Dave’s Cultamania: Pro Wrestling and the Movie Industry
So you may well be thinking to yourself “why the hell is an article about ‘wrestling’ appearing on Geek-Pride?!” Well, as we rapidly approach the last major professional wrestling event of the year (WWE Survivor Series), I thought it would be an ideal time to drop some sort of article regarding something that has been a (sometimes grudgingly) labour of love of mine for many, many years.
From cherished childhood memories of colourful cartoonish warriors and giants, through teenage years spent watching rebellious Generation-X superstars, and now in adulthood supplementing my love of technical wizardry and Japanese Strong-Style by attending excellent local live events and pouring over episodes of Botchamania and OSWReview on youtube – I just can’t help but be a fan of the spectacle of pro wrestling.
For the novice/uninitiated, the main points that you need to know are:
- Professional wrestling is a niche/geek form of entertainment, which can be looked down upon by much of mainstream society – but it is also extremely popular world-wide, drawing around 36 million viewers in more than 150 countries annually. Fans are drawn from all ages, genders and economic demographics – as are the performers.
- Contrary to popular belief, pro wrestling is not a sport in the same way that MMA or even amateur wrestling would be. Instead it is purely entertainment-based, combining fictional storylines with scripted and choreographed matches. Yes, it is ‘fake’ (the performers, in most cases, aren’t actually hitting each other!), but the risks that performers must take during scripted matches are every bit as dangerous as other ‘real’ sports stars. Injuries are commonplace, and the career of an average performer can be very short.
- Like a movie, book or TV show, each performer has a carefully crafted and scripted character that they portray – this character is normally an exaggerated, larger-than-life individual.
- Also like a movie, book or TV show, there is usually a defined sense of good and evil. There are heroic good guys, commonly referred to as ‘baby-faces’, and there are villainous bad guys, usually known as ‘heels’. The more complex of storylines can introduce ‘shades of grey’ to character, but it is all dependent on how they are accepted by the audience – how ‘over’ a performer is with fans normally determines where a story should go.
- Finally, story lines are planned in advance and take place over a number of weeks, months or even years – with regular plot-twists to keep the viewer entertained. It’s essentially an alternative soap-opera with added fighting, if you will.
To tie this back to my usual type of article (i.e. bad movies), it can certainly be said that pro wrestling and its stars have long had an involvement in the movie industry. From iconic performances such as Harold Sakata as OddJob in Goldfinger (1964), Andre the Giant as the loveable Fezzik in The Princess Bride (1987), Macho Man Randy Savage as Bonesaw McGraw in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), and of course Jessie ‘The Body’ Ventura in 80s action classics Predator and The Running Man (both 1987) – there have been plenty of classics, but there have also been plenty of B-Movie stinkers. I’ve chosen to cover a few of my favourite movies (both good and bad) starting wrestling superstars…
No Holds Barred (1989)
While professional wrestling had been an extremely popular genre of entertainment in the U.S. and Canada from the end of the Second World War right up to the 1970s, it was during the 1980s that it truly became accepted by the mainstream.
Wrestling had always been a regional business, with various different wrestling organisations operating in separate areas/territories of the US. Each had its own management, its own roster of stars, and its own championship. Relationships between the individual organisations were normally very friendly, and the strict boundaries of where organisations could run live events meant that toes were very rarely stepped on. While the majority of the organisations were generally successful, their self-imposed boundaries meant that the scope to innovate and grow was severely limited.
One of these regional organisations was the World Wrestling Federation (then based primarily around the New York area). It’s ambitious (some say ruthless) young owner and chief operator, Vincent K. McMahon, had been working hard in the late 70s/early 80s to grow the WWF both reputationally and financially after taking over the running of the company from his father – but was becoming increasingly frustrated at the rules that seemed to be stifling this growth. He decided to branch out and attempt to take the WWF nationwide.
To do this he would need a star figurehead to build his promotion around – a larger-than-life, charismatic poster-boy that would appeal to fans in all of the separate wrestling territories, becoming more important and more relevant than the individual ‘champions’ that they each possessed. Luckily for McMahon, he had just the right person waiting in the wings – a 6 ft 8 in, 322 lb, bleach-blonde behemoth named Terry Bollea, better known by his ring-name: Hulk Hogan.
