Sometimes you just know a film is bound to fail. You know it will be bad, you can feel it in your chest like rising pangs of anxiety. By then, it is too late. The lights dim and the projector rolls, blasting images of disgrace and shame all over the screen. Why did it have to be this way? There was the promise of something good. “Interesting premise” comes to mind, the inherent phrase of all films that fall short and leave you more bewildered than bewitched. So now is the time to examine the faults and think over how this could have been better. Did this film deserve better? What worked, what didn’t. Now is the time to remake the film in your own image.
ReMake Me Over: Ready To Rumble
In April of 2000, Ready To Rumble was released as a cross-promotional effort by World Championship Wrestling (WCW) to plant itself in mainstream pop culture, as though the past 10 years or so hadn’t produced anything of note for them. You really can’t blame them. At this point in its history, WCW was a company in flux. Prior to 1999, they were largely dominating what has been dubbed the “Monday Night Wars;” a series of weekly ratings battles between them and rival wrestling promotion, the World Wrestling Federation (now, World Wrestling Entertainment). As we drew closer to the new millennium, things began to change for WCW. Their biggest draws like Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall were either burning out, too apathetic, or too drunk to care anymore. Over-pushed stars like Goldberg were showing their limitations as wrestlers. The old guard including names like Sting, Diamond Dallas Page, and Ric Flair were on autopilot or indifferent. Their under-pushed undercard was beginning to get fed up with several of them jumping ship for the competition. Beyond that, they had a bit of an identity crisis when their biggest cash cow, heel stable the New World Order, was milked dry. Essentially, they needed to make a statement to remind people they existed. Something big. Something glamorous. A futile and stupid gesture was needed. So they did like so many other people did in a time of great depression: they headed west. A direct flight from Atlanta to Hollywood later and a movie was optioned featuring their greatest and most legendary wrestler: Oliver Platt.
Yes, patron saint of character actors Oliver Platt. Who wasn’t even a wrestler. He wasn’t even portraying a fictionalized version of a real wrestler. No, he was playing the part of the Jimmy “The King” King, a past-their-prime wrestler with a name that sounds like a placeholder and a gimmick that was out of date before 1998. Not to mention that he is dressed like a reject from Medieval Times, but that’s not what’s wrong with this film, and I’ll get to that shortly.
The plot of …Rumble follows two best friends played by David Arquette and Scott “Son of James” Caan. They’re adults stuck in arrested development and obsessed with professional wrestling. Everyone else around them keeps dropping the dreaded “F” word (fake) to their faces, causing them to hulk out in the most adolescent of white suburban male rage. They have dreams of ditching their go-nowhere jobs and leaving their no-trick-pony town in the dust but due to circumstances of being complete idiots, those dreams pretty much dissolve like orange peels in an acid bath. They attend a broadcast of WCW’s weekly wrestling program, Nitro, that promises an appearance of their favorite wrestler, Jimmy “The Bloated” King and they couldn’t be more stoked. However, that enthusiasm is about to be sucked down the toilet like a bountiful turd.
Did I not mention that Arquette and Caan’s characters work in sewage, driving a tanker truck equipped to drain septic tanks? Because they do. It isn’t crucial to the plot. In fact, a lot of things aren’t crucial to the plot but get pranced about because I think this movie was in need of filler.
The King is set to defend his World Heavyweight Championship but is in for a surprise when the evil authority figure played by Joe Pantoliano in a cowboy hat and leather vest pulls an ol’ switcheroo and calls for The King to get dethroned. He sics a goon squad of wrestlers to administer a brutal beatdown upon The King in effort to relinquish him of the belt and take him out of the business for good. The King is vanquished, Joey Pants gets to rule with a tyrannical fist over WCW and Arquette and Caan are left devastated by the supreme burial of their beloved idol. The End.
Oh, wait. No, that’s not the end. The film continues from there and finds our dubious duo in search of The King and their attempts to work his ass back into shape for the redemption arc he sort of deserves. There’s a lot of sophomoric humor, lame jokes, an inconsequential romantic subplot that involves subterfuge, and a wasted Martin Landau doing his damn best “Classy” Freddie Blassie impression. The film carries on somehow, reaching a climax wherein The King gets his due and conquers evil in the land of professional wrestling, exiling Joey Pants and his corrupt cabal from the business. Along the way, Arquette’s dad also learns how to respect his son and his love for wrestling. Everyone gets a happy ending and now The End.
Sort of, I guess. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about this film.
I glossed over a lot of the film, but that’s because the plot isn’t worth digging into. Why? Because the plot is barely there. I don’t want to harp on the movie too much because while it isn’t bad, it isn’t good either. It isn’t quite mediocre, but it does miss the mark more than it hits. It’s just a poorly executed not-to-well-thought-out love letter to wrestling fandom. I think one of the biggest problems with the movie is how it chooses to depict WCW and the business of wrestling itself.
