Tag Archives: sports

Fascinating True Story of the Man Behind the LSD No-Hitter: NO NO – A DOCKUMENTARY

NO-NO: A DOCKUMENTARY


(4/5)

Pros: Outstanding selection of archival footage; everyone likes a story of redemption right?


Cons: Doesn’t stray much from the typical trajectory of these sorts of stories

On Friday, June 12, 1970, professional baseball player Dock Ellis pitched a(n admittedly ugly) no-hitter in a game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. This is an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s made even more astonishing by the fact that Ellis was under the influence of LSD while playing. Unable to clearly see the opposing batters, Ellis had to rely on reflective tape around the catcher’s fingers to determine the signals being called. At one point during the game, he even recalled hallucinating Richard Nixon working the plate as umpire and imagined rocker Jimi Hendrix swinging his guitar instead of a Padres player ready to bat. Needless to say, while there’s been some dispute about the veracity of the account, the game has gone down in pro sports history, serving as the starting point for 2014’s No No: A Dockumentary, which chronicles the colorful life of the Ellis himself.

Starting off with a trippy intro that relates this most famous story about Ellis, No No continues on by following the man’s career from his early days playing ball around his California neighborhood through various minor league assignments. In the 1960s, the world of professional baseball was quite a different place then it is today – particularly for black players assigned to teams based in the American south. Though he was, for the first time, faced with discrimination, Ellis didn’t stop standing up for his beliefs, and by the time he broke into the majors in 1968 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was an outspoken proponent of African-American rights (eventually being dubbed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” due to his attention-grabbing antics). This caused some problems throughout his playing career, since Ellis frequently got into disputes with team management who didn’t particularly appreciate his challenges to their authority. Still, Ellis won the World Series with the Pirates in 1971, and his solid numbers ensured that he was able to find a home in pro ball, spending time with both New York teams, Oakland and Texas before retiring after the 1979 season.

dockellisposter-e1409184510151-228x300Ellis during his playing career, with trademark hair curlers.


On thing a viewer clearly takes away from this Dockumentary is that Ellis was a bit of a hothead and troublemaker, though for the most part, he seemed to not only know what he was doing, but why he was doing it. One of the key moments in the film occurs when Ellis himself, recorded in the mid-2000s, reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson. This letter essentially thanked Ellis for continuing the fight for equal rights for minority players in the world of pro sports, but also warned him about the toll that this fight might have on him. Ellis gets quite emotional while reading the letter, and it’s immediately clear how much the letter and the sentiments it echoed meant to him.

207981_001It’s cool that the filmmakers were able to secure actual interview footage in which Ellis tells his own story; he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.

This emotional moment comes as a bit of a surprise during the film however since a good deal of No No details the wild lifestyle and heavy drug use that accompanied Ellis’s playing career. In the years after his retirement, Ellis admitted that he never played a game without some sort of drugs – whether they be amphetamines, cocaine, or even LSD – in his system, and one sidepoint in the film is to detail how rampant drugs were in the MLB of the 1970s. Former players interviewed here attest to the fact that uppers like Dexamyl were used by an estimated sixty percent or more of pro ball players because it gave them an edge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even after the so-called “greenies” were banned, underground usage continued virtually unabated. Ellis’s substance problems didn’t stop on the field however, and his rampant abuse of alcohol would eventually ruin several of his marriages.

DSCF4591Ellis, center, living it up with teammates.

To be honest, much of the material contained in No No could be taken from any number of athlete or celebrity profiles: many of these folks go down the road to substance abuse when they acquire large amounts of money and have the free time to use it. Some of these stories don’t end up so well, but for every tragic outcome, there’s a positive one and Ellis’s story certainly worked out quiet nicely. Following his retirement, Ellis got clean and began telling his story to audiences who would most be in need of it. Aside from working for the betterment of up-and-coming athletes, Ellis spent a great deal of time working with inmates, and it’s obvious from interviews seen in the film that he viewed his accomplishments in the field of counseling as some of his greatest.

dockellis_large-294x375Always the flashy – and provocative- dresser.


While one could argue that the basic story of redemption contained in No No is pretty familiar, the film certainly benefits from the fact that the person at its heart is an incredibly fascinating character. The various anecdotes revealed in the film are sometimes quite amusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, but always captivating, and a viewer winds up getting a sense that Ellis always fought the good fight even if he went about it in ways that were somewhat unsavory. Directed by Jeff Radice, the film is as wild and colorful as its subject in terms of its look, making nice use of period-flavor music. There’s splendid use of a large quotient of archival footage, including film taken of various games which Ellis participated in, and I was also rather stunned by the amount of candid and press photographs assembled for use here. It’s true that No No contains the usual amount of talking head interviews with former teammates and players, family members, and sports journalists, but I found the film to be more varied in its presentation than many vaguely similar productions, even including animated sequences such as one which relates the story of Ellis’s showdown with opposing player Reggie Jackson.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-10-at-5-02-51-PMPart of the animated sequence from the film, showing Ellis staring down an opposing batter.

