When ready to press play on a movie, one thought usually runs through my head: “I hope the time I’m about to spend watching this isn’t completely a waste of the precious sands steadily pouring to the bottom of the hourglass that is my life. When the credits roll, I want to be left affected in some way. Sometimes it’s laughing at the absurdity of everyday situations or just plain absurd ones. Other times it’s being thrilled by the action. Sometimes I want to be moved to tears… or legitimately scared to go outside by myself. Regardless of the specific effect the movie has, I consider the viewing to be a successful experience if it stays with me long after the fact.
Needless to say that at the start of Ready To Rumble I was concerned that what I was about to watch would be a waste of time. Here we had a movie about wrestling (a “sport” that I couldn’t care less about) and starring David Arquette whom I had never seen play a role that didn’t make me question whether or not there was an underlying plot of his character being at least one -fourth developmentally disabled. And for good measure we had Scott Caan, who I would put in the category of “Most Likely to Play A Rapist.” My sentiment was somewhere between apprehension and dread.
I was right to worry. The first time I tried to start it, I had to turn it off halfway through. It had gotten to the point that I couldn’t even take one more minute of this weird world that blurred reality in ways that I didn’t think was possible, at least not in movies that didn’t involve Robotic Cops or time travel. I was left with a plethora of questions such as: ”Who was blackmailing Rose McGowan into doing this?” and “Who was blackmailing Joe Pantoliano between The Matrix and Memento.” It would be months before I attempted it again, this time determined to make it to the end, my own mortality be damned!
Surprise! This film was still terrible. It was illogical, juvenile, and was clearly just a (poor) attempt at marketing the product of WCW wrestling towards a bigger, more mainstream audience who I presumed to be pubescent boys. This is what I had feared, and yet that horror was being replaced with a new one this second time around: This movie was seemingly asking some big questions, questions that I would be mulling over for weeks. And when I say big I mean BIG. At the very least it was making ME ponder some big concepts as I tried to make sense of the passion play that was unfolding in front of me, something that I don’t think was intended at all, which is half the problem: what WERE the ACTUAL intentions of the people making this movie? Because I honestly couldn’t tell, but if this was all part of the intentions of those who created this mess, then they may be brilliant!
“Wrestling’s not Fake”
Almost immediately we are faced with age-old question which becomes what I think is the central theme and dilemma at the heart of the film: How “real” is wrestling? The question is as old as the sport itself and the answer can make the difference in the how much each of us gets out of the act of viewing the spectacle. For some, they can suspend belief and the knowledge that what is happening is staged and controlled and that the story is written and developed like any other television program or movie. Others have a harder time putting to rest that nagging voice in their head reminding them about all the people pulling strings behind the curtain. In this way, the experience of watching wrestling is similar. During movies we suspend belief. Sometimes it’s seamless and we become so engrossed and lost in what we are taking in that it all seems so real. The mechanics that create the illusions become illusory themselves; fitting together in harmony where stopping and unraveling the tangle of the words, score, and visual would make us lose the whole of it leaving something that feels synthetic. But when that veil is up and we lose sight of it, all of that fake bullshit that the film is made up of, the story seems organic and it just feels like reality, even if it isn’t a reality that we are familiar with.
It wasn’t always like that. At some point or another, the wrestling fan that we were/are had not yet seen how the sausage was made and thought that these epic battles between good and bad were a reality just as real as one’s parents getting divorced. There was nothing BUT reality so why would one feel they needed to verify what we are experiencing? What the announcers told us was what was actually happening and what we saw had indeed taken place. These men and women were fighting each as if lives depended on it because to us, they did. It wasn’t until we got older and the major myths of our lives startled to crumble around us that we started to question the legitimacy of that which we encountered. If Santa Claus had just been a lie, then what about the Tooth Fairy? Sure the Easter Bunny didn’t add up, but did Ravishing Rick Rude really try to steal Jake The Snake’s wife in front of an entire crowd of people? Because if so that would be a good reason to try to sic his pet snake on him. Likewise, we discover that movies aren’t real and that people can’t just turn into werewolves and that mannequins won’t spring to life when no one is around.
It becomes a question of how much rat shit can you tolerate seeing go into the sausage before that’s all you can taste, or are you able to forget about the rat shit and just taste the sausage? I know I’m eating rat shit but somehow it still looks like sausage so I guess its OK.
The dilemma I was faced when submerging myself into the world presented in Ready To Rumble, is that I found myself asking what was actually real in the film about wrestling or at least “What is intended to be real?” (and by real I mean existing in THIS world) because in this film there are multiple layers of what is supposed to be true and what is supposed to be “fake,” the line blurring and bending even what we know is true or not about the world of wrestling and at times what we know about the world we live in every day.
The line first starts to waver when we are being introduced to wrestling in this world. It is REALLY popular, in fact so popular that it seems everyone in this town watches, follows and is interested in the main event at what appears to be a house show (or possibly Nitro despite the lack of cameras? The Nitro girls are there but I’m not sure if they worked house shows in 1999). We are also given a history lesson about the greatest legend the sport has ever seen. Jimmy “The King” King, is played by Oliver Platt here. In a world dominated and created by WCW, the greatest champion doesn’t exist and is played by an actor, despite the fact that the movie is populated by their actual talent who end up in minor speaking roles or simply as cartoonish oafs (Sid Vicious and Saturn attempting to sneak up on Sal could have doubled as a plot-line to a Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry short).
