`Mat' puts the heart in a headlock

March 17, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

All in all, nothing in the documentary "Beyond the Mat" will change the thinking of either side in the debate over the merits of professional wrestling, nor should it.

But what the film does, brilliantly, is provoke the intelligent fan to wonder if there's a limit to how far the proceedings can go. Conversely, those who ask, as director Barry Blaustein does, "What sort of human being bashes another's skull for a living?" and "Who are these guys?" will get some of their questions answered.

Blaustein, who wrote the screenplays for such popular Hollywood fare as "Coming to America," "Boomerang" and "The Nutty Professor," identifies himself early on, in voiceover narration, as a lifetime fan of professional wrestling.

That love allows Blaustein nearly unlimited access to the wrestlers, their families and World Wrestling Federation chairman Vince McMahon. Early on, as he pulls the curtain on the WWF's dirty secret, that the "action" is scripted, Blaustein introduces us to the scriptwriters, the in-house composers and the wardrobe people who make wrestling what it has become. "The way I see it, the critics have it all wrong," says Blaustein. "It's not about the violence; it's about spectacle."

And there is plenty of spectacle to go around, from cheering throngs to explosions to steel cage matches and the like. But Blaustein is terrific in presenting, without polemics, the little moments that make the big moments possible.

We meet, for instance, Darren Drozdov, an undistinguished former pro football player hoping to catch on with the WWF. Besides his size, Drozdov's only attribute is the ability to regurgitate on command, and we get to see Drozdov audition to become "Puke," as well as his call home to his mom to relay the good news. It's a quick shot, to be sure, but a glimpse into the soul of someone will do anything to be accepted.

Blaustein is even better at presenting drama, not the stylized, contrived nonsense of the WWF, but the real human emotion that draws in the wrestlers and their loved ones.

Three men, in particular, are at the core of Blaustein's story. Terry Funk, Blaustein's favorite childhood wrestler, has been in the business for 32 years and needs a new knee but can't walk away from the game, to the chagrin of his wife and daughters.

Likewise, the tale of Jake "The Snake" Roberts, a once-dominant wrestler who can't beat drugs and hasn't seen his daughter in four years, clutches at the heart, without being maudlin.

The film saves its most compelling story for last, in the life of Mick Foley, a whimsical Long Island native who is on the verge of superstardom as "Mankind." Foley is bright enough to use the system to his advantage, but he is also oblivious to the affect that his work is having on his young family.

In a device that may be seen as anathema to journalistic purists, Blaustein shows Foley and his wife footage of their children reacting to Foley getting pummeled in the ring. While other documentarians might have problems with Blaustein, the moment is real and honest, which is more than can be said for wrestling.

"Beyond the Mat" may not convert a single soul, but it will enlighten and entertain anyone who goes in with an open mind.

`Beyond the Mat

Starring Terry Funk, Mick Foley, Jake Roberts, Vince McMahon, Darren Drozdov

Directed by Barry Blaustein

Released by Lions Gate Pictures and Imagine Entertainment

Rated R for language and violence

Running time 102 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

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