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Beyond the Mat

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 17 March 2000

Directed and written by Barry W. Blaustein.

Featuring Terry Funk, 
Mick Foley, Jake Roberts, 
Vince McMahon, 
Roland Alexander.

Newbie director Barry W. Blaustein, a Hollywood screenwriter and Eddie Murphy collaborator (contributing to The Nutty Professor, Boomerang, Coming to America, and Police Academy 2) appears right at the start in this in-your-bloody-face documentary: "I don’t know why I like it. I just always have." No, not Jello, although we’ve always been told just about everyone loves that gelatinous diet delight. Look again:  the title’s not Beyond the Fat. The subject of Beyond the Mat is another type of slime, some pleasant stuff that slides down easy; some disheartening matter full of choking, and quite a bit that induces stomach churning. Although he doesn’t answer the question as simply as he asks it, I’d guess Blaustein’s, and millions of others', fascination lies in the semi-athletic, semi-entertainment aspects of professional wrestling -- the modern day equivalent of the Roman gladiator games (which director Ridley Scott tackles this summer in Gladiator, with Russell Crowe). If you and your kids live in a Pokemon vacuum, this film is not for you. For those infatuated with the UPN Smackdown and the World Wrestling Federation billion-dollar business, this documentary should be at the top of your films-to-see list. As for me, I think the writer-director has done a great job ripping bare the muscular underbelly of the WWF and, to lesser degree, the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling), bodyslamming their real life fictional blend of truth and consequences. Two broken thumbs up.

In case watchers of Smackdown (and USA Network’s Raw) wonder why they haven’t heard about this film lately, WWF chief Vince McMahon, displayed in the film in a none-too-flattering light, has banned all broadcast advertising during its programming. Lions Gate, the film’s distributor (which acquired the rights from Disney after an Academy Award-qualifying run in Los Angeles last fall), counterattacked with a prodding "The Movie Vince McMahon Does Not Want You To See" web-based campaign. Legal action has been threatened. Press releases flood mailboxes. Truth of the matter is, this sounds like a wisely-orchestrated ballyhoo promotion, fueling a controversy to bring in the crowds. Who’s the puppet and who’s pulling the strings? Damned if I know. Maybe we’ll find out in Beyond the Mat II. After all, the WWF appears to have given the director access to their offices and the behind-the-stage tactics revealed in the film, captured over a three-year period. Surely it knows itself and its public well enough to realize that Blaustein’s camera was capturing was some of the organization’s lesser-known shenanigans.

The film’s structure is a straightforward, road-movie video and film approach. The only smoke and mirrors are the meticulously staged events that send their fans into ecstatic frenzies and mass merchandize spending sprees (licensing fees were neck-and-neck with South Park during the filming). No special effects to cover up the ignorance and huckster antics; no script to cut away from the pain some of the "performers" inflict on their family. This isn’t Shakespeare. Prismatic is how the press material calls the film’s view, but the main color is blood red. There are some nasty championship confrontations -- often shown in disturbing iteration -- and the obvious need of medical and surgical professions at ringside as the camera doesn’t flinch in close-ups of three-inch forehead gashes that stream blood down the stars’ faces.

And just who are those stars? Three world-weary figures, all legendary figures with human foibles. The good spirited Mick "Mankind" Foley lives in a comfortable suburban setting (courtesy of a six-figure income) with his devotedly attached wife and two adorable small children. In the ring he wears a leather mask that brings to mind Phantom of the Opera, white dress shirt, and necktie. And a gimmick involving a white sock. Often battered and bruised in the ring, the real wounds are inflicted on his family, despite every attempt ("It’s just a little boo-boo") to assure his son and daughter that he remains unhurt despite the bloodshed. Grainy home movies of Mick jumping off his Long Island roof onto mattresses as a teenager are juxtaposed with professional bouts in which the announcer exclaims "Good God! He’s dead!" to the crowd after a nasty fall. When Blaustein returns late in the film to cover Mick for a championship match in Anaheim, he’s in for a quick game of Clue: "The Rock" (a.k.a. Duane Johnson), with a metal folding chair, on the mat. Mick’s family ringside watches in horror (son Dewey doesn’t seem too distraught, but the girls are moved to tears) as he takes a beating but keeps on ticking. As the soundtrack overlays "Stand by Me" and the bashing continues, you wonder if Mick will ever learn when enough is enough. We see him months later, recovered, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Think It’s Safe?…Think again."

Given equal time dealing with their own demons: Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and Terry Funk, aging stars on the edge of retirement, hobbled by decades of injuries but still managing to put on a good show in small town USA. Jake’s deteriorating relationship with his collegiate daughter and a cocaine habit are laid bare, while Terry wants to go out of the business with his pride, and knees, intact.

Vince McMahon, the consummate showman, envisions one potential star, former Denver Bronco player Darren Drozdov, with "amazing" powers of regurgitation, as a larger-than-life character named "Puke!" Mr. WWF thinks aloud "Puke is good! Puke is nice!" Although the Frankenstein beast never materializes, an end-credit postscript offers up that Darren is now partially paralyzed as a result of the profession.

Yes, Beyond the Mat may be a hard film to stomach, but it always has an honest ring of truth.

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