Hogan’s star had been on the rise since 1982, when he made a brief but incredibly memorable cameo in Rocky 3, as ‘Thunderlips’ – a massive bruiser wrestler that would beat up the Italian Stallion during a charity Boxing vs. Wrestling match, one of the films more comedic scenes. McMahon quickly used this movie appearance to his advantage, turning Hogan (at the time a storyline heel) into the fan-friendly WWF champion, and inviting some of Hogan’s new celebrity friends (such as Mr.T, Cyndi Lauper and Mohammed Ali) to be part of various wrestling storylines and events.
Not only did this send live-ticket and merchandising sales through the roof, but it also drew the attention of new MTV channel. In what would come to be known as the ‘Rock and Wrestling Connection’, the WWF and MTV began to cross promote each other, cementing wrestling into the public consciousness, and turning Hogan into professional wrestling’s first fully-fledged superstar. McMahon would use Hogan’s popularity throughout the rest of the 1980s (and the financial clout that this brought) to propel the WWF to the status of the No. 1 wrestling company in the U.S., and also to begin buying up all territory and stars held by his competitors.
But the ultimate of ambition of both Hogan and McMahon was to take Hogan out of the wrestling ring and put him on to the silver screen. It was 1980s – the age of the muscle-bound action star – and surely someone of Hogan’s stature and natural charisma would thrive in Hollywood given the right script. Unfortunately for all involved, the script that they ultimately settled on was one that would become the absolutely abysmal McMahon/WWF financed No Holds Barred.
Supposedly an “action drama”, No Holds Barred tells the story of professional wrestling champion Rip Thomas (basically Hogan playing himself), who is coveted by an evil television network executive Brell, determined to sign Rip exclusively to his network. When Rip turns down his offer, Brell hatches a dastardly revenge-driven plan to destroy Rip’s reputation and career. That plan involves a beautiful spy, the almost crippling and then kidnap of Rip’s weedy younger brother, trying to crush Rip to death in a limo, and a massive one-eyed ex-convict rival wrestler in the monstrous form of Zeus (Tony Lister – Friday, The Dark Knight). The plan, and the movie as a whole, is as bad and convoluted as it sounds.
Firstly, the film looks incredibly dated, even for an 80’s movie. Maybe it’s the relatively low budget (around $8million) combined with the dark and murky cinematography – but you’d think that this movie was a cheap and seedy exploitation feature from the 1970s, rather than a movie released in 1989! To think that Tim Burton’s Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2 and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out in the same year, is mental.
Secondly, for a supposed action movie, there’s not a lot of actual ‘action’ in it. Yes there are a few scenes of Rip beating up random thugs (not enough actual wrestling moves for my liking!), and a short motorcycle/car chase – but other than the boringly dragged-out climactic showdown between Rip and Zeus, there’s not much else to entertain those expecting to see one of Hogan’s WWF storylines transferred to the silver screen (which the movie was essentially sold on).
The performance of Kurt Fuller as main villain Brell is one of the most overblown and cheesy you’ll ever see. With his evil cackling, random ticks and constant outbursts of rage, you’d think he walked straight out of a pantomime. In fact, a modern comparison would be Jessie Eisenburg’s disastrous turn as Lex Luthor in the recent Batman V. Superman movie – only with added 80s hair and shoulder pads.
As for Hogan himself, I couldn’t imagine making this movie was much of a stretch. As I previously mentioned, he is essentially playing the same character he portrayed in the WWF for almost 15 years, only with a different name and different colour scheme for his tights. His biggest challenge was probably trying to show some sort of empathy/concern for his movie brother – as Hogan is reportedly one of the most self-obsessed and selfish individuals ever.
All-in-all, a pretty terrible movie that failed to capitalise on Hogan’s wrestling notoriety, while being universally panned by critics and fans alike, before quickly disappearing from movie theatres. While McMahon was able recoup his investment by marketing a WWF pay-per-view event linked to the movie (with Hogan v Zeus in an actual scripted wrestling match, which was surprisingly good for an 80s match), Hogan’s movie career continued to stumble from flop to flop (Suburban Commando (1991) and Thunder In Paradise (1994) being particular lowlights). The film is so badly regarded by the WWE management that it was referred to as “No Holds Barred? More like No Profits Allowed!” live on air a few years after its release.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch this, although the sight of Zeus being thrown through the floor of a wrestling ring, and it exploding in a massive burst of pyro for some reason, is pretty hilarious.
