The Mother Brain Files: WWE Gone Hollywood
By Mother Brain
When Vince McMahon took over his fatherâ€™s wrestling organization in the early 80s, he wanted it to be less about wrestling and more about being an entertainment spectacle. He accomplished those goals early on with the signing of Rocky III star Hulk Hogan, the cross promotion with MTV by involving 80s music icon Cyndi Lauper into a bombshell storyline to fuel the Hogan/Roddy Piper feud, and the eventual creation of what would be known as Wrestlemania. Vince wanted his superstars to be larger than life not only in the ring but also on television, toy shelves, comic books, and even music!
So it was only inevitable that movies were the next important step in making WWE the top entertainment organization around. Over the years, various wrestlers from Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper to The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and John Cena have caught the acting bug. Many failed. Some played caricatures of themselves. Only one became truly successful.
WWEâ€™s first movie producing effort came in 1989 with the action comedy, No Holds Barred, starring Hulk Hogan. The film was a quasi-reflection of Hoganâ€™s incredible popularity in the 80s where he plays a good-natured wrestling champion named Rip who gets forced into facing an overzealous TV producer and his brutal competitor named Zeus. It was made at the time when Hogan toyed around leaving the wrestling business in hopes of becoming the next Stallone and Schwarzenegger in movies; however, the WWE stigma did more harm than good to his film career. To promote the film, Vince hired Hoganâ€™s opponent in the film, Tiny â€˜Zeusâ€™ Lister, to wrestle in WWE so they can have fiction and reality blur to draw a lot of buzz. Even though the movie more or less broke even due to distribution fees, No Holds Barred became more of a cult laughing stock than a serious movie. Just watch the â€œdookieâ€ scene and youâ€™ll see what I mean.
As time passed, WWEâ€™s popularity dropped once Hogan retired not once but twice in the 90s. Despite top early 90s stars like Ultimate Warrior and Bret Hart toying with the idea of doing movies for the company, they could not bring mainstream success to the company and therefore the idea of WWE making movies around their stars was out of the question. Yet, the wrestling boom of late 90s turned many top stars into big time celebrities. Now with WWE becoming a publicly traded company, a new movie division was put into the works: WWE Films.
The new studioâ€™s first major effort was capitalizing on The Rockâ€™s glorified cameo from The Mummy Returns. While his first starring role, The Scorpion King, was nothing more than a 90 minute audition tape, it was The Rockâ€™s next movie, The Rundown, in 2003 that showed what can make WWE Films special. The combination of Rockyâ€™s charisma on screen, an impressive cast that included Seann William Scott and Christopher Walken, and a talented director in the form of Peter Berg equaled a 3 star production that critics praised. That excitement and enthusiasm carried over into the companyâ€™s remake of Walking Tall which again was another entertaining effort by the Great One himself.
But by 2005, The Rock decided to drop his wrestling name and quit the wrestling business to make movies full time. So WWE Films had to capitalize on projects involving their current roster as well as legends like Stone Cold Steve Austin. Their first sole producing efforts came in 2006 with the horror flick, See No Evil, starring Kane and the Commando knock-off, The Marine, starring the company poster boy, John Cena. Both films had small budgets, fewer stars, and hack directors (one of which is a porn director!) which resulted in small box office returns. Even Steve Austinâ€™s R-rated running man-knock-off, The Condemned, did little to put him in the a-list like The Rock.
As WWE turned to the PG direction of their programming, so did their movie division. But after the failure of John Cenaâ€™s action programer, 12 Rounds, WWE Films took a turn to the bizarre. Not only did they plan on making films outside the action genre but they were also going to give their films a quick theatrical run and a short turnaround time for home video release. Now the quality of the films were really going to suffer as the company produced two made for DVD sequels with less-than-popular stars: Behind Enemy Lines 3 starring Mr. Kennedy and The Marine 2 starring Ted DiBiase Jr. Ironically enough, Kennedy was fired shortly after his filmâ€™s release while DiBiaseâ€™s planned babyface turn to coincide with his movieâ€™s release never happened.
The crop of movies that did get the short theatrical run were lackluster efforts that made less than $1 million domestically: John Cenaâ€™s wrestling drama, Legendary, the Big Showâ€™s comedy, Knucklehead, and Triple Hâ€™s action comedy, The Chaperone. All these films received lousy reviews and did nothing to make these wrestling superstars into movie stars. Yet, on the bright side, all these films were shot in New Orleans due to tax incentives for film productions and they all helped to improve the cityâ€™s struggling economy post-Katrina.
Is there hope for WWE Filmsâ€™ future? Very little. Coming up next is the Randy Orton bully dramaedy, Thatâ€™s What I Am. Itâ€™s the first WWE movie where the wrestling star wonâ€™t be heavily promoted due to the presence of a-list star, Ed Harris. Other than that, the future projects include mostly action and comedy flicks starring John Cena, Triple H, and Edge. But for WWE Films to be successful, they need to pick quality scripts, a-list directors, and only bank on those who have the most natural talent for the silver screen (i.e. The Rock), not the less-than-charismatic superstars in the ring who get shoved down the fansâ€™ throats (i.e. John Cena and Triple H). Also the straight to DVD route only cheapens the product more than enhancing it. Knucklehead making less than $1000 at the box office is not success. Thatâ€™s far worse than Eddie Murphyâ€™s Pluto Nash and thatâ€™s as much of a masterpiece as Plan 9 From Outer Space!
What the company got right with The Rundown was the backing of a major studio and quality talent surrounding a singular WWE superstar. None of these current crop of films have that and even when they do (i.e. Legendary) the star canâ€™t rise above the experienced actors. Maybe I should submit a few interesting concepts to them someday and show these corporate suits how itâ€™s really done.