Review: Documentary ‘Bruno Sammartino’ doesn’t meaure up to the wrestling giant’s stature

A reenactment from the documentary "Bruno Sammartino"
Nazis threaten the Sammartino family in a reenactment from the documentary “Bruno Sammartino.”
(Double Exposure Distribution)

Before there was Andre the Giant and the Rock, there was gregarious, bear-like Bruno Sammartino, a sickly immigrant kid who became the Italian Sampson with head-turning exploits in the pro wrestling ring that included effortlessly uprooting 600-plus-pound Haystacks Calhoun.

Considerably more unwieldy is the documentary “Bruno Sammartino” — a choppy mash-mash of a production that attempts to graft war movie melodrama onto a standard-issue highlights reel of the longest reigning WWF (now WWE) world heavyweight champ’s career with bloated results.

Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy in 1935, Sammartino and his family made a harrowing escape to America following the Nazi takeover of their strategically located rural mountain town.

Through the death-defying efforts of Bruno’s iron-willed mother, Emilia, the Sammartinos would join their father in America (he had come to Pittsburgh earlier to find work). The bullied 75-pound, 13-year-old would become obsessed with weightlifting, and the rest was history.


Unfortunately, as cobbled together by writer-director Patrea Patrick, those historical elements, in which grainy black-and-white archival footage is unconvincingly blended with repetitive reenactments, keep distracting from the main attraction, who is prominently featured in candid interviews conducted some years prior to his death in 2018.

Interspersed with ring announcer hyperbole and testimonials from lifetime fans such as John Cena and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who, in 2013, inducted him into the WWE Hall of Fame), Sammartino’s deserving screen story fails to do the big guy justice.

‘Bruno Sammartino’

Not rated

Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 29, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica