single space. Characters like Scooby-Doo, Barney Rubble, The Undertaker, and “The Devil’s Favorite Demon”/”See No Evil” Kane are ridiculous enough in isolation. When they share a screen it’s downright magical (in the trashiest way possible). In Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery this pungently cheesy combination allowed for John Cena’s superhero strength & Sin Cara’s apparent ability to fly match the Mystery, Inc. gang’s seemingly supernatural monsters (in that particular case a “g-g-g-ghost b-b-b-bear”). In The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown the combo not only connects both The FlintstonesHoneymooners-style comedy and the WWE’s complete detachment from reality with their roots in working class escapism, it also revels in the most important element in all of wrestling & animation, the highest form of comedy: delicious, delicious puns.

Let’s just get the list of Stone Age wrestler puns out of the way early. The Flinstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown features the likes of CM Punkrock, John Cenastone, Brie & Nikki Boulder, Marble Henry, Daniel Bryrock, Rey Mysteriopal, and Vince McMagma. CM Punk & Mark Henry even adapt their catchphrases to the Stone Age setting, calling themselves “The Best in the Prehistoric World” & “The World’s Strongest Caveman” respectively. Daniel Bryan makes no adjustments to his go-to “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chant (not a lot of room for wordplay there) but it’s put to great comical use anyway. Speaking of refusing to play along with the Stone Age puns, The Undertaker appears in Stone Age SmackDown simply as “The Undertaker”. I’m not sure if they had problems working a great pun in there (Try it at home. It’s a tough one.) but the side-effect is kind of charming anyway: it makes it seem as if The Undertaker has been alive forever, just sort of skulking around graveyards, waiting for a wrestling match.

In the Scooby-Doo crossover the WWE Superstars are already world famous and idolized, even more so than in reality; they even have their own WWE City complete with a Mount Rushmore style tribute to the championship belt. In The Flinstones crossover they’re just working class Joes (with impeccable physiques) that live milquetoast lives before a wrestling promotion is built around them. The wrestling promotion in question is FFE (Fred Flintstone Entertainment). Fred builds the enterprise from the ground up as a get-rich-quick scheme meant to fund a couples’ vacation to Rockapulco. As a WWE stand-in, FFE does a great job of poking fun at itself. At one point Fred is giving a pep-talk to his Superstars, urging them to “tear each other’s heads off . . . in a family-friendly way, of course,” satirizing WWE’s self-contradictory brand of PG violence. FFE differs in WWE in other ways, of course, as it’s a very small organization just trying its darnedest to put on a good show for the folks out there in the audience, which is a far cry from the real-life juggernaut’s billion dollar industry. There’s a good bit of blue-collar workplace humor towards the beginning of the film that recalls the The Flintstones’ Honeymooners roots and that vibe carries on nicely into the mom & pop wrestling promotion Fred creates once the plot picks up speed.

The only thing Stone Age SmackDown gets horrifically wrong from the original Flinstones series is Barney Rubble’s voice. The other characters aren’t perfectly imitated, but they’re at least passable. Barney is just not the same person at all, trading in his dopey baritone for a nasally “wise guy, eh?” voice that feels like a violation of the original character’s nature. The rest of the film is pretty much on point, though. In addition to the rock puns & working class humor mentioned above, the movie features enough Rube Goldberg contraptions, dinosaurs as appliances, visual gags (“We’ve got bigger fish to fry” is a pretty great one that you can probably imagine without the image), and swanky-kitsch music that feel true to the original cartoon. In a lot of ways, Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery brought the Hanna-Barbera characters to WWE’s world and Stone Age SmackDown is almost an exact reversal, with pro wrestlers making the time-traveling journey to Bedrock. There are a few modern updates to the Flintstones’ visual language (like wall-mounted TVs and computer tablets), but they don’t do much to distract from the show’s classic charms. In fact, the digital HD update provides the format a very vivid, vibrant look that intensifies the original series’ pop art appeal immensely.

Even though the movie is mercifully short it still makes time for fun tangents like CM Punkrock’s world-class promos, history’s first cage match (between The Undertaker & Barney Rubble of course), and some absurd sexual leering at “The Boulder Twins”. It’s a much quicker and less complicated film than the Scooby-Doo crossover and all the better for it. Plus, I really need these crossovers to work out long enough to get that Stardust Meets The Jetsons movie I’ve been clammering for. I desparately need that to happen so, as Fred puts it in Stone Age SmackDown, “Let’s yabba dabba do this” y’all. Keep these goofy wrestling cartoons coming.

-Brandon Ledet

Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery (2014)

scooby-doo

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