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wrestling / Columns

Movie Review: The Wrestler (1974) vs The Wrestler (2008)

May 12, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka

Hello loyal 411mania readers, and hello to you traitorous 411mania readers as well. I’m J Onwuka and I’m bringing another Super J Column to you. This week I’m gonna do a bit of compare/contrast about two movies called The Wrestler. One of them set Hollywood on fire and resurrected the career of an A-list actor. The other one came out over 30 years earlier and remains a footnote in the career of a respected screen veteran.

Gonna hop & skip the banner this week, let’s jump right into it.

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THE WRESTLER (1974)

Released in 1974 and starring Ed Asner, Verne Gagne, and Billy Robinson, The Wrestler is about the process of building up to a big-time match. Ed Asner plays Frank Bass, a wrestling promoter with a problem on his hands: his champion Mike Bullard (Verne Gagne) is seen as too old for much of the public, too old to be part of a huge ‘superbowl of wrestling’ that’s being planned by the bigger promoters. Bullard’s wife is concerned about his health, especially after another wrestler is killed in the ring, and feels that a match against a young new superstar like the British master Billy Taylor (Billy Robinson) could leave him dead as well. Also in the tank for Taylor, so to speak, are local mobsters who want Frank to rig the match in favor if Taylor so they can get a good payday. Asner’s character starts off totally in favor of having Taylor beat Bullard but, as the deck gets progressively stacked against the old warhorse, his desires seem to shift a bit. After a bit of hemming and hawing the match finally goes on, Bullard vs Taylor for the title. Frank’s job is done — he was just setting up the match — so the movie ends with a big move in the ring that settles once and for all who is the better man.

This is certainly not an A+ movie either in quality or in production scale. Ed Asner’s wikipedia article doesn’t even list it at the time I’m writing this. That said, it’s not a bad movie. It’s competently made, competently shot, competently written. There’s just nothing that really stands out here other than the fact that it’s about wrestling. Even on that score it’s pretty pedestrian. We’ve got a collection of matches going on but the movie’s plotline revolves mostly around Ed Asner’s experiences in the business. Calling it a ‘plotline’ is even going a little far. The Wrestler comes off like a slice-of-life film, not necessarily telling a single tight story, just showing how these characters lived. We even get the ‘wrestling is serious business’ speech that seems to accompany every entry of wrestling into the mainstream. If you’re not a wrestling fan it could very well show you just what you’re missing. If you are a wrestling fan, it’s a fairly mild celebration of the great sport.

It’s an alright flick all in all. Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch cameo as themselves, two brawlers who are constantly in trouble and have to avoid getting into more fights so that Frank will keep booking them. Everything is built up pretty well and, by the end of the movie, it’s easy to buy both Mike Bullard as the veteran champion and Billy Taylor as the wunderkind from overseas who’ll give Bullard his toughest challenge yet. Another comic relief duo is the Bruiser and the Crusher who become enemies of the mobsters who are after Frank. The love story that’s pushed in here worked for me because it was treated like ‘not a main focus’. That is to say, we didn’t have them start off being kind of in different and then falling madly in love. From the opening scene you can see the connection between them and it feels very natural the way it evolves into something more. And that’s what my major praise for the movie is: everything feels like it could have happened, nothing is way out there, so nothing story-wise is that jarring.

The performances from everybody are pretty okay as well. Nobody turns in a landmark performance, it’s true, or we would’ve heard about this before. But it all works well enough. Inside the ring it feels like watching an AWA wrestling match, even though the beats are spiced up and they add a lot of cop jazz underneath. Verne himself has an interesting role because he isn’t really the focus, he plays a sly manipulator who knows all the tricks, seemingly outside the public role he tended to play.

As far as a straight-ahead review, I’d say the movie is plenty okay. If you’ve got it around it’s worth a watch.

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THE WRESTLER (2008)

This movie came out in 2008 and, though it shares a name with the older film, is not a remake in any way. It focuses on Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pro wrestler who was once a superstar but now ekes out a living on the fringes of society. He starts out wrestling in high school gyms, unable to pay his rent, and hanging out at strip clubs. He’s broken down but he’s still wrestling. Eventually, he suffers a heart attack after a hardcore match. He decides to slow things down and starts a relationship with his favorite stripper as well as trying to re-connect with his daughter. At the end of the day, though, he decides to go risk his life by having One More Match against his old nemesis the Iron Sheik/Sabu/Muhammad Hassan/Gen Adnan. He jumps off the top rope for his finishing move and we cut to black.