They Live! (1988)
From a terrible piece of dumb 80s action, to one of the most well-renowned sci-fi movies of all time – which just happens to have a wrestling superstar as its lead.
They Live! is a satirical sci-fi action film from director John Carpenter, and starring one of the most iconic pro wrestling stars of all time: the late Roderick Toombs – better known as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper. The movie is critically lauded for its intelligent commentary on 1980s American culture, particularly around the issues of class, homelessness and consumerism – as well as its dark humour, and iconic near-10min fight scene between Piper and his co-star Keith David.
The story of how Carpenter came to make They Live! starts as the director was in the midst of a supposed creative slump. After a string of box office successes with a range of exploitation movies in the late 1970s/early-mid 1980s (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, and Starman), Carpenter then produced a legitimate big-budget box office bomb with Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – and so he decided to scale down and resort back to the small-budgeted exploitation that had served him so well previously. He looked into his own childhood, and used some of his favourite TV shows from that time as a basis for new upcoming projects.
The first to arrive was Prince of Darkness (1987) – a dark, almost gothic horror movie inspired by the classic British TV series Quatermass, which mixed religious/satanic horror tropes with recent discoveries/theories in Quantum Physics. While it was a visually stunning movie, typical of Carpenter – the confused science-fact based storyline, and lack of a recognised star severely limited its box office appeal, and the film ended up being a financial and critical disappointment.
The second project was to be inspired by the iconic sci-fi series The Twilight Zone, and its frequent melding of the extraordinary/supernatural and normal every-day societal happenings. Carpenter bought the rights to the 1963 Ray Nelson short story ‘Eight O’ Clock in the Morning’ (in which a man is put into a trance by a stage-show hypnotist, only to discover that all of humanity has been secretly hypnotised to hide the fact that aliens have invaded), and set about turning it into a script that would feel like a Twilight Zone episode, while also incorporating themes on 1980s America – such as the overt influence that advertising and mass-media have over western society, the distrust of the upper classes under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the negative effect of rampant capitalism on the poorest classes, and the dangers of ‘status-quo’.
In casting the movie, Carpenter took the bold move of selecting Roddy Piper for the lead role of Nada, a drifter turned resistance fighter. Canadian-born Piper, who had been an amateur boxing champion before transitioning to professional wrestling in the mid-1970s, became a superstar in the WWF in the early 1980s. Whereas Hulk Hogan was the baby-face champion adored by the fans, Piper was the heel bad guy that everyone despised. Whether it was breaking a coconut over the head of the fan-favourite ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka, cheating while fighting Mr. T in a staged boxing match, or the kilt and bagpipes that he would use to rile the fans (the ‘Rowdy’ character played on Piper’s Scottish family roots), his natural charisma and intensity was plain to see.
One of those who saw it first-hand was Carpenter, who saw Piper fight at Wrestlemania 3 (1987), and immediately thought of him for They Live! Piper had already made his acting debut in the B-movie creature feature Hell Comes to Frogtown (fans of so-bad-they’re-good movies should definitely check it out), but They Live! was a different beast altogether.
In the interest of honesty, I need to state how much of a fan I am of John Carpenter. His movies, especially those released within his fabulous run in the 70s and 80s (In the Mouth of Madness is the only one of his more recent releases that I enjoy), were a massive part of my childhood and continue to demand inclusion in my ‘favourite movies’ list (The Thing currently sits at no.4).
I would definitely consider They Live! as one of his best. While not as innovative as say Halloween or Big Trouble…, or as overtly exciting as Precinct 13 or Escape From New York – the intelligence and unusualness of its script, the intensity of its lead performances, its slight comedic edge (who could forget Nada’s “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…” line?), and the typical bleak Carpenter ending, really pushes it above a standard exploitation piece. Unfortunately, like Prince of Darkness before it, it was a box office bomb, and Carpenter’s career never again reached his earlier heights. It did however find an audience on home video, and like many of Carpenter’s movies, has gone on to be seen as a cult classic.