Wrestling is an artform. It isn’t a sport, but it is very athletic. There’s a reason why it is often called “the violent ballet.” It is choreographed and requires tons of cooperation between the two (or more) competitors fighting it out in the squared circle. Wrestling is predicated on storylines; there are feuds and angles wrestlers follow to the forgone conclusion of resolving their problems in the ring. Wrestling is also predetermined, which is the better way of saying it is fake. The action is very much real but the outcomes are not. That wrestling is largely a work (scripted to look real) is something …Rumble doesn’t quite get.
The plot revolving around The King getting ousted from WCW is presented as a shoot (the opposite of a work, when something is actually real), with Joey Pants looking to consolidate his power behind the scenes by removing someone he does not see as a fit. He positions his Number One Guy, Diamond Dallas Page (who, at this time in real life, was a good guy) to get the job done. Now, this isn’t a bad plot device, but its reasoning is weak. If Pantoliano as an authority figure with booking power felt that a wrestler like The King was not as big of a star as he should be, then it would be quite easy to book him to lose and put the belt on someone else. Treating wrestling like a sport that can easily be fixed for nefarious ends is like cheating at solitaire: you know this is going to end a certain way, so why does it ultimately matter?
I’d have a bigger problem if …Rumble tried to pass itself off as a much smarter movie, but since it also fails at being a dumb movie, it gets a pass from me. Yes, I did see this movie when it came out and yes, I thought it was the coolest thing at the time, but my tastes in film have mostly evolved as has my love of wrestling. I’m no longer a mark (someone who thinks it is real) but by no means am I the smartest of smart marks, or “smarks” (people who know wrestling is a work but treat it like it’s real to an extent). What I would want out of the film is influenced by a couple of wrestling films that were released in the previous decade: The Wrestler and Fighting With My Family.
What made those films work was their dedication to portraying wrestling as a profession. For the characters, wrestling was a means to live. It provided both financial and emotional support. There was depth. Wrestling was real for those involved. The Wrestler was about a journeyman wrestler trying to live the rockstar lifestyle twenty years past its expiry date. He was a man out of time and did his best to hang tough with those younger than him, and though his best days were behind him, he knew nothing else but life on the road and life in the ring. He wasn’t meant for the “normal” conventions of living.
In contrast, Fighting With My Family was more hopeful as it was a family film about a wrestling family. It is an adaptation of real-life wrestler Paige’s upbringing and her journey from small time to big time. The film focuses on her struggles with her life away from her family, her struggles to fit in her training class, her struggles to be herself, and her struggles with self-doubt. The film’s primary message is believing in yourself, but beneath that it is also about not judging others because everyone has problems you don’t see. It is a bit saccharine and takes some liberties with historical accuracy, but I would rate this higher than most biopics because it isn’t boring.
What also works for those films is that they treat wrestling as a metaphor as much as it is a real thing. That’s how other sports films treat sports. Bull Durham isn’t about baseball; it’s about relationships and personal growth. Major League isn’t about baseball either; it’s about proving to yourself and others that you’re meant to be great. And Rudy wasn’t about college football; it was about Sean Astin showing everyone he could be more than just that kid from The Goonies. Or something like that. I have never seen Rudy. I don’t like Notre Dame. Regardless, the sports shown in those films mostly exist in the background or are just set pieces in the larger plot. They serve as transitions between points in a character’s journey from beginning to middle to end. They represent the struggles and hardships they had to encounter and endure to get where they are today.
So what can be done with …Rumble that would make it a better movie? How can we improve it?
To start, drop anything that does not involve a wrestler and his fans. Shave those plot points off and we’ll have a leaner story to build on. That should leave us with the following storylines:
- A longtime wrestling veteran being pushed out by a promotion looking to update its image
- Said wrestling promotion is run by a corrupt owner looking to consolidate their power with ruthless aggression and has no problem exercising such against anyone who oppose them
- A couple of fans who find themselves at a crossroads with their fandom when they witness the downfall of their hero and learn the truth about how cruel the business can treat even its biggest stars
That last plot point should follow the logic that fans understand wrestling is a work and that everything is predetermined. We are in the post-kayfabe era; everything you need to know about what’s going on behind the scenes can be found easily on the internet. Fans get that wrestling isn’t real but that shouldn’t prevent the movie from being to dig deeper into the politics of wrestling. The fault the original …Rumble had was not blurring the lines of what is real and what is staged but forgetting the rules it had set up, so it’s important that these rules are hardcoded and immutable.
