Watchamania: The Wrestler (2008)

WATCHAMANIA fills a longstanding gap in professional, highbrow art and media criticism by watching movies about pro wrestling and assigning star ratings based on the matches they contain. We watch the matches and recap them like we might if they’d happened in real life. Context, pace, choreography, who cares? We want to know your film’s WORKRATE, and we will nitpick it until we’ve reached a consensus.

The first film in the WATCHAMANIA series will be The Wrestler (2008), Darren Aronofsky’s award-winning tale of a pro wrestler who abandons his daughter, plays a bunch of Nintendo, dates a stripper and wrestles Ernest ‘The Cat’ Miller. Basically.

In all seriousness, it’s a great film for both the avid, elitist moviegoer and the dorky wrestling fan who watches it to find the cameos from R-Truth, Nigel McGuinness and Cesaro. And Robbie E. And Bobby Dempsey? It’s objectively the best movie ever made about the industry to not feature Hulk Hogan making someone poop their pants. Spoiler alert for all of this, obviously, if you’re planning to see a six-year old movie for the first time this afternoon.

It centers around three major matches in the career of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a past-his-prime wrestling star from the 1980s who works at a grocery store, but still clings to the rush and admiration that comes from being part of the business. The first is a paint-by-numbers independent wrestling show. The second is a hardcore match in the ECW Arena, and a third is a Ring Of Honor nostalgia match that maybe-sorta ends in death. More on that later.

Let’s jump right in and see if these wrestling scenes in a wrestling movie meet our real life standards for high quality pro wrestling.

1. WXW: Randy “The Ram” Robinson vs. Tommy Rotten

That’s Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s World Xtreme Wrestling, for the record, not Germany’s Westside Xtreme Wrestling. The film takes place after 1995, so every third promotion has “extreme” in it somewhere.

The first match of The Wrestler pits Randy The Ram against WXW’s Tommy Rotten, aka “Smooth” Tommy Suede. The crowd here (and throughout the movie) are a studio audience wrestling crowd. In real life, a wrestling crowd generally reacts to what’s happening in the ring. They’ll boo or cheer as a stimulus response. In movies and television shows, wrestling crowds hold their arms over their head for the entire event and hop up and down cheering. There’s always a steady hum of reaction even when there’s nothing happening in the ring. Real wrestling promotions would KILL to have fans like this, even once.

WXW’s crowd gets THREE MINUTES AND FORTY-EIGHT SECONDS of a Randy the Ram match, and they love it. It starts with some light arm work, then goes right into the heat — a low blow, followed by a bulldog. They then bump the ref with an airplane spin about a minute into the match, making me wonder if WXW employs paper referees or if this guy was on the take so Rotten could get violent.

Rotten rips off the turnbuckle pad to reveal … uh, a different, blue turnbuckle pad. That pad has SLICING POWERS and busts Randy open. Randy blades right in front of the camera, which is the most Hulk Hogan thing he does in the entire movie. Rotten tries to capitalize with more shots from the sharp turnbuckle pad, but Randy blocks it and wristlocks him as a comeback. After a ref bump AND a bladejob. Ram hits a Booker T-style crescent kick to set up the Ram Jam (a flying headbutt), and that’s it.

Winner: Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Ram Jam, 3:48)
Rating: *1/2

Maybe Randy The Ram would get bigger paydays from these local promoters if he worked more than five minutes. It felt like the first 30 seconds and last three minutes of a good match crammed together. Backstage everybody’s like “wow, you really popped the crowd,” but have you seen that crowd? They’d give a huge, sustained pop to the wind blowing.

2. CZW: Randy “The Ram” Robinson vs. Necro Butcher

The second match takes place for Combat Zone Wrestling in the former ECW Arena in Philadelphia. We join the match in progress to see a bloody Randy The Ram smashing a window pane over The Necro Butcher’s head and pinning him at the 0:32 mark. SEE ZEE DUB! SEE ZEE DUB!

We then get a series of lengthy instant replays highlighting the moments we missed, including a boo/yay strike exchange with both men sitting in chairs, roach spray to the face, a brawl in the crowd that ends with Randy attacking Necro with a fan’s prosthetic leg and the grand finale, a chokeslam off a ladder through a table. Somehow that’s not the finish, because indie wrestling.

The crowd’s a little more realistic this time, with “F*CK YOU NECRO” and “USE HIS LEG” chants throughout. An ECW Arena crowd has its own version of the sustained TV pop — they fill all the empty spaces with chanting. It doesn’t matter if the chant’s appropriate or not, they’ll just chant what’s happening. If a guy’s sweeping the ring, they’ll chant SWEEP THE RING, SWEEP THE RING. I wish we knew more about in-his-prime Randy The Ram so I could recommend a bunch of smarky chants.

