Beyond the Mat

WrestlingSportsSaturday Night Live (tv program)Ron HowardSarah BernhardtDocumentary (genre)Brian Grazer

Friday October 22, 1999

     Barry W. Blaustein's "Beyond the Mat" connects the antics of professional wrestlers with their lives out of the ring with such compassion, humor and perception that the result is utterly captivating. By the time this unique and touching documentary is over, you may be surprised how involved you have become with individuals who are full of contradictions and surprises.
     (Blaustein and some of the wrestlers who appear in his film will participate in a question-and-answer session tonight only, after the 9:30 p.m. screening at the AMC Century 14.)
     With brisk humor, Blaustein--a Hollywood comedy screenwriter who made his mark with "Saturday Night Live" and whose off-screen narration is warm and candid--introduces us to the carnival world of wrestling, acquainting us with the glitzy aspirations of wrestlers on the way up and wrestlers on the way down.
     He emphasizes spectacle over sport and doesn't dwell on the way bouts may be "choreographed" but makes clear that, regardless, it's a brutal, dangerous profession. He lets promoters, the wrestlers themselves and all others involved speak for themselves and has the patience to stick with people until they've moved past the point of mere self-promotion.
     Deftly woven into Blaustein's overview of the world of wrestling are portraits of three men who have captured his interest. There's Terry Funk, a renowned Texas-based champ who at 53 has been wrestling for 32 years. He's still a rugged guy, but arthritis is wrecking his knees.
     However, Funk, who insists wrestling is fun, is having a hard time letting go despite his bad knees. His devoted wife, Vicki, is resigned to telling herself that he'll know when to retire, but he could wind up making more farewell appearances than Sarah Bernhardt. That goes for Jake the Snake Roberts, too. A wrestler now on the skids and admitting to crack cocaine addiction, Jake is a ruggedly handsome middle-aged man who's grown paunchy and balding. The effects of a horrendous childhood, of being an absent husband and father, and of indulging in a fast life on the road have caught up with him big time, leaving him lonely yet wary.
     Funk has frequently teamed with Mick Foley, a.k.a. Mankind, a bearded, beefy giant of a man 20 years Funk's junior. Like Funk, Foley is a devoted family man, with a beautiful wife and adorable young children; it's as if he and Funk work out so much aggression in the ring that they make the most tender of husbands and fathers. Foley is highly articulate and reflective, a man of such clear intelligence it becomes all the more difficult to accept that he specializes in the most extreme forms of wrestling.
     Foley swears he's going to quit in a year or two, but you can see he will have trouble letting go--he also admits he hasn't been able to figure out what else he might do with his life. As Blaustein bids farewell to these men and others, he comes up with a concluding remark that couldn't be improved upon: "They're just like you and me--except they're really different."

Beyond the Mat, 1999. R, for language and violent content. A Universal Pictures release of an Imagine Entertainment presentation. Director Barry W. Blaustein. Producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Barry Bloom, Blaustein. Cinematographer Michael Grady. Editor Jeff Werner. Music Nathan Barr. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

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