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Review: Wrestling with demons in 'Beyond the Mat'
(CNN) -- Professional wrestlers get little if any respect from the media, and you can tell that fact irks them.
When the acerbic comedian Richard Belzer briefly had his own talk show back in the 1980s, "Hulk" Hogan went so far as to pick him up and slam him on his head to prove that there's nothing phony about what goes on in the ring. This bit of "reasoning" didn't endear the Hulkster to the nation's deductive logic professors -- or Belzer, for that matter. He was hospitalized with neck injuries, then successfully sued Hogan for the altogether idiotic assault.
Somehow, showboating grapplers don't seem to understand that everyone knows that they get hurt when they're flung by their hair into a concrete post. How could they not get hurt?
When people say professional wrestling's fake, they mean that the matches are set-ups, that the winner is established well in advance of the showdown. And a lot of those slams, regardless of the physical dexterity required to perform them, are designed to lessen a blow that otherwise could conceivably dislocate a man's head from his neck.
Gilded treasure dome
Barry W. Blaustein's hugely troubling documentary, "Beyond the Mat," establishes that World Wrestling Federation characters like "The Rock" and "Mankind" are not only athletic, but stark raving bonkers to boot.
The WWF, however, is the gilded palace of wrestling, the land of major riches and world wide fame. Blaustein covers everything from multimillion-dollar pay-per-view matches to the most minor of the minor leagues. It's not a pretty sight.
Though virtually every subject in his film has moments of self reflection and displays unabashed tenderness toward families and co-workers, they all revel in the sight of their own blood and insist that the spewing head gashes are just part of putting on a good show. They tell themselves that it's all in the name of entertainment, as if getting your teeth knocked out in front of a screaming crowd is comparable to appearing in a revival of "Oklahoma."
Blaustein seems to think that he's humanizing these guys by showing how "normal" they are out of the ring, but he unintentionally makes their penchant for self mutilation all the more inexplicable. There are a couple of laughs in the movie, but the overall effect is much more depressing than it is humorous.
If watching people who should know better slowly kill themselves for very lowbrow glory is your idea of a good time, get to the theater. Everyone else should accept that they know enough already.
"Beyond the Mat" generates the same queasy vibe that you get from documentaries about the porn industry. Initially, you're glued to the screen, because it's impossible to believe that people do something this physically and emotionally unhealthy for a living. And you fully expect to get some kind of visceral thrill out of seeing grown men and women take part in an activity that's considered inappropriate almost by definition.
But the buzz only lasts a few minutes. Then you're left mourning humanity, or at least the great swath of our society that's boiled its core beliefs down to brute, animalistic urges.
People who tell themselves that this is good, clean family entertainment won't appreciate what they see here.
It's nice to know that the hugely popular "Mankind" (aka Nick Foley) is a gentle person out of the ring who dotes on his children and speaks intelligently about why he's willing to dive head first into situations that could conceivably leave him blind or paralyzed. But that just makes it twice as distressing to watch his attractive wife and two lovely, blond-haired kids cry and scream in horror while daddy is in the ring literally having his head bashed open by repeated blows from a metal folding chair.
That may sound like a very black comedy on paper, but there's not a thing funny about it when you hear peals of utter despair coming from those kids (Foley, much to his credit, is shaken and convincingly resolves to tone down his shtick when Blaustein shows him footage of his family shrieking in terror.).
Washed up, broken down
The worst victims are the guys who've finally come to the conclusion that they don't know how to do anything else.
Terry Funk was Blaustein's favorite wrestler when he was growing up. Funk is 53 and has been wrestling -- at varying levels of accomplishment -- for more than 32 years. We first see him as he crawls out of bed in the morning, looking like a cross between Dick Butkus and Berlin at the end of World War II. He's wrestling on a set of knees that his doctor says are crippled beyond repair. He shouldn't even be able to walk at this point, but Funk still gets it on in front of a smattering of rabid fans as often as possible, and for very little pay.
Once again, his loving family is horrified every time he steps into the ring, and with good reason. Funk is a sensitive, quiet man who seems fully committed to leaving the sport for good when they have to push him out in a wheelchair.
But the biggest piece of human debris is former superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts, whose name is intoned by the other wrestlers as if they're referring to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Roberts is legitimately frightening, as physically intimidating as anybody you'll ever lay eyes on. And he comes equipped with an array of addictions and shattered family relations that would put Sid Vicious to shame.
Roberts is eloquent when discussing his condition, and that somehow makes it all the more awful. He outlines the mess that he's made of his life with unabashed despair.
His sex life is dead because relentless partying on the road has left him with a taste for extreme situations that don't translate well into married intimacy. He seldom sees his two college-age daughters, and can't bear to spend more than five minutes with one when she graspingly offers to meet him in front of Blaustein's camera. He's a major-league drug addict, thanks to medication, legal and otherwise, that keeps his body operating well beyond the point of no return.
But saddest of all is the discovery that he smokes crack to numb his permanently broken spirit. He has to keep wrestling to maintain a connection, no matter how pointless, with other human beings.
Early in the film, a wrestler in a small, up-and-coming federation gloats, "Well, we did it." after he and his muscle-bound buddies finish a series of super-violent televised matches. The real tragedy in "Beyond the Mat" is that, outside of making people shout out their names, none of the participants come close to establishing what it is that they've "done." And they're as good as blind when it comes to gauging the effect that their obsession has on the people they love.
Some of the moves might be fake, but the heartbreak is very, very real.
There's not much violence in "Beyond the Mat," unless you count people getting their skulls busted open with metal objects, a man falling 30 feet onto a mat and almost breaking his back and people being thrown into razor-sharp barbed wire. Various wrestlers of varying abilities biting, punching, gouging, kicking, and maiming each other turns into a bizarre mantra. There's bad language and talk of illegal drug use. Do not take your children to see this, no matter how much they complain. 102 minutes. Rated R.
Media rediscovery: Testosterone still sells
Official 'Beyond the Mat' site
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