It might go without saying that baseball fans will probably enjoy this film the most, but I don’t necessarily think an appreciation of the sport is absolutely required – No No to some extent works equally as well as a chronicle of the ways in which society was changing in the late ‘60s and 1970s. Director Radice does a fine job of framing the events in the events of the film with what was happening outside of pro baseball, a fact which ultimately emphasizes the ways in which Ellis helped draw attention to the plight of minority players and initiate change – for instance, the 1971 Pirates team was the first time that a major league team used an all-black starting lineup in a game. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that No No: A Dockumentary plays out similarly to other films and stories dealing with characters who fall from grace only to pick themselves back up later on: Ellis’s story is virtually identical to the one told by hockey documentary The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson that just premiered earlier this year on cable. Still, I think there are enough unique and original elements to Dock Ellis’s story to make this slick-looking Dockumentary worthwhile. Check it out if you get the chance.

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2/10: A few accounts of aggressive domestic violence; no onscreen blood.

5/10: Isolated instances of profanity, including the f-bomb.

1/10: Glimpses of scantily clad ladies and some brief innuendo.

5/10: The whole LSD no-hitter thing may give this some appeal to the drug crowd, but it’s more a fairly typical but well-done sports documentary.

“I’m not one of those guys that won 300 games and the Cy Young Award, but I was a guy that was personable, I was controversial, my entire career I was an angry black man. Although I was there playing a dream of a lot of people, but I was angry.”

An Unsatisfying Documentary on a Pro Wrestling Legend: THE AMERICAN DREAM – THE DUSTY RHODES STORY

THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE DUSTY RHODES STORY

(3/5)


Pros: Covers the bases pretty well; DVD package includes a ton of extra footage and is generally outstanding

Cons: Documentary is unimaginative and fairly weak in explaining the whole story of Rhodes’ career

Note: my rating and review applies specifically to the The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story 85-minute documentary, not the three-disc DVD package overall – which is excellent due to a plethora of bonus matches and interviews.

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Virgil Runnels, Jr., known to wrestling fans around the world as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, passed away on June 11, 2015 at the age of 69. It’s a sad day when any professional wrestler passes, but I’m kind of shocked that Rhodes made it nearly 70 years – which is almost an eternity in “wrestling years.”

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I first became aware of Rhodes during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he spent time in the “big two” promotions of the time – Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Being a longtime wrestling fan who is actually more interested in the “glory days” of the sport more than any recent developments, I eventually came to learn quite a bit about Rhodes’ early career as a journeyman wrestler during the era of the territory system – when independent promoters essentially controlled various regions of the country under the jurisdiction of the National Wrestling Alliance. It was largely during this period that Rhodes made a name for himself in the business, becoming a bankable star capable of putting on a solid match with just about anyone – which made him a highly-sought after talent.

7f5359c0f5a10226269f41e5b17c3d4cRhodes (left) with Andre the Giant.

Produced by World Wrestling Entertainment and released in 2006, The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story chronicles Rhodes’ career from his upbringing in Austin Texas as the son of a plumber through his early days raising hell and wrestling and up to his acknowledgment as a legend of the sport. In typical wrestling documentary fashion, this program features commentary from Rhodes and fellow wrestling personalities (including Ted DiBiase, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Gerry Brisco, and others) along with archival photographs and footage that show some of Rhodes’ greatest performances in the ring. His feuds with the likes of Terry Funk, Harley Race, Ric Flair, and “Superstar” Billy Graham were the stuff of legend, and it’s neat to hear the story of these frequently bloody battles from the mouths of (some of) the guys who performed in them. Later on in his career, Rhodes made his way to the big-money promotions of the WWF and WCW, in which he had memorable runs – including quite a few that also involved his son Dustin, perhaps better known as “Goldust.” Following a career that lasted more than three decades, Rhodes was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007, just after the release of this documentary package.

