Eager to Peddle
Ready to Rumble is ostensibly a simple comedy of bumbling bumpkins in this case lovers of professional wrestling along the lines of Farrelly brothers’ films like Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin. The film functions well as this sort of entertainment. The amiable buddies Gordie Boggs (David Arquette) and Sean Dawkins (Scott Caan) bumble nicely and the film provides a soundtrack kids want to hear (Kid Rock, Bif Naked, The Offspring, and George S. Clinton’s version of the “Sting Theme”), regular laughs, gross-outs, and gross-out laughs. The film peaks in its second scene as a convenience store becomes a wrestling ring and Gordie, his idol Jimmy King (Oliver Platt), Macho Man Randy Savage (a welcome sight), and the store clerk (Ahmet Zappa) wrestle. The remainder of the movie, while not as ingenious, does give the viewer several issues to consider.
The film’s status as a commercial for a variety of products is brazen. David Arquette is probably best known as a regular pitchman for AT&T’s collect calling program, whose logo appears prominently on a pay phone in the film (and on the film’s website, announcing a tie-in contest). And the characters drink Pepsi and eat Butterfingers. But professional wrestling is what’s really on sale here, and a particular brand of professional wrestling at that: Sean wears a WCW (World Championship Wrestling) t-shirt for at least half the film, other characters mention WCW owner Ted Turner’s cable channel TNT at least twice, and all wrestling events on screen feature the WCW logo.
Where the wonderful documentary Beyond the Mat focuses on the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and provides an unfavorable impression of that league and its boss, Vince McMahon, Ready to Rumble champions the WCW. It does this primarily by presenting the wrestlers (Goldberg, Sid Vicious, Sting, and many others) as themselves, and celebrating their status as fan’s objects of worship, repeatedly. Sean calls them the “greatest athletes of all time,” and wrestling audience shots show what seem to be thousands of satisfied, adoring disciples. The wrestlers and fans are set together against the fictional owner in the film, Titus Sinclair (Joe Pantoliano with long hair), who is all that’s bad about “authority” and wealth, the film’s wicked witch. Near film’s end, he asserts, “I created wrestling.” Gordie disagrees and speaks for the wrestling fans everywhere as he says, “We [the fans] made wrestling,” in a moment no less glorious than Rocky’s defeat of communist Russia (in the imposing form of Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky 4.
Just as Rocky had to overcome overwhelming odds (again), Gordie and other wrestling fans must earn this moment. Director Brian (Varsity Blues) Robbins’ film gives the two men a particular wrestler to idolize, a man who represents strength and courage: (fictional) wrestler Jimmy King. The narrative begins when evil Titus double-crosses Jimmy and crowns Diamond Dallas Page the new king of the WCW, banishing Jimmy from the league. Jimmy leaves town in disgrace, and obsessive fans Gordie and Sean make it their mission to find Jimmy and return him to his former glory at the center of professional wrestling.
Their success is preordained but the film’s treatment of these fans is more complicated than one may first suspect. The film’s promotion of the WCW (and pro wrestling in a more general sense) motivates the film’s doubleness in its treatment of wrestling fans, particularly Gordie and Sean, as both worthy of derision and (ultimately) admiration. The film is pre-sold to pro wrestling fans, so the filmmakers won’t alienate this likely audience, but they also want to appeal to an audience potentially hostile to pro wrestling and do this by making wrestling fans the object of humor. Gordie and Sean clearly are not the brightest guys in the world: they drive a sceptic truck and eat lunch on its bumper as sewage drips around them. Yet, they are also determined and loyal when moved to action. Gordie fools Zappa’s convenience store clerk into giving him a new icee (admittedly, using the most puerile of tricks) and he and Sean do manage to locate and remotivate Jimmy King.