I can’t review this film without properly mentioning the incredible fight scene. Without a doubt one of the greatest movie fights of all time, it’s a scene that (pardon the pun) doesn’t pull any punches. Whereas most movie fights of that era would have been polished Rocky-esqe staged fight, with plenty of overly-dramatic punches and slow-motion reaction shots – this scene is nothing more than two tough guys beating the absolute shit out of each other in an alleyway for almost ten minutes. It’s gritty and harsh, these guys wrestle in the gutter and are covered in the bruises and dirt to prove it – the standard chiselled action hero with a slight cut on his cheek and sweat to show off his abs, this definitely isn’t. Carpenter’s direction is masterful in this scene (as is the film’s cinematography and editing) – there are moments of humour, there are moments when the action stops, allowing the obviously knackered guys breathe and recuperate (and the audience to as well!) before launching back into it. Plus Piper’s use of a few choice wrestling moves (suplex anyone?) is also fantastic. The movie is worth a watch for this alone.
Mirroring Carpenter’s own decline in popularity and success post They Live!, Piper too found it hard to find his feet in the acting world. With no further movie scripts coming, he returned to wrestling in 1989 while making guest-starring roles in various TV shows such as Robocop: The Series, Walker: Texas Ranger, and The Love Boat in the years following. While he never achieved mainstream success in acting, his show-stealing appearances as ‘Da Maniac’ in a few episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia put him back into the public consciousness, before he sadly died in his sleep from a heart attack in 2015, aged 61.
Worth noting is the how the film has also made a recent resurgence into the public consciousness due to work of artist Shepard Fairey – with his ‘OBEY’ street-art and subsequent clothing line proving a massive pop-culture success, while inadvertently and ironically being used in the same advertising and mass-media that both the movie and the art had previously lampooned.
An all-round excellent movie, I would recommend all fans of smart contemporary sci-fi to check it out.
The Condemned (2007)
While a lot of wrestling stars have attempted and mostly failed to achieve proper success in the movie industry, one person who continues to push for recognition and success is Vince McMahon himself. While his WWE (the renamed WWF – they lost a court case for use of the WWF acronym to the World Wildlife Fund back in 2003) continues to be the world leader in the pro wrestling industry, Vince has always sought to branch out and involve the WWE in various other industries.
His first bright idea in the early-90s was somewhat unsurprisingly competitive body-building. With McMahon always preferring his wrestling performers to be on the large and muscular size, it seemed like an easy transition to apply the usual pro wrestling aesthetics (giving performers a staged character, partly scripting the outcome of contests, etc.) to another gang of large and muscular performers. Unfortunately for McMahon, the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF) was a dull, niche enterprise – and with both TV ratings and live event attendance in the toilet, it was disbanded after just less than 2 years in business.
Vince’s next idea was for-some-reason American football. After unsuccessfully attempting to buy firstly an NFL franchise and then secondly the whole CFL (Canadian Football League), in true egotistical McMahon style, he decided that he would simply create his own league instead. The XFL (which stood for either the ‘Xtreme Football League’ or ‘Xtra Fun League’, depending on various accounts) launched in 2001 during the standard NFL offseason. Featuring a fraction of the budget and a fraction of the talent of the other football leagues (the teams were made up of players that had been dumped from NFL/CFL teams), the league was destined to fail. This wasn’t helped by the fact that McMahon seemed to use the football games as simply a way of advertising his WWF TV shows – oh, and hiring actual strippers to be cheerleaders for the teams probably didn’t help either. The XFL ended after one highly unsuccessful season with a loss of $35million for the WWF.
But his longest lasting ‘other business’ has been WWE Films. Started during the height of the Attitude Era boom of the early 2000s, WWE Films was marketed as a high-end film production company under the management of the highly successful Lions Gate Films umbrella. Under this agreement, WWE would invest capital into range of movies to be released by Lions Gate, with the caveat that a current WWE star would be cast in a starring or high-supporting role. What followed was a catalogue of uninspired, cheap, and nasty movies seeing the light of day, simply because a random wrestler was in it. The vast majority of these movies have been savaged by the critics, have lost a ton of money at the box-office, or at worst gone straight to DVD mediocrity. While there are actually a few hidden gems amongst the garbage, if I’m being honest the only one of these movies that is worth even checking out is The Condemned – a action movie vehicle specifically designed for one purpose: to help transition ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin from wrestling star to a movie star.
