But the violence is real, like when The Rock repeatedly pummels Mankind with a folding chair. And that isn't cow's blood running down his head afterwards as he rolls around on the mat, apparently incoherent.
Barry Blaustein's eye-popping documentary gets behind the scenes of the WWF and other wrestling organizations to show us their true skin, warts and all. It certainly isn't pretty. Run by the malevolent Vince McMahon, a latter-day Satan if I've ever seen one, the WWF is crucified as little more than a money machine that preys upon the weaknesses of its performers to enrich the mafia-like family that runs the show. And this is a film that comes from a self-professed wrestling fan... imagine what a less enthralled observer might have had to say.
Though we spend time with perhaps 30 wrestling stars, Beyond the Mat largely focuses on three of the sport's performers. Most in the foreground is Terry Funk, a legendary wrestler with 30 years of history, portrayed as an aging godfather and a battered veteran. Mick Foley (aka Mankind) is probably the most sympathetic of the group -- on stage he's a masked lunatic who can absorb an awful lot of pain, at home he's a loving family man that seems remarkably well adjusted. Last is Jake "The Snake" Roberts, portrayed as, well, a snake. Haunted by a past riddled with demons (beginning when his father raped and impregnated his 13-year-old mother), Roberts is a drug-addicted fallen star, understandably alienated from his family and living his life as a borderline criminal. Watching his self-destructive behavior is nothing short of fascinating.
While Beyond the Mat shows plenty of gruesome footage from inside the ring, the film's strongest parts are its candid interviews with the stars at home. It's hard to think of a wrestler as a real person, but they really do represent a true cross-section of the good and the bad in America, just like the rest of society. Blaustein unfortunately rambles on far too long with his voice-over, talking incessantly about himself and his relationship with the wrestlers, and how he feels about everything (and on the DVD, there's even a strange commentary track so you can hear Blaustein comment about how he feels talking about how he was talking about his feelings). Never mind that we really don't know who Blaustein is and we certainly don't care about him.
But Beyond the Mat's technical problems are dismissible considering the gripping power of its subject matter. It's hard to explain why a movie about wrestlers is so compelling, but it's probably the same thing that makes the WWF itself so popular. Just like a Royal Rumble, there's a story playing out for us on the screen. Only in Beyond the Mat, the story happens to be true.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th March 2000
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 12
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Barry W. Blaustein
Screenwriter: Barry W. Blaustein