When Gordie and Sean catch up with Jimmy King, he is hiding out in a mobile home, drunk and dressed as a woman. The ex-wrestling champion’s appearance in this scene is one of the many ways the film raises questions about masculinity, particularly the masculinity of wrestling, with a doubleness similar to the way it treats wrestling fans. Gordie and Sean weep after seeing the King lose his title and prominence, prompting kids behind me at the screening to call them “faggots” and “sissies,” and most viewers to laugh at their silliness. Yet, a running joke in the film is Gordie’s state trooper father regularly cringing at the sight of men hugging one another or “wearing skimpy outfits” and “touching other men.” While a walking icon of rigidly official “manhood” in his uniform and mirror sunglasses, dad’s feelings about wrestling set him apart from those fans who view it as hyper-masculine. Gordie’s dad represents the unbeliever, unable to see past the trappings to the “real values” taught by pro wrestling. And while Ready to Rumble uses him to suggest that wrestling may not be not be so simple in its depiction of masculine ideals, it does eventually tell wrestling fans what they seem to want to hear: wrestlers kick ass.
One particular moment in the film demonstrates how Steven Brill’s script raises and resolves what might be dicey questions about masculinity. The grim-visaged crowd favorite Sting aids the boys and Jimmy King in a climatic battle where Jimmy attempts to regain his belt. Sean can’t contain himself, joyfully proclaiming, “We’re men, and we’re not afraid to say we love other men!”, and then begs Sting to hug him. Sting flattens him with a straight right. Gordie gleefully says, “Me too!” and Sting obliges. This drew a big laugh from the crowd, and reassured all that wrestling is not for the “sensitive,” whatever Sean might have just said.
Sting’s punches are “real” in the world of the film and surprisingly, nearly all of the contact in the film is represented as “real,” even the wrestling scenes. When Gordie’s father asserts, “Wrestling’s fake,” Gordie goes red in the face and responds, “Wrestling’s not fake!” The film contradicts Gordie by presenting the fact that pro wrestlers are not trying to injure one another when Jimmy King loses his crown. He is horrified when Diamond Dallas Page hits him, not simply because Page is supposed to lose the match, but because the punch was “real.” This punch signals that, from this point forward, all the professional wrestling in the film is “real,” upping the “dramatic” ante and appeasing fans who want to believe.
The next lengthy fight scene takes place backstage at a WCW event, where Gordie and Sean have smuggled him in inside a port-o-potty. Enraged at Page and Titus’s posturings for a camera crew, Jimmy assaults Page with a toilet seat. Along with the convenience store scene, here we see that wrestling exists independent of the commercial trappings: it is a people’s event (and it increasingly occurs outside the ring in the WWF and WCW, an intriguing development in “real” life). The attack is captured on camera and televised live on the screens inside the arena for screaming fans. Speaking to the camera, Titus declares that King’s “ambush” victory does not count officially, so Jimmy has no claim to the championship belt. Titus then issues a challenge for a steel cage match between Page and Jimmy King, which will serve as the film’s climax. This fight too is “real” though presented for screaming fans as just another night of sports entertainment, another regular installment of Monday Nitro. The scene suggests that most wrestling fans are like Gordie in believing that it is “real,” at least for the duration of the “rumble.”
Whether fans are duped or not (few are), the blurring of fake violence and real violence is the central appeal of professional wrestling, a point this film makes repeatedly, including during a series of Jackie Chan style outtakes under the final credits. We see montages of flubbed lines and crotch kicks. The outtake which causes me to reflect on depictions of violence shows Oliver Platt accidentally connecting with Randy Savage’s chin as they try to fake a fight. Platt curses and lurches forward to check that Savage is alright. At this point, the similarities between movies and pro wrestling are clearer: both industries trade on spectacular depictions of danger, which must look convincing, even “real” to for the audience to get the most enjoyment out of them.
Director Robbins has said that he wanted to “give the movie the same exciting, dynamic qualities as you get live in the arena.” To accomplish this, he makes the hits massively loud, cuts rapidly, and places the camera all over the inside of the ring. Robbins’ feature length commercial is successful enough that I feel like reminding you that you need not visit wrestling “live in the arena,” you can get wrestling excitement with a click of your tv remote or call your local cable operator to bring the pay-per-view experience right into your home. Whether you watch wrestling for entertainment or to consider further how Ready to Rumble treats the “reality” of wrestling, masculinity, and wrestling fans, I bet you won’t be bored.