When I first saw this movie, I loved it. Pro wrestling in a big budget movie! Yes! When I watched it again, I hated it. There’s an intense amount wrong with this movie. My first and biggest critique of the movie is ‘Why is wrestling so shitty?’ Yeah, I’m a fan so looking at its disgustingly bleak portrayal of wrestling & wrestling fandom hits me personally. But even on a story level, the point of the movie seems to be that he just goes back to what he knows rather than change. Why? There’s never any hint that wrestling is a lifeline to him or even that it’s enjoyable for him. He starts off the movie being irritated at a shit payoff and at no time does wrestling seem to support him. If he’s just doing it to help his self esteem, he doesn’t actually seem that into it. It’s a thing he does on weekends. Aside from that it’s not like he pays attention to this stuff. He’s not a fan himself, and many if not most athletes will tell you that even as they play, they started as fans and they will always be fans first. For Mickey’s Ram, this isn’t true. So the entire premise of the movie is that he’s just going to go back to doing something which doesn’t appear to make him happy, which he shows no real devotion to, and which will solve none of his problems. None. Because even as he wrestles it’s not like people think he’s the greatest. He’s just a legend that they all respect, and not cause he’s better than them: He’s just been around longer.

This will probably be odd to hear for those of you who follow my writing here but we spent way too much time in the ring. For one thing, the story is not about the ring in the slightest. At most, in terms of the plotline told, him being a wrestler is a minor detail. He could have been a bowler and the story would have run the exact same. But more than that, Darren Aronofsky or whoever was putting together these scenes has zero feel for ringwork. Ram’s matches are easily the most boring parts of this movie and that includes his hardcore match. Yeah, they did their best to mitigate this in that situation by doing it mostly through flashbacks, but even those are really dull. Rather than building any interesting story it’s just them standing & trading weapon stuff so that they can sort of wallow in this ‘this is so crazy, why would anybody go be a wrestler’ thing. And again, I’m not saying that the movie absolutely had to have good in-ring stuff, but why spend so much time in the ring if you’re not gonna do that well?

The parts of the story which are apparently supposed to carry the actual weight of it suffer because Ram is such a flat character. He literally wants nothing until somebody tells him what he wants. He doesn’t care about his daughter until he’s told to remember his family, he doesn’t think about his health until he has a heart attack, he doesn’t really even direct his own wrestling career. The storyline with Pam/Chastity (Marisa Tomei) is very hamfisted. At the beginning it doesn’t seem like he’s a favored customer, it seems like he’s a deluded jackass who believes a stripper’s in love with him; Pam’s reactions to him do not show anything but a stripper handling customers. Sure she starts to feel for him after he tells her about her heart attack but, even just after, she’s not like smitten. She’s willing to help, that’s all. Then they go shopping together, dance in a bar, and decide that they’re in love to the point where she’s so worried she’ll drop all her shit and drive like a state over to maybe catch him before he goes on. It’s too much too fast. His daughter honestly might as well not be in the movie because she only exists to show that he can be tender at sometimes and then as someone for him to ‘betray’ when he gets drunk and forgets their meet-up. The amount she adds to the plot is a round zero.

‘Torture porn’ is the term we use for horror movies that focus on gore, shock, & disgust rather than building a frightening mood and trying to unnerve the watcher. Aronofsky, based on The Wrestler and reviews for Black Swan, engages in ‘depression porn’. There’s no point to this movie other than ‘life is shitty’. Even if that was the point, and even if you wanted to tell it with pro wrestling, a life that’s just shitty from start til stop is not interesting fodder for a movie. There has to be some kind of contrast so that we can really feel ‘wow he’s gone right back into the shit’. To be honest, the life he has when he’s with Pam and knows his daughter isn’t that much better than what he had before, and he really doesn’t seem too much happier. It’s just before he was alone and now he isn’t. Why is that suddenly important? He had a heart attack. Lots of devices but zero emotion, zero feeling. If Aronofsky is a wrestling fan I’m wracking my brain to figure out what dour pro wrestling he’s been watching all these years.