Steve Austin is simply the biggest and most influential superstar in the history of pro wrestling, period. Yes, Hulk Hogan is probably more of a recognisable historical icon for the casual fan, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (more on him later) has become a bonefied major film star in the past few years – but when it comes to defining who the biggest star at the time of wrestling’s highest popularity, The Texas Rattlesnake will always be it. But it almost wasn’t that way.
During the mid-1990s the wrestling was on its knees. Overly cartoony and childish characters were all the rage (wrestling clowns, wrestling garbage men, and a wrestling yeti being the perfect indication of how ludicrously bad it had become), and the fans were tuning out in droves because of it. Steven Austin was a great in-ring performer, but was languishing in the WWF mid-card as a dull heel character called ‘The Ringmaster’ – and when the management team couldn’t decide on what to do with his character, Austin simply asked if he could simply play a slightly more extreme version of himself. They agreed, and the Stone Cold character was quickly born: a brash, tough, anti-authority Texas hick heel that would antagonise and fight other heels just as quickly as he would the squeaky-clean baby-faces. The character caught on in a major way, and the fans who had grown tired of the whiter-than-white heroes started to gravitate to the anti-hero Austin.
Management, sensing an opportunity, started to introduce more mature content, and the Attitude Era was born – a cultural phenomenon, which was essentially a combination of pro wrestling and late-90s slacker/nu-metal culture, with a more hardcore style of wrestling, and increased sexualisation of the female performers (shockingly and sarcastically renamed as ‘divas’ for the following 15 years or so). Pro wrestling exploded into the public consciousness, gaining record-breaking TV ratings and live event attendance – all with Austin as its figurehead, and his infamous ‘Austin 3:16’ t-shirt flying off the shelves. It was only natural that WWE Film’s first big-budget movie would be a vehicle for Austin.
Let’s be straight – The Condemned is a bad movie, but it’s still a relatively fun watch if brainless and overly violent action is your bag. To say that it ‘borrows’ from other movies would be a ginormous understatement. The plotline of a group of criminals fighting to survive in a sadistic gameshow, with freedom as the ultimate prize, is hardly new (The Running Man did this long before, and better – Arnie was at his quip-throwing best in the late 80s) – as was the concept of a future where reality-TV hyper-violent ‘sports’ were all the rage (Death Race 3000, Rollerball). Plus I would be remiss by not mentioning that the island setting and the fight to the death between the competitors is a blatant rip off of the Japanese exploitation classic Battle Royale. But somehow, even with a comparison to these other much better movies, I still find myself enjoying an occasional watch of The Condemned.
On film, as in the pro-wrestling world, Austin is a pretty good actor – with his legitimate all-American tough guy shtick lending itself perfectly into action cinema. You can actually believe that his punches and kicks are doing proper damage during fights, unlike a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt (with their perfectly waxed hairstyles and ice-white smiles hiding their inability to throw a decent looking punch!). There is a grounded feel to the majority of the violence in the movie – it’s gritty and nasty, and the surprisingly good cinematography and use of practical special effects helps to keep it that way.
As with every good action movie, a tough protagonist deserves a worthy antagonist – and The Condemned provides this in spades with the one and only Vinnie ‘bloody’ Jones. A former English football (soccer) star, Jones was one of the most feared athletes in the sport – combining an underrated passing game with a tough streak that earned regular disciplinary problems and many enemies within the sport. Upon his retirement, he lucked into what was meant to be a relatively small acting role in the English low-budget gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). The movie was a surprising hit in the UK and the States, and Jones one of the two breakout stars from it (the other being Jason Statham, who later rocketed into the action ‘A’-list with the Transporter series). After a successful follow-up in Snatch (2000), Jones was tempted to try his hand in Hollywood – first in Michael Bay’s car-heist actioner Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), and then in an unintentionally hilarious turn as The Juggernaut (bitch!) in the absolutely woeful X-Men – The Last Stand (2006). While still successful, the movie essentially stalled his major Hollywood push, and he has been relegated to the smaller exploitation movies (and occasional reality-TV appearance) ever since – which brings us back to The Condemned.
