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Beyond the Mat

Directed by Barry W. Blaustein. (2000, R, 102 min.)

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 17, 2000

Even if you aren't a World Wrestling Federation zealot who stood in line for two hours to get your first-edition copy of The Rock Says signed by the author, you'll find plenty to like about this engaging, surprisingly substantial documentary. Though Blaustein's history as a Saturday Night Live writer might lead one to expect a heavy emphasis on the outlandish, white-trash kabuki spectacle of pro wrestling -- which is indeed presented in all its blood-spurting, python-flinging, turnbuckle-slamming glory -- camp is not the only agenda here. Blaustein also takes the unexpected tack of taking the WWF seriously as a classic example of carpe-diem capitalist enterprise by the Federation's gonzo CEO/wrestling star Vince McMahon. Under McMahon's inspired leadership, the sport has grown from its humble origins as lowbrow diversion for credulous working-class rubes to the intellectual slumming exercise of choice for ironically minded connoisseurs of naive (or perhaps not so naive) kitsch culture. But now, as in the bygone days of 1am Sunday Texas Chainsaw Matches featuring Dory Funk Sr. and Gorgeous George, the rasslers themselves are the real heart of the “sport”'s appeal. Blaustein acknowledges this fact by devoting most of his film's latter half to in-depth interviews with performers ranging from battered 53-year-old warrior Terry Funk, perpetually comeback-bound philosopher/crackhead Jake the Snake Roberts, and the aforementioned Rock, who probably qualifies as the Federation's best-known star ever. Most interesting of all, however, is the engaging and well-spoken Mick Foley (aka Mankind) who, as wrestling's first existential hero figure, has an act that consists of dressing up like a Dilbertesque office drone and getting the shit pounded out of him in every match. (Some of the most harrowing scenes focus on Foley's young children bawling uncontrollably as they watch Dad getting reduced to a bloody pulp.) Though the WWF has tried to block theatrical release of this film, possibly due to its straightforward acknowledgment that the bouts are rigged, the ironic effect of Blaustein's documentary is to increase our respect for the vicious authenticity of the violence on display. Winners and losers may be preordained, but as Blaustein makes graphically clear, the physical abuse endured by the performers is very real indeed. For those with the stomach to handle it, Beyond the Mat is a center ring extravaganza of smackdown movie entertainment.

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