- Wrestling is a business first, predetermined second
- Fans know it to be predetermined but their enjoyment for it is not diminished
With those rules in place, we can start weaving together the fabrics of the story.
I may have criticized how they characterized Jimmy “The King” King; that doesn’t mean there isn’t something about it that works. If you’re looking to tell the story of how a washed-up has-been wrestler can’t hack it in a modern or evolving industry, then he’s practically perfect. Especially if they’re contracted to a promotion that has no reverence for the wrestlers of old. Keeping that mind, the rest of the story can fall in place.
The film can center around this relic who still has a lot of pull and manages to capture gold once more in their career, not because it makes sense from a (wrestling) storyline perspective, but because he politicked himself into getting booked to win. A couple months into their latest reign, the numbers are in and the writing is on the wall: though he’s still quite popular, it’s with the older demographic and he’s not drawing in enough younger fans, and his merch sales (the new defacto metric for certain promotions) are too low for a champion of any level. The company brass are not pleased with this and decide to go in a new direction to push a young up and comer that they signed a while back. They feel strongly about them and feel like strapping a rocket to him and shooting him to the moon. To do so, they have to convince the champ this is the right thing to do. He doesn’t feel strongly and tries to pull veto power on the angle, but pressure is applied suggesting that if he doesn’t agree, then he can kiss goodbye his lofty contract and the lavish lifestyle it affords. He complies and all appears to be worked out: at the next pay per view event, he’ll drop the belt and quietly retire, getting to sit out the rest of his contract in the comfort of his home. What they don’t know is what the champ has up his sleeve.
At the pay per view, the main event match of past-their-prime champion versus next big thing is about to begin. The bell rings and before a move can be made, the champ drops to his back and lays down for the young star. The referee and the rookie are befuddled and confused. The champ shouts for his opponent to pin him, to which he finally complies, reluctantly resting his foot atop the champ’s chest and the referee meagerly slaps the one-two-three. After the new champ is crowned, the relieved loser stands up and calls for a microphone. He launches into a brief but powerful tirade against the promotion and industry, how they don’t respect the people who paved the way for the new wave of wrestlers. How no one cares about showmanship, just marketability and branding. He’s not only burning bridges; he’s trying to burn down the whole damn industry. This pisses off those in power and they effectively terminate his contract, leaving him flat broke and forced to live a life in obscurity and destitution. Now this is a more compelling start than in the original.
Where the film goes from there really depends on what needs to be accomplished. Is this a redemption story or a revenge story? I think the original …Rumble didn’t quite know what it wanted to do with Jimmy King’s arc. He’s been beaten down and kicked out, but he’s not interested in proving anything to anyone. He’s not happy in his new life, but he’s not exactly clamoring for change. So let’s focus on this being a redemption story that gets driven by the tenacity of two plucky longtime fans who felt that this version of The King deserved better than he got. They seek him out and convince him to come out of hiding. They show him that his “pipe bomb” caused a ripple effect throughout the wrestling world, from the major leagues down to the independent circuit and across fandoms of all kinds. Seeing the effect he had globally, he feels invigorated and agrees to join forces with the lads. Where that takes them, who really knows.
If we’re sticking with the redemption arc, it doesn’t make sense for him to return to his former promotion. So maybe throw him into the independent circuit and have him take a crash course on reinvention. This is where he learns that he took much of his career and status for granted. Yes, after his insolence, daring to bite the hand that feeds, he was banished and subjected to living below his prior means. Here, he sees that so many wrestlers have to live without security, without a safety net to keep them from crashing to the floor. Their lives are on the line, physically and financially. The truth of professional wrestling is that nearly all wrestlers are independent contractors. What they earn goes back into their funds for travel, lodging, food, fuel, and medical bills. The gig economy had always existed, it was just once very well hidden.
I don’t want to do a beat by beat breakdown of a proposed spec script. That would be akin to fantasy booking, and I don’t have the time for that either. What I wanted to address was that there were obvious flaws in Ready to Rumble that held it back from being a better movie, not necessarily a great movie. In the two decades since its original release, wrestling has changed and movies about wrestling have improved. Most films are deserving of such a second chance but we know Hollywood will remake films on a cycle when the opportunity strikes and the money is guaranteed. I think …Rumble is prime for rematch.
Thoughts from the author…
My intention for this feature is to look back at films that had “an interesting premise” but for some reason failed on the execution. They may not be beloved or have ever achieved cult status. I also want my write-ups to not be a strict analysis or verge off into a full re-write of the film reviewed. I want to highlight the faults that prevented the film from being better (not necessarily excellent but at least a notch above mediocre).
I also want this feature to be open to all and anyone else who feels as strongly about second chances as I sort of do. If there’s enough interest in this, then I’ll work out a means to make that possible.