Jones’ stone-faced, evil, murderous cockney wide-boy is one of the most random bad guys in action movie history, but in the context of this movie, it’s exactly what is needed. While the film is fun, it does have its fair share of problems. There are a multitude of plot-holes – characters disappearing and then reappearing without any explanation, a multitude of shots that are meant to be taken by CCTV cameras but which are not feasible when you actually think about it – which succeed in taking away some of the grittiness/realness of the movie. There’s a slight preachy tone throughout the movie – most characters needing to have a ‘tragic’ motivation or back-story, which is unnecessary for a movie supposedly about mass-murderers massacring each other on an island. Worst of all, while the fights involving Austin and Jones are generally very good, the fight choreography for the rest of the ‘competitors’ is rather hit and miss for a genre action movie of this size. There is also gore in spades, but of a cheap and nasty style which doesn’t add much to the movie’s quality.
Expectation for the movie was huge, and it was given a large international release in conjunction with a standard nation-wide domestic distribution. However, the movie was a disastrous bomb, attracting universally negative reviews and a near $16million loss at the box office. This brought a halt to Austin’s position as a possible lead movie star, relegating him to smaller (but quite successful) supporting roles in movies such as The Expendables (2010) and Grown Ups 2 (2013). WWE Films were also affected by the negative reaction to The Condemned, resulting in the down-scaling of budgets for all future projects – including even a sequel to The Condemned staring current WWE star Randy Orton (which is absolutely pathetic, to be honest).
In conclusion, The Condemned was never going to be intelligent high-art cinema, but it’s a lot more fun than some reviewers would have you believe. If you love the classic 80s brainless action of Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Norris, then you should thoroughly enjoy this movie. Give it a chance – there’s a lot worse out there.
While Steve Austin’s acting career never reached the levels that were expected by both the WWE and the film industry – it was actually another Attitude Era star that took advantage of the WWE’s push into movies, outgrew the stigma and often terrible roles that came with being a wrestler, and finally reached the promised land of genuine movie stardom.
Dwayne Johnson, better known by his wrestling alter-ego ‘The Rock’, has always had the aura of being special. A member of the famed Anoa’i family of Samoan wrestlers (his maternal grandfather ‘High Chief’ Peter Maivia was one of wrestling’s biggest stars in the 50s and 60s), and the son of Rocky Johnson, a pioneer for African-American performers in the wrestling industry during the 70s – wrestling was always in Dwayne’s blood.
When a promising career in American football was curtailed by injury during the mid-90s, he was quickly snapped up by Vince McMahon and the WWF, and renamed ‘Rocky Maivia’ (a tribute to both his father and grandfather). His push was almost meteoric, with Johnson being marketed as “wrestling’s first 3rd generation star”, and him being given the WWF Intercontinental championship (2nd only to the world title in terms of company prestige) relatively shortly after debuting. But his blue-chipper status and youthful baby-face enthusiasm was a turn-off for the fans used to cheering the anti-hero exploits of stars such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels. He was mercilessly booed everywhere he went (the constant chanting of “Rocky Sucks!” became a staple at WWF live events), and like Austin before him, Johnson asked to become a heel – and so ‘The Rock’ was born.
Through his Rock persona, Johnson marketed himself as a cocky playboy, only interested in his own selfish agenda. His promo interviews where often filled with bile against the fans who had turned against him, and so felt real – but they were also usually hilarious, filled with various fan-friendly catchphrases. Between these promos and a series of iconic matches against Stone Cold, the Rock character couldn’t help but get over with the fans, and so he became a face again – even carrying the company when Austin had to take a year off due to back injury.
With his chiselled physique, natural charm and undoubted acting talent, the WWF was able shoehorn Johnson into appearing as the Scorpion King in the blockbuster Mummy Returns movie in 2002, which proved so successful that it led to a standalone Scorpion King movie shortly after. Johnson was now seen as a bankable action-movie star, and the highest profile of the movies that soon followed was Doom.
Based on the video game phenomenon of the same name, Doom is a 2005 action horror movie in which Johnson stars as the leader of a troop of space marines sent to investigate strange and violent happenings within a scientific colony base on Mars. What follows is a desperate battle for survival, as the marines fight against horrific monsters, and try to learn the reason behind their sudden appearance.
