Hulk Hogan makes his marquee bow in the cinematic equivalent of joke shop Shit in a Can
Make no mistake about it, No Holds Barred is an abomination of a movie. In cinematic terms, it’s bereft of even the smallest redemptive quality. It is a steaming quagmire of puerile stereotypes, incredulously dire acting and a narrative that even infants would tire of thanks to the almost ceaseless flatulence-based jokes that attempt to pass for comedy. Woeful leading man? Check. Imbecilic antagonist? Check. Belching waitress, tobacco-spewing hicks, a henchman who shits in his pants and squeals ‘dookie’ like a forty-year-old dullard floundering in the first grade? Check, check and double check.
Not content with action that offends on a purely juvenile level, the movie is also hugely misogynistic, promoting flagrant sexism and violence against women, with characters who are either wealthy and snobbish or poor, incredibly dumb and irredeemably disgusting. Then you have Hulk Hogan as Rip, a protagonist who spends the majority of the movie cracking heads and electrocuting people to death. The only reason he comes across as the hero is because his nemesis is so incredibly bereft of personality, growling and crossing his eyes like a backwoods killer after a full frontal lobotomy. We all know that wrestling is the stuff of fantasy, but compared to this it is a work of formidable social relevance.
No Holds Barred was World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon’s first foray into the movie business, and the sting of its critical backlash left him licking his cinematic wounds for over a decade. Vince is an incredible businessman, and has since forged a rather lucrative direct-to-DVD movie legacy, but despite conquering wrestling’s territorial system and making Wrestlemania and the now WWE a global force, he will also be remembered as a media giant whose immense wealth has left him somewhat detached from reality, blowing millions on dubious ventures such as the similarly scripted XFL football league and the mercifully short-lived World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF). Yes, McMahon truly believed that millions of American males were willing to pay hard-earned cash to see a bunch of greased-up muscleheads simply pose.
There were many reasons why embracing the movie business felt like a surefire deal for McMahon back in 1989. The billionaire promoter has always been something of a ringmaster showman, and despite his reputation as wrestling’s undisputed godfather, he’s always consciously veered away from the old school Southern ‘wrasslin’ stigma, creating larger-than-life characters and promoting his travelling circus as something more akin to Hollywood superstars. In his own mind, Vince is, and always has been, a grandiose, all-consuming film director with an ever-evolving cast of stars.
Rip Thomas: [sensing the newly-laid stool in his adversary’s pants] What’s that SMELL?
Limo Driver: Dooo… dooo… doookie!
Rip Thomas: [disgusted] “Dookie”?
Thanks to some savvy ties with American music sensation Cyndi Lauper and fledgling pop culture phenomenon MTV, the original Wrestlemania achieved national exposure back in 1985, acquiring something of a Saturday Night Live cool, and the company’s popularity only continued to grow throughout the late 1980s. Central to that was charismatic man-mountain Hulk Terry Bollea Hogan, a poster boy for American exceptionalism whose white bread mantra of ‘train, say your prayers and take your vitamins’ appealed to kids across not just the United States, but the entire world, as McMahon’s burgeoning brand went global. The fact that he was very clearly fed on a diet of cocaine and steroids didn’t come out until much later.
‘The Hulkster’ already had some acting experience under his belt prior to No Holds Barred after Sylvester Stallone approached him about the possibility of starring in 1982’s hit franchise sequel Rocky III, something Bollea’s then boss, Vince McMahon Sr., would ultimately fire him for. Before the original Wrestlemania, the sport of professional wrestling was a different beast entirely, a kayfabe-insistent business with carny roots that was fiercely protective of its secrets. Back then, a wrestler appearing in a movie or TV show was tantamount to treason. In the minds of old school bookers, it delegitimized a business that people were still very much in the dark about. As far as many fans were concerned, wrestling was a genuine competitive sport back then.
Not only would Hogan accept Stallone’s offer of Hollywood stardom, he would go on to star in as many as fifteen movies between 1982 and 2011, his peak coming during the early-90s with a series of quick-fire commercial flops that saw him take on the role of an interstellar warrior and a muscled nanny-for-hire, and yes Suburban Commando and Mr. Nanny were beyond atrocious, both failing to break even, the latter thanks in no small part to a highly-publicised steroid scandal that would almost end his career and ship former boss McMahon off to jail. Hulk would even land a cameo role in Joe Dante’s 1990 blockbuster sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, but his grasp on reality in terms of his Hollywood aspirations and general knowledge of the business was tenuous at best, a fact proven by his reaction to possibly meeting Steven Spielberg, whose production company Amblin Entertainment would produce Dante’s follow-up.