The brutality of the match elevates it to three stars for me. I’m not a huge fan of garbage wrestling, but it’s excessively graphic. Multiple staple gun attacks, a fork to the head, Randy backing through a pane of glass in the corner and getting barbed wire stuck in his stomach … all of that on top of the novelty of it happening to an ersatz Randy Savage. Remember when Buff Bagwell did a Canadian Destroyer? It’s like that, but with guts bleeding.

Winner: Randy “The Ram” Robinson (window attack, JIP 0:32)
Rating: ***

They really should’ve taken it home after the table spot, though.

After the match, Randy The Ram vomits and suffers a heart attack, but I don’t rate backstage segments.

3. ROH: Randy “The Ram” Robinson vs. The Ayatollah

For a down on his luck wrestler, Randy The Ram sure does win a lot.

The final match happens on the anniversary of Robinson’s most famous match — a battle against a black guy in a turban at Madison Square Garden. Sounds about right. “The Ayatollah” is played by former WCW and WWE star Ernest ‘The Cat’ Miller, a 3-time karate champion who is unironically one of my favorite wrestlers ever.

It STARTS with a farewell speech, which is interesting. Usually they save that stuff for afterwards so everyone can break kayfabe and hug, but I guess Randy The Ram was planning on DYING as the finish, so here we are. They use it to get heat on Ayatollah, who I guess does not have enough heat after 20+ years of being anti-American.

The action is classic and basic. Ayatollah backs him into the corner with chops, but The Ram counters with a Mickie James-style hurricanrana. Ram then takes control, forcing Ayatollah into the corner with elbows to the chest and some awkward bear hugging. After an irish whip and a clothesline they start exchanging finishers (because this happens in a Ring of Honor ring) and the ref gets bumped. 90 seconds into the match! They needed at least 19 more minutes of thigh-slapping and kickouts at 2.

Ayatollah goes to work on Randy with his EVIL FOREIGN FLAG, but Randy fights him off, snaps it over his knee and launches it into the crowd like a javelin. Two things:

1. You probably shouldn’t create two sharp poles and hurl them into a crowd of people
2. Both competitors are talking loudly, and you can clearly hear them calling their spots.

Randy caps off his comeback with a dive to the outside (two minutes in, which … is actually pretty accurate for an ROH match), but as soon as he gets whipped into the guardrail, he tells Ayatollah to take it home. This is where things get shifty. They do another headscissors spot into the ring but Ram’s clearly having another heart attack, and Ayatollah won’t stop breaking character to pat him on the shoulder and ask him if he’s all right in front of everyone. Once he figures out that Randy is DYING IN FRONT OF HIM, he confidently boasts “I’LL TAKE IT FROM HERE,” runs into a backdrop (a backdrop) and starts yelling PIN ME, PIN ME. Ayatollah’s big save is “falling down once and dramatically asking to be pinned.”

The Ram won’t pin him, though, and seems lost in the ring. Ayatollah tries to get up and get rolled up or whatever, but Ram knocks him back down with a Shining Wizard of all things. Maybe The Ram was a mix between Randy Savage and The Great Muta? Anyway, Ayatollah decides to lie motionless on the ground until Randy takes home the match he asked to take home a minute ago, and Randy sets up for the Ram Jam. Now, when I say “sets up for the Ram Jam,” it’s important to note that he takes over a full minute to do so. In a six minute match. He is using 17% of the match to set up one top rope move. You’d think that’d be to give Ayatollah time to come to and toss him off the top by his crotch and his throat, but nope. Randy dives off the top, and that’s the end of the … movie.

Winner: Randy “The Ram” Robinson, I hope (Ram Jam, 6:04)
Rating: DUD

There’s a lot of speculation about the shape of The Ram’s heart and whether or not this final Ram Jam killed him, but either way I’m guessing he won the match. If he dove and landed on Ayatollah and his heart exploded and he died, at least Ayatollah was under him. The ref probably counted the three and the crowd cheered, and then the whole “whoops, he’s dead” revelation kicked in.

I’ve gotten into lengthy discussion about how the movie continued during the credits. Here’s my most educated hypothesis: If Randy died from the Ram Jam, he didn’t just explode and die in the ring. He did what he did in the Necro match: get taken to the back, then get sick and either fall over dead or get taken to a Local Medical Facility.

There’s no way the ROH crowd watched him die and KNEW he died. They probably went home, got on the Internet, complained about how short the match was and how Randy didn’t come out for pictures and autographs afterwards and didn’t find out about him dying until the next morning when the Observer reported it. Maybe they found out about it on Facebook. The front row didn’t get heart debris all over them.

Isn’t that the true message of The Wrestler? That even in your greatest moment of glory, there’s nothing but awkward silence and uncertainty and disappointment?

Overall: **

The Wrestler gains points for the variety of venues and matches presented, but the best match (the hardcore match) is only shown in clip form. The other matches are extremely short and feature ref bumps, which appears to be the only way Randy puts together a match.