DVD Review of Beyond The Mat
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/22/05


  One of the oldest filmic clichés is that there’s nothing sadder than an old boxer, a washed up pug. To that I might state that only an old wrestler is sadder. After all, wrestling is not a true sport- it’s a violent theatrical production, and there is not much at stake for the viewers. As for the wrestlers, themselves….that’s where this documentary from 2000 comes in. Directed by first time auteur Barry Blaustein it chronicles the re-rise of pro wrestling to prominence in the late 1990s- the era that saw Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and Cactus Jack become celebrities of a greater nature than any of their forebears, like Killer Kowalski, Dusty Rhodes, Bruno Sammartino, or Hulk Hogan.

  The film starts off as an exploration of the men behind the ‘names’, yet it makes a mistake right off the bat, by billing itself as an exposé of the sport, a film that ‘Vince McMahon doesn’t want you to see’. McMahon, to those in the know, is the owner of the largest wrestling league in the nation- the WWE, then the WWF, but there’s little in the film to suggest that this is a tell-all. There are some wrestlers with gripes, and we see tales of failed lives, and failed wrestling circuits, like the ECW and WCW (long since bought out by the WWE), and McMahon’s league certainly has a history of dealing in drugs (steroids, etc.- as the aforementioned Hogan testified against him in a highly publicized trial in the early 90s), as well as being shamefully anti-union, and not caring of its performers (not long after the film’s release one of its wrestlers- Owen Hart, of a well-known wrestling clan- was killed in a spectacular fashion while performing, and the film acknowledges that one of its minor characters, Droz, was paralyzed not long after the film was completed), but all of this is public knowledge, and old news.

  What works, though is the portrait of the biz the film portrays, and the three main wrestlers whose lives it follows. The first is Cactus Jack- aka Dude Love, Mankind- or in real life Mick Foley. Foley was a roly-poly star at the turn of the century who had little wrestling skill, but an amazing ability to absorb. The film follows him through a few years, and his realization that his professional ability to get his ass kicked in public might have a damaging effect on his children’s psyches. The second is a WWF superstar from the 1980s, named Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, reduced to wrestling on independent cards, staying in flea bag hotels, a crack habit, sucking up for the love of his insensitive ex-wrestler father, and a shrewish, selfish daughter who seems to enjoy visiting upon him the failures of her own life. The scenes with Roberts tanked up on biscuits are riveting. He has had an amazingly bizarre and difficult life, and the truths he reveals about not only his own failures, but that of the business and America, are the core of the film. In juxtaposition to Roberts is an ever-retiring legendary wrestler named Terry Funk, from another of the seemingly endless families that dominate the biz.

  It was the participation of the well-respected Funk that enabled the film to eventually get made, for wrestling is a tight-lipped sect. He and Foley are good friends, and the behind-the-scenes shots of Funk as caring father, devoted husband, worried about his own health, juxtapose effectively with those of his addiction to the mat. yet, in a sense, Funk is even more pathetic than Roberts, because he knows what he’s paid to get where he is in life, whereas Roberts’ clarity comes only in the dim recesses of drugs.  The rest of the film peters out, as we are shown performers like Al Snow, Chyna, Koko B. Ware, and others, but get no real idea of who they were- so why show them? The same could have been said about the ECW excursion, save for its relevance to Funk, or the portrait painted of an independent wrestling circuit hustler and his two tyros, who get a WWF tryout.

  The film, of course, goes nowhere near the more controversial matter, and that is why it’s not a great film, and will have little appeal to folk who are not wrestling fans, like me.

  The extras feature a commentary from the director, and then one with him and Funk. Both are valued additions from the standpoints of the behind the scenes action and also in giving a greater portrait to Funk, who comes across as a really likable guy. There is also an interesting piece where Foley comments on his portions of the film, and the obliviousness of The Rock to the pains Foley suffered in their match due to his callowness. It’s a humanizing moment, that gains power when Foley seeks out Rock, who truly has no clue that he really hurt Foley, inside. The commentary then reveals the director’s disgust over Foley’s subsequent groveling for approval from McMahon. Most sad, though, is that like Funk, however, Foley’s retirement at the end of the film was short-lived.

  The film has its moments of poignancy and insight, but they are too few and far between. A more pristine and jaded eye would have been necessary, and a more ballsy approach to the subject matter, to gain a following outside the ‘choir’ of pro wrestling. Still, since I go to those pews, every few years, I think it’s a must see for any wrestling fan. The game has changed much during the decades, yet, in a sense, it hasn’t changed at all. Whether good or bad is the crux, and what this film passes on.

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