Writing in his autobiography, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, the always braggadocios Bollea would write, “My next film came out of nowhere and started when my agent called up and said ‘Steven Spielberg wants you in his new movie, it’s called Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It’s not a very big part and there’s not a lot of money in it, but you’re gonna work with Spielberg. If I were you, I wouldn’t turn it down’. I said, ‘I’m there’. He told me it would be two days of filming, just a cameo role. I could handle that. I was gonna work with Steven Spielberg… I would have a chance to show him I wasn’t just a yelling, screaming, peroxide blonde maniac. There was more to me than that. I was hoping he might say, ‘Hey, this guy might have something. Maybe I could make him a transvestite or a bad guy in my next film. Maybe I could stick a couple of bolts in his neck and make him the next Terminator.”
Ironically, it is this detachment from reality, on both McMahon and Hogan’s part, that makes No Holds Barred such a perversely engrossing watch; that, and the scintillating Joan Severance as Hogan’s main squeeze, Samantha, who in her Vogue prime had to be a contender for the most beautiful woman on the planet. This movie is so far beneath her that you have to question her motivations. I’m sure she received a considerable wad of cash for her hardship, but was it really worth it? Perhaps the notoriously manipulative McMahon, a shrewd man-manager with a reputation for taking disgruntled employees and making them feel like they’ve achieved something without gaining anything, worked his magic on her too. A man the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick described as, “a miscreant so practised in the art of deception, the half-truth and the bald-faced lie as to make the Artful Dodger appear clumsy” is a slippery devil.
The movie’s plot seems to be straight out of McMahon’s real-life corporate bubble, as a vicious magnate tries to steal Rip from under the nose of his network competitor. In all likelihood, the movie is a thinly-veiled dig at media Mogul Ted Turner, who got into the wrestling business for the sole purpose of competing with his long-time adversary, but narcissism knows no boundaries, and narcissism mixed with cocaine is enough to delude anyone into thinking that what is up on screen is not yourself, but someone else entirely.
Like any savvy business man, the movie’s suited tyrant, Brell (Kurt Fuller), feels that the best way to compete with his adversary’s successful, wrestling-based business model is to hang out in the kind of dives that exist only in the warped recesses of someone like McMahon’s imagination. In his world, bars inhabited by your average Joe are crammed with beer-bellied hog farmers and strange little midgets, human pigs who guzzle from beer barrels and wrestle for fun in makeshift rings constructed from yards of rope and car tires. As for the bar’s locals, they think it more than appropriate to spray-tag messages like V.D. Room on the walls of the slop-ridden shitholes regular people call lavatories. Is this really how McMahon views his audience? Do the world’s elite genuinely view us as shit-kicking cattle holed up in a pen of repugnant puerility? This movie certainly does, though the irony is up on screen for all to see. Only a blowhard of the highest order could have conceived such a creative travesty.
There’s hardly a glimpse of humanity in McMahon’s cinematic wet dream. Whether it’s the snivelling Brell, the throbbing Zeus or Hogan’s insufferable kid brother, Randy, the trigger of an absurdly melodramatic revenge fantasy worthy of pro wrestling at its most uninspired, you’re going to need a sick bucket close at hand. Perhaps the most offensive of all, at least from the perspective of McMahon’s majority demographic, is the pot-bellied owner of the hick bar where Brell film’s his latest TV show, a tough man contest designed to entice Rip into the ring with the movie’s seemingly invincible, monobrowed villain. Whether it’s spitting tobacco, guzzling beer or taking giant dumps in the shithouse, this is a vulgarian of monumental proportions, and an affront to anyone who’s ever made an honest day’s living or spent time drinking in a blue-collar bar. Earth to McMahon: ‘regular’ people are better than this.
Rip’s evil nemesis, Zeus (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister), who was actually set to face Hogan in the squared circle at the time in what was a savvy bit of cross-promotion, spends the entire movie looking like he’s severely constipated while simultaneously sounding like he’s taking a giant dump (some range, eh?). There’s even a jaw-droppingly tasteless moment in which the colossal Zeus, emerging from the neon smoke of an MTV-styled set, grabs an innocent woman by the throat and launches her unceremoniously across the room, an act so ruthless it almost kills her. Talk about cheap heat!
In response, the notoriously ruthless and backstabbing businessman, Bollea, delivers his usual ‘say your prayers and take your vitamins’ Hulkster shtick, later performing press-ups in skimpy, tie-dyed underwear and wooing the impossibly glamorous Samantha by turning a stick-up in a local cafe into a full-on food fight, the kind of juvenile affair that leaves her weak at the knees. All Hulk has to do is wiggle his eyebrows suggestively and Samantha falls headlong into his ’24-inch pythons’. In your dreams, brother!