Jimmy the King is so popular that he actually has his OWN video game in arcades, which would have been unfathomable in any world, and is so loved that the evil promoter, Sinclair (who is clearly an amalgamation of the real life feuding “evil” and omnipotent promoters Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon) decides to sack him, take his belt, and run him out of town. You know…the logical business decision. The manner in which it is done is straight out of wrestling’s weekly storylines but with real violence that leaves the King bruised and humiliated, leaving us to ask “What part is supposed to be real here?” Wrestling viewers are presented with backstage vignettes every week as an accepted part of the story (like we see later when Sinclair and newly crowned champion Diamond Dallas Page cut a promo backstage). This is nothing new and is accepted as part of the story and production which everyone besides children knows is scripted and fake. Sure the talent can beef backstage sometimes, but there is distinction between workplace tension and this coordinated assault that is presented to us as the TRUE reality in the context of this film. My brain is starting to hurt.
It gets even more migraine inducing and complex trying to keep up with what exists and what doesn’t. After the King is run out of the WCW, he has nowhere to go (obviously WCW is the only promotion in the world in this universe) so he skips town to go on a bender. The King, you see, is an alcoholic. After a series of events (including a horrifically massive tanker accident that leaves their truck overturned, shit covering the road and our protagonists miraculously alive despite not wearing seat belts), Gordie is convinced that both Sean and his destiny is to seek out Jimmy King and help him regain his rightful place at the top of what is now becoming a truly dangerous world of wrestling. We are further pummeled with the narrative theme that “Things are never as they appear” but everything that we are being TOLD is true, is. Just like Sal lying in wait on the mat, ready to show King that he still had it even in his twilight. And no matter how many times we are duped, we are expected to believe in full faith that THIS time it is the real deal Holyfield.
Until we are told that what we have been told so far is true isn’t at all. We would never have bought that Sal was as agile a man as one a quarter of his age and that he was stronger than the greatest wrestler that ever was, but here it is so I guess we had better accept it. Ditto that we are suppose to accept that in order to stop Jimmy King from having a chance to win a professional wrestling match in which he wins the belt back, the head promoter of the WCW wrestling promotion would actually do the following things: Send two of his employees to break into an elderly man’s house for the purpose of attacking him and sending him to the hospital and have another employee seduce and have sexual relations with a possibly developmentally disabled man in order to gain information on the trainings of a former employee. Or hit him. That’s what it sounded like they were doing; threatening to take the life of another employee if he doesn’t aid him in sabotaging King’s efforts. This is being presented to us, the viewers, as the actual events taking place at the actual wrestling promotion that guided this Titanic-sized turd into the seven seas of shit movies (as well as the WCW promotion itself I have read).
But wait. It gets worse.
In what I assume was an effort to promote the film, WCW actually had David Arquette (the actor!) wrestle in a match where he inexplicably won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in the process. This all leads to the star of the film being in the position of defending his newly won reali-life strap in a match that mimics the exact match that appeared at the end of the film in which he starred. Mind blowing. In some grand effort to market their product, WCW managed to cheapen it and at the same time turned something completely fake (a fictitious movie centered around the promotion) into something sort of real (an actor in said movie winning the title) that in some ways made the actual assumed reality of their true-life wrestling world appear even less real. They were like bad magicians who, try as they might, couldn’t help tip you off to the truth behind the illusion and then wonder why you weren’t marveling at it.
So despite being amazingly rich in providing subjects worth contemplating, this movie is ultimately a disaster in every other way. I think it fails to properly sell their product which is the ultimate goal in making this type of film. You want your fans to get out to the theaters or buy the VHS (it was 1999!), but you also want people who might not watch wrestling every week to see it and decide to tune in on Monday night, hoping that they will eventually be purchasing pay-per-views or officially licensed merchandise (why not both!). But why would they? What did they really just see? If they were swept up in Jimmy King Fever, they saw the entirety of what little exists of his fictional career. No one who actually wrestled for WCW stood out. You could make the case for DDP and Goldberg, but one was essentially humiliated and the other, while playing himself, didn’t get nearly enough attention to shine. At least when making No Holds Barred, Vince McMahon and company had the sense to cast Hulk Hogan the wrestler/personality/actor in a fictional role that although still had him playing a wrestler, was not linked to the WWF or any of their characters. Sure, they also tied the movie into reality by bringing Zeus into actual wrestling storylines, but it seemed to make more sense than the way that Bischoff and the gang did in bringing in Arquette into the real world of WCW scripting. It was still ridiculous and not very good and featured SOME on-air personalities, but being less needlessly complex, it was much more simple to separate movie fiction from the wrestling fiction.
WWE has more recently shown how to properly capitalize on the Hollywood success of breakout stars like the Rock by roping in the more casual viewers, as well as how to properly intertwine real-life backstage conflict with their broader fictional narrative to create a hazy truth. This DOES momentarily make us forget about the rat shit in the sausage, something that makes the show more enjoyable for hardcore and casual fans alike.
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