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Beyond the Mat (Director's Cut) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 22 August 2000

Beyond The Mat (Director's Cut)

Universal Home Video
MPAA rating: This version not rated, but the theatrical cut was rated R
starring: Barry W. Blaustein, Terry Funk, Nick Foley, Jake Roberts, Vince McMahon, Roland Alexander, Jesse Ventura
release year: 1999
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture: Three stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Barry W. Blaustein is a successful screenwriter, though the quality of his output varies, from "Coming to America" down to "Boomerang," and from "The Nutty Professor" (1996) down to "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." But ever since childhood, he's been a big fan of professional wrestling, and with this heart-felt and entertaining documentary, he tried to get behind the wrestling scene, or, as the title says, "Beyond the Mat." While it's very unlikely that this film will convert anyone into a fan of pro wrestling, several of the wrestlers come vividly to life as real people, for better and for worse.

The movie was given scant theatrical release, probably only because Universal wanted to please Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Films, which financed Blaustein's project. The title and advertising are unimaginative, and hardly inclined to attract the attention of anyone who doesn't know -- or care -- who those three faces on the poster actually are. (And as it happens, one of them, "The Rock," is included only because he has some fans; he's featured in the movie, but is not one of those focussed on.)

When he was a boy, Blaustein attended a wrestling match, then was surprised to later see one of the wrestlers hop into a car, kiss his wife, and drive off, like anyone returning home from his job. These muscular behemoths, who scream and pound and leap and pummel and bleed and wear weird costumes -- these guys have families? (Note: the DVD is about 6 minutes longer than the theatrical release; the additional footage is a dramatized depiction of little Barry and his surprising vision.)

For more than a year, Blaustein criss-crossed the country, making himself familiar to a number of wrestlers and the promoters they work for. When he had established himself, he returned with a small crew, and shot this documentary. Since it was made on the fly, with sometimes hurriedly-caught interviews, occasionally conducted in conditions of very low light, don't expect a polished presentation. The very roughness of the images and the sound are part of what Blaustein's after; a slicker production would have distanced viewers further from the subject.

He introduces us to Vince McMahon, the owner and operator of the World Wrestling Foundation, whose showmanship exploded and expanded interest in pro wrestling, changing it from hayseed entertainment to dazzling spectacle with a self-mocking edge. You could be urban and hip and like wrestling.

McMahon is pretty clearly a user, but probably no worse than any other head of a near-billion dollar company, and as Blaustein -- who appears throughout -- demonstrates, very few such entrepreneurs get into their business as deeply as McMahon does. He occasionally gets into the ring himself, and wrestles as a heavy (villain), both because he enjoys it and because of the sheer wackiness of his battles will call even more attention to the WWF.

Blaustein also investigates Extreme Championship Wrestling, an even more flamboyant upstart group that's trying to make a name for itself, but this segment isn't as focussed as the material on McMahon. What goes unexplained in both cases is just how these federations operate; you can deduce some of what's going on, but much remains mysterious.

But Blaustein's real interest is in the wrestlers; while he talks to quite a few briefly, including Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, he concentrates on three. Terry Funk, the movie claims (and it may be true), is the grand old man of wrestling, battered and severely injured (we see X-rays of his arthritic knees). A big-hearted Texas with a long-suffering wife and two anxious adult daughters (Blaustein filmed part of the wedding of one of them), Funk absolutely cannot quit wrestling, and in fact is known for his long series of retirement announcements.

Blaustein seems to want us to regard Funk as an aging knight, going back into the ring for one final battle -- but the pain on the faces of his family is tangible, and Blaustein doesn't shy away from this. However nice a guy Funk is, and he certainly seems to be a good-hearted man, his refusal to retire is very hard on his family.

This same idea underscores the segment dealing with Mick Foley, who used to be Cactus Jack, but now is Man Kind, in white shirt, tie, and leather mask -- in fact, he resembles Leatherface from the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" movies, hardly likely to be accidental. Foley is a big, funny, open guy who wanted to be a pro wrestler from childhood; in fact, "Beyond the Mat" includes some home movies of teenaged Foley leaping off a building. Part of his act as Man Kind includes similar jaw-dropping leaps onto equipment, tables and wrestling mats.

The central element at the end of the film is "The Royal Rumble," a match between him and The Rock, which Foley, as planned, lost big time. He thought he had prepared his wife and two small children, Dewey and Noelle (who's a little blonde angel), for what would happen to him in the ring. But as they watched from ringside, things go a little out of hand, with The Rock bashing Foley with a metal folding chair more than three times as often as Foley was expecting. As blood courses down his face, his panic-stricken children are carried out of the arena. Later, Blaustein tried something that more doctrinaire documentarians would object to, and it seems to have paid off for the Foley family.

The third wrestler Blaustein looks most closely at is Jake "The Snake" Roberts, once a major figure in the big battles, now -- as Blaustein finds him -- working small rural matches. Like Foley, he's very bright, but unlike Foley, he's a lousy family man (and isn't even gentle with the snakes rented for each match). Blaustein films Roberts' reunion with his long-estranged daughter; she handles it pretty well, all things considered, even when a blubbering Roberts hints at suicide. Later, on crack cocaine, Roberts rambles on at great length, with Blaustein compressing it with editing. It's remarkably revelatory, and not self-pitying, but unlike with Funk and Foley, you don't end up liking this guy.

As entertaining, even moving, as "Beyond the Mat" is, Blaustein never really gets into why these guys (and some women, like the briefly-seen Chyna) actually batter themselves this way, except for the money. One WWF official may be on the money when he says, "I don't know if Mick enjoys the pain, but I don't think he hates it."

We connect emotionally with Foley and Funk; they're good people in a weird profession. If Blaustein doesn't cover wrestling as deeply and thoroughly as he set out to do, he's still made an engrossing, amusing and intelligent movie about this peculiar profession.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
special features: Bonus material includes notes, several commentary tracks.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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