Hogan may have exhibited considerable charisma in the ring, but here he seems to have left most of it back in the locker room. When tasked with ad-libbing pro-America rhetoric for an audience of easily pleased patriots, he’s quite the personality, but stick a script in front of him and he flounders big time. The Hulkster is a terrible actor, unable to communicate anything even remotely genuine, and unlike grappling counterpart Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s They Live, he fails to project any kind of movie star presence, every last one of his scenes hitting the mat harder than Andre the Giant after a pound of somas.
I know this is a silly action movie aimed predominantly at kids, but since No Holds Barred carries a 15 rating, with some fairly blatant violence on display, you’d think there’d be a little more meat on the bones. Wrestling, particularly in the 1980s, got a pass for its scant stereotypes and storylines ― this was an age-old tradition going back decades, people expected it ― but major motion pictures, however cheapjack and openly ridiculous, require just a little more refinement.
As bad as he is, you can’t dump all of this in Hogan’s lap, or the utterly useless Lister’s. The film is so inept on so many levels that it’s positively mind-blowing. Though the characters onscreen appear to be human, there isn’t a single shred of humanity to be found. Sometimes ― most of the time ― it’s like you’re watching a movie from an alternate universe where the laws of humanity simply do not apply, a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for impressionable kids. Even the dialogue is peculiar. The insult “Jock ass!” Gets thrown around quite a bit. Jock ass?! I’ve never heard of one of those. Maybe it’s internal locker room spiel for testosterone-pumped meat heads. It almost sounds like it’s been edited for TV, but instead of exchanging a dirty word for a more acceptable one, it gives us something similarly vulgar but completely bizarre.
In terms of puerile antics and warped representations of mankind, No Holds Barred makes the wacky world of Pee-wee Herman seem positively conservative. Every last scene is an odious morality play designed to make multi-millionaire Hogan seem like a typical everyman, while simultaneously forging the kind of God-like figure who possesses such a perfect moral code you’ll need a stomach pump at hand to rid yourself of the spoon-fed condescension and general hypocrisy. There’s so much one-dimensional humility on display, the kind that patronises women or ethnic minorities and almost always ends with a bout of slapstick fisticuffs. It’s such an assault that you wind up resenting our protagonist as an egotist rather than admiring him as a humble hero. It’s all so misguided.
There are plenty of movies guilty of the same crimes, but its not the action itself that rankles, its the way in which they relentlessly shove it down your throat. You can almost feel Hogan’s giant arm reaching down your into your stomach, oafishly fumbling for your heart strings but finding your sick spot instead. Let me give you a direct comparison. In Cannon’s ludicrous vigilante sequel Death Wish 3, Paul Kersey massacres 83 people, and every once in a while he pauses to give the thumbs-up to a young ethnic boy who appears with the cartoon contrivance of a Days of Our Lives bystander, his only purpose to justify Kersey’s wanton acts of slaughter against the kid’s own people. It’s audaciously condescending, but it’s also mercifully brief. It does its job, raises a wry smile, and makes way for the action.
Now take a scene in No Holds Barred in which a ludicrously white-suited Rip, complete with bandanna to cover up his bald spot (the same emasculating blemish the WWF spent thousands of dollars and hours concealing in the editing room throughout the years), takes Samantha to a ludicrously opulent restaurant, where the snooty waiter immediately disregards him and excludes him from the conversation by speaking French and offering him hamburgers and hot dogs. Exploiting that old minority chestnut, he then shoos away the ethnic waiter, who arrives to bow at the knees of Rip’s irrepressible celebrity. The Michelin star chef puts him straight, of course, asking Rip if he would like his usual as the entire kitchen gathers around to pay their respects beside an awestruck Samantha. Hogan even responds using (minimal) French in an absolutely priceless moment. I mean, we get it! He’s a swell, heroic, selfless emblem of everyman masculinity, an irrepressible babe magnet. You don’t have to be so heavy-handed. The departing chef even refers to Hogan’s character as Monsieur Rip. Monsieur Rip! You’ve got to give them that one.