20121212_Dusty_642Rhodes battling against the turnbuckle with Ric Flair.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons why Rhodes became such a star was his ability on a mic: though he had a thick Texas draw and a noticeable lisp, “The American Dream” delivered some of pro wrestling’s greatest promos and interviews, many of which exhibited a mixture of country and urban influence. One of the interview subjects during the documentary makes a comment about how it was odd to see this stereotypical “country boy” spouting off “jive talk” that one would normally associate with black culture, but this aspect of his character was probably the one thing that set Dusty Rhodes apart from his contemporaries. Known for “shucking and jiving” in the ring, Rhodes would frequently pepper his interviews with colorful exclamations but he was capable of hammering his points home using elements of reality. His famous “Hard Times” speech spoke about the problems faced by everyday Americans, and it was under the persona of the “common man” that he debuted in the (then) World Wrestling Federation in 1989 (wearing a truly awful polka dot covered outfit). It also has to be said that Rhodes looked absolutely nothing like a professional athlete, to the point of being downright chubby. Similar to someone like Adrian Adonis however, pure athleticism ensured that he was not only capable of holding his own in the ring, but actually able to astound audiences with his wrestling ability. If anything, his unconventional physique allowed fans to “buy into” his character more.

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Not your typical pro-wrestler look, that’s for sure…

Unsurprisingly, The American Dream documentary devotes substantial amounts of time to Rhodes’ later career – i.e. the time he spent in the WWF and WCW. This is the period, after all, when legions of new fans would be exposed to Rhodes’ unique in-ring abilities and undeniable out-of-ring charisma. The problem with this, of course, is that Rhodes had already built his reputation by this point in time and was actually on the backend of his wrestling career: I might have hoped that more of the film’s running time would be spent covering the period where Rhodes was a genuine superstar in the NWA, not a rotund performer known for dancing around the ring in polka dots. Interview subjects talk about how this unflattering costume may have been Vince McMahon’s attempt to punish Rhodes for being so fiercely independent earlier in his career, but the real humiliation would seem to come from the fact that a full five minutes or so of the documentary focus entirely on this period in Rhodes career – one that stands as a true Wrestlecrap moment even if it was popular with fans.

Dusty-RhodesThough Dusty had fun with it – and got rich in the process – the polka dot era seemed amazingly disrespectful considering what Rhodes had done for and in the sport.

Afterward, The American Dream deals quite extensively with (son) Dustin Rhodes’s wrestling career, both with and away from his father. I could see some of this information and footage being included in the documentary, but to spend so much of the film’s relatively brief running time on these comparatively recent events seems a bit ridiculous. Not one minute is spent discussing Dusty Rhodes’ run in the ECW during the late ‘90s and precious little time is dedicated to examining his career as a talent and booker in WCW.

dusty-rhodes-goldustWith son Dustin (left) on his way to the ring.

Punctuated by corny music and interlude segments featuring footage of hay bales and strands of rope, The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story documentary is about as uninspired a production as could be imaginable about a man who was so vibrant and colorful. Sure, it’s cool seeing Championship Wrestling from Florida’s Mike Graham show the camera around a National Guard Armory where Rhodes’ career began, wrestling in front of 5500 people every Tuesday night, and an emotional Dustin Rhodes discussing a dispute with his father that resulted in the two of them not talking for four years provides a bit of a gut punch. Though the selection of archive footage seen here is decent and it’s undeniably great to hear the story right from the horse’s mouth, this documentary portrays an almost condescending attitude towards anything that didn’t occur in a WWE ring and spends too much time “selling” WWE product, which doesn’t necessarily involve telling the story of Dusty Rhodes’s career. To a large extent, this shouldn’t shock anyone, least of all me: it’s part of the reason why I can’t stomach modern WWE programming, but it’s hard to deny that the end result here is a by-the-book “legends” documentary that glosses over many subjects and barely seems to scratch the surface of the man’s life it attempts to chronicle. Those who know nothing about Dusty Rhodes might enjoy The American Dream, but I’d be inclined to tell viewers to get the story from other, more comprehensive sources.

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Dusty Rhodes: Consistently one of the best interviews in the game…


Per usual with the WWE biographies, a huge assortment of matches, promos, and vignettes are included with this three-disc DVD package. Full listing can be viewed .  It’s a five star home video release, even if the documentary itself is strictly mediocre.

3/10 : Isolated moments of bloody wrestling violence which doesn’t quite seem to accurately represent Rhodes’ early years accurately.

14Bloodletting with Arn Anderson – Rhodes was known as a heavy bleeder (look at the scars on his forehead for proof), but the documentary downplays that part of his game significantly.


2/10 : Intermittent minor profanity.


1/10 : A few peeks at a scantily clad Terri Runnels a.k.a. Marlena.


2/10 : A fairly straight-forward documentary that provides exactly what one would expect.


“WOOO! That’s funky. That’s the American Dream…”

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The Best Motor Racing Movie Detailing the Sport’s Most Grueling Event: LE MANS

LE MANS

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(4.5/5)

Pros: A marvel of technique that places the viewer in the middle of the racing experience

Cons: Many viewers just won’t appreciate the way this film operates

Almost reminiscent of the 1970 documentary Woodstock in terms of the way it covers a real-life event, the 1971 film Le Mans is perhaps the finest auto racing film ever made. Chronicling the running of one of the world’s