Performance wise the movie is passable, which is far less than a movie with its acclaim should be. Nobody is bad really, except Mickey Rourke in the ring. As Randy the Ram he’s an exceptionally listless figure. The only pose he does in the ring is whirling his jacket over his head, and he only does it in the very last match of the show (where they have a semi-decent crowd, probably the first time doing a wrestling show made any sense to Rourke in this filming). Every other time he just walks out, he just locks up, it’s embarrassing. He’s much better in the other scenes for sure but I wouldn’t say I was ever magnetized by him. It’s fun to see cameos of guys like Claudio Castagnoli and I did like seeing Necro Butcher first in glasses and then covered in blood. But that’s really it. As an entire movie, it’s really dreadful to watch.

DIFFERENT ERAS

The reason I wanted to review both these movies is that, maybe tying in with their simple but broad shared name, they embody the way that the 70s and the 00s viewed professional wrestling. It is a very striking difference. The 1974 film portrayed wrestling as something derided by the mainstream, definitely, but it didn’t focus on that part. It was more concerned with showing what wrestling was to the people involved, what the stakes were, and what was exciting about it. In a lot of ways, it tried to reinforce the ‘championship kayfabe’ of the day where a lot of people thought of title matches as being maybe possibly on the level; it admitted that there was fakery and didn’t defend it, just said that it was irrelevant. Wrestlers fought in order to make a living and for the thrill of competition, even if that competition was based on performance rather than legitimate grappling skill. They were all engaged and all driven to be the best.

In the 2008 film, wrestling is shown as a total joke. The people who are in it are invariably portrayed just as weekend warriors with nothing else to do. If there is a big league to aspire to it is never mentioned beyond ‘scouts’ who never become important. The Ram could be an old soul who remembers ‘how it used to be’ but he isn’t. He spends almost no time talking about his old exploits, instructing younger guys in how to get over, anything. In fact, both the times that he’s shown talking over a match, he just lets the younger guy call it completely. And it’s not like he’s trying to keep up with them. He doesn’t care. The only thing the Ram appears to want out of wrestling is to be somewhere that people have heard of him before. How is that something to aspire to? There isn’t like a world of wrestling that exists outside where he is that he either was a part of, wishes he was a part of, or totally rejects. No, he lives in the entire world of wrestling, and it’s a bullshit world.

In both films there are characters who deride pro wrestling. In the 74 one, that guy is the one standing apart, he looks like a callous jackass. In the 2008 one, the guy who makes fun of pro wrestling is completely justified. Tellingly, this is where Asner’s Frank goes into his ‘why wrestling is important’ speech. For the Ram, it doesn’t even arouse any private anger. He knows that his ‘real job’ boss at a shitty grocery store is completely right. The dude is nine sizes smaller than the Ram, you’d think he’d at least privately wish to beat the guy up. Nothing.

Pro wrestling did change a lot between ’74 and ’08, it’s true, but it never lost the passion of those involved. It’s much harder to make a living now, but it wasn’t as though every single person in wrestling was making a living off of it back in the 60s & 70s either. The people who are in the business now care about it and believe in it. It isn’t a joke to them. Presenting a film about a wrestling lifer who does not care about wrestling in his soul, who just does it because it’s what he does, is not interesting on its own. There has to be some pulse of life in the film, even if it’s him finding something outside of wrestling. The 2008 movie has none of that. Gagne, Asner, and their associates made something that was clearly crafted with love. Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke built a homunculus.


Work on the World Champions Podcast has stalled a bit as I’m hitting personal stuff. Doing my best to get things back in order. In the meantime check out the latest episode #15 Red Letters at worldchampionspodcast.com or subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher.

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You can also follow me on Twitter @_nearzone and on Medium.

Also check out a brainstorm I did on Kayfabe Today about running pro wrestling like the NFL or NBA. Got a lot of stuff to catch up on but I’ll be back spouting some more nonsense before long.

Peace to the peaceful.
J

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