Just as blatant is the film’s previous scene, one absolutely teeming with exposition that sets up the date in question. The ever humble (but not really) Rip, surrounded by a boardroom of colourless vultures engrossed in our superstar’s financial pull, rejects the opportunity to add his own opinions on how to maximise commercial exposure, instead suggesting that he and Samantha discuss his real passion, which is of course his charity work. Not only does she agree, she suggests they do so over dinner in such a forward manner it’s borderline stalker territory. I should add that Samantha has something of a duplicitous role at this point, but she never fully buys into it. She’s too enamoured with the dripping hunk of magnanimity preening himself before her. It’s all so transparent. If it was a plate of glass you’d walk straight through it.
Samantha: [in reference to their board meeting agenda] Rip, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Rip [distracted] Pardon me?
Samantha: We were speaking about your image; the Rip character. I’d be very interested in your thoughts on this.
Rip: There’s more. The Rip character wants me to tell you that his main outside interest is his charity work. He said ‘Maybe you could put that in your brief’. I don’t mean to be rude, but can we talk about it later?
Samantha: Fine. I’ll pick you up. 8 o’clock. Dinner. Dressy.
Rip is also portrayed as a bionic superhero on par with the Six Million Dollar Man, an extension of the in-ring performer who No Holds Barred is ultimately a platform for. Absurdity is this movie’s lifeblood, but one moment stands a muscled torso above the rest. Having refused to sign with the maniacal, blank cheque wielding Brell, Rip is kidnapped by a limo driver and taken to an abandoned warehouse for a beating. Locked in the vehicle and surrounded by goons, resistance seems futile, but Rip has the considerable advantage of being able to leap three inches from a seated position with such power that he crashes through the sunroof and lands on the car bonnet ready for battle.
Not that he needs to do much. So terrified of Hulk is one hired heavy he literally shits his pants before our very eyes (yes, it’s one of those movies). The infamous ‘dookie’ scene is one so beneath taste, intelligence and humour that even a child would question the logic of including it in a major motion picture. Like everything else in No Holds Barred, they’re not subtle about the whole ordeal either, even providing a running commentary. Scaring a henchman half to death with a tepid and unconvincing growl, Rip pauses, his nose twitching as he detects a strange, yet familiar odour. “What’s that SMELL?” he asks. “Dooo… dooo… doookie!” the man replies. He may as well be critiquing a film that is the cinematic equivalent of joke shop ‘Shit in a Can’.
Inevitably, Samantha is kidnapped by Brell and his cronies, and when Rip’s annoying groupie brother is sent to the hospital by the relentless Zeus ― and when I say sent to the hospital, I mean left for dead, at least for a scene or two ― Rip has to call on the power of his Hulkamaniacs and become the kind of immortal hero who exists only in his mind. Finally pushed beyond the realms of passivity, our protagonist embarks on an act of bloodthirsty vengeance that goes against his very ethos, buoyed by the kind of training/rehabilitation montage that is lifted straight from Rocky IV, another overblown power surge that is realistic by comparison. Rip’s obsequious training entourage, also lifted from Rocky, are just priceless, and as for the melodramatic meltdown that is Rip weeping at his critical brother’s bedside… words cannot describe.
It may be Hogan’s name on the marquee, but No Holds Barred has McMahon’s fingerprints all over it, and in a strange, almost incomprehensible way, the film is as strong an insight as you’ll get into the mind of one of the 20th Century’s most high-profile enigmas. As has been confirmed by dozens of wrestlers and associates, ruthless billionaire McMahon has a strong proclivity for toilet humour, a fact reflected in the many offensive, ignorant and/or downright silly gimmicks he’s subjected wrestlers to throughout the years. Despite his immense wealth and obvious contempt, accidental or otherwise, for the common man, Vince is also known for having an outward disdain for snobbery, the kind aimed at him by blue blood neighbours who look down on his gaudy, lowbrow business model. Put succinctly, No Holds Barred is Vince McMahon, body, mind and soul, though the spiritual part of that triumvirate is highly questionable. If there’s a morsel of soul to be found in this movie, I’m still looking.
But do you know something? Despite everything I’ve thrown at it, I enjoyed this movie immensely. Not for any of the things it should have been, but for all the things that it isn’t. When it comes to bad movies, there’s a line you cross that lifts you out of the mire, sparking a kind of helium-induced giddiness, an inexplicable madness that leaves you smiling inanely, sometimes laughing hysterically. What should be infuriating becomes queerly fascinating, almost addictive in a wreckage-at-the-side-of-the-road kind of way. Not only does No Holds Barred cross that line, it pole-vaults on giant springs onto a bouncy castle full of bouncy balls. It wipes out your critical crotchety and leaves you spread out with delirium, fuelled by what can only be described as unadulterated idiocy. In the realms of inept movie madness, there’s nothing quite like it.