The project was originally developed by Warner Bros. as an all-out action movie vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the back of the overwhelming success of the Doom 2 game back in the mid 90s – but due to budget issues and Arnie choosing to concentrate on other projects, it was unfortunately lapsed into development hell for a number of years. By the time development re-started, this time under Universal Studios, Doom 3 had been released on PC and consoles to great fanfare and massive sales – and the change in style and tone of that game had a knock-on effect in influencing the approach to the 2005 Doom movie adaption. Gone was the ‘run and gun’ bombastic style of earlier scripts to be replaced with an emphasis on survival horror, jump scares and monsters in the shadows.
Gone too were any references to Hell, Satan or the various monsters being any kind of demons – instead the monsters were the result of genetic experimentation gone wrong, in the same way that you’ve seen before in a million terrible sci-fi movies. Essentially the movie is a hi-tech update of The Island of Dr. Moreau meets Resident Evil meets The Relic, which is a shame as I think the concept of Hell would have allowed the film-makers to be more creative with the creatures, and also include more of the iconic antagonists from the games (the Cacodemon and Revenants were particularly missed) in order to spice up the action. Watching the cast fight the same mutated zombies and the odd Hell Knight was in danger of becoming a little dull. The fantastic creature effects work by Stan Winston is an absolute joy.
In terms of the cast, amongst the clichéd colonial marine rip-offs, and stupid monster-fodder scientists, only three characters manage to stand out – Richard Brake as the sleazy comic-relief Portman, Karl ‘Dredd’ Urban as the stoic Reaper, and Johnson himself as team-leader Sarge. Johnson was still relatively early in his top-billing career at this time, and there is a sense of awkwardness whenever the character is doing something other than fighting or barking orders in a stereotypical ‘action movie’ way. But that actually plays perfectly into the storyline, as it aids the misdirection of (spoiler) Sarge slowly switching from main protagonist to main antagonist during the course of the movie. It’s impossible to deny that Johnson has an insane amount of natural charisma, even when playing what could be considered a bland character like Sarge. Karl Urban steals the show, though (as he does in most films he appears in).
The most famous/notorious scene in the Doom movie is undoubtedly the FPS section, where for 5mins the camera mimics the view of Reaper, and we see through his eyes as fights his way through a horde of zombies/monsters utilising a range of guns and a chainsaw (a Doom classic). The sequence is as inventive as it is ludicrous – and includes touches of humour that was sorely lacking throughout the rest of the movie. It’s definitely the scene that pays most homage to the original game series.
While Doom was neither a critical nor a financial success (it just about made its production cost back), the positive reaction to Johnson’s performance was more than enough to consolidate the feeling within Hollywood that he had the potential to be the ‘next big thing’. A range of roles followed over the next few years, from wholesome family fare such as The Tooth Fairy (2010), to high-profile comedies like The Other Guys (2010). But it was his show-stealing role as Agent Hobbs in Fast Five (2011) which pushed him to superstardom – and with continued involvement in the Fast and Furious franchise, and the mega successful disaster movie San Andreas ($470m worldwide) pushing Johnson to the position of being the highest paid actor in Hollywood in 2015.
While his regular wrestling days are long behind him, Johnson still makes sporadic appearances with the WWE – normally as a special attraction (presenting awards/events, helping to elevate or promote current wrestling stars, etc.), but still squeezing in the odd match when called for. Johnson has truly transcended his wrestling roots, but still celebrates the industry that made him a star, which is a credit to him.
I really enjoy Doom, which I’ll freely admit. It’s big and dumb, but still has more than enough excitement and genuine affection for its source material (even if it’s linked to the inferior Doom 3, and not the classic games) to be enjoyed by fans of sci-fi action and gaming related movies. Compare this to the abysmal game-adaption movies unleased by Uwe Boll and the like, and you’ll find that Doom more than holds its own.
Here’s hoping for a new adaption based on the incredible 2016 Doom game.
***Just as a matter of note – I’m very interested in possibly starting a Geek-Pride wrestling blog/discussion group (perhaps even a podcast) in the near future. If anyone would like to get involved, please drop me a message or email***