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Three easy pieces

Wrestler in movies

El Santo, Mexico’s greatest luchador, starred in over 50 films without ever taking off his mask. Photo credit:

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In Three Easy Pieces, I take a look at a specific subgenre of pop culture, and examine it from its birth to today. This month: two of my biggest passions collide when stars of the professional wrestling world try their hand at making movies.

BIRTH: El Santo

Honorable mention: Tor Johnson, Adrian Street

It may be impossible to overstate just how famous and beloved El Santo was -- both in the ring and out. Possibly the most legendary, celebrated luchador of all time, El Santo began wrestling in the ‘30s and didn't retire until 1982. During that time, El Santo starred in comic books and TV shows, had songs written about him, and appeared in over 50 films -- all without ever publicly taking off his mask (the mask wouldn't come off until he briefly removed it on a talk show, a week before his death).

So, what are movies like when they star a masked leading man? In El Santo's case, at least, they were frequently pretty insane, with names like Santo vs. the ZombiesSanto vs. the StranglerSanto vs. the Ghost of the Strangler, and Santo vs. the Vampire Women. That last title may be known to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which riffed over the movie in 1995. In any event, it can be relied upon that in any of his films, El Santo would be virtuous in the face of evil, and would always triumph in the end, which befitted his status as a folk hero. When he died, he was buried in his mask, and cast a shadow too large for any crossover wrestlers to likely ever escape.


Honorable mention: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, André the Giant

Compared to El Santo, Hulk Hogan's film output is downright embarrassing. Actually, compared to just about any actor, Hulk Hogan's films would be pretty embarrassing. Just about the only respectable entry in Hogan's filmography is his brief, fourth wall-breaking cameo in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Having graduated from his small role in Rocky III, and some guest-starring roles on shows like The Love Boat and The A-Team, Hogan scored the lead in the certifiably nuts vanity project, No Holds Barred. Legend has it that No Holds Barred was rewritten by Hogan and WWE founder Vince McMahon over the course of a long weekend, and I have never wanted more to be a fly on the wall of a movie's creation.

From there, the law of diminishing returns hit Hogan hard, with movies like Suburban CommandoMr. Nanny, and Santa with Muscles somehow not even rising to the perilously low level of quality set by No Holds Barred. Of those three, Mr. Nanny is most notable for featuring a gloriously scene-chewing performance from the New York Dolls' David Johansen, and Santa with Muscles is notable for barely qualifying as a movie.

TODAY: Dave Bautista

Honorable mention: John Cena, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

In the 21st century, with the death of kayfabe -- that is, the illusion that professional wrestlers really are the characters they play, and that the matches are real -- the quality of movies featuring wrestlers counterintuitively improves. Freed from having to essentially adapt their in-ring personas for the big screen, wrestlers are given the opportunity to really show their chops. It's because of this new paradigm that huge stars like Dwayne Johnson and John Cena are allowed to shine. Movie for movie, though, I believe that the wrestler with the best track record is currently Dave Bautista.

Bautista (who went by the slightly different "Batista" in the WWE) was a hugely successful wrestler who still never quite managed to connect to wrestling fans. He had a great look and an imposing presence, but his actual wrestling was fairly boring and he was never much of a compelling talker. Color everyone shocked, then, that he would go on to find fantastic success in gigantic franchises like the Guardians of the Galaxy films, most recent James Bond movie Spectre, and Blade Runner 2049. Bautista is proof that not only can wrestlers make the leap to movies, but that some of them might be better suited for Hollywood than the squared circle.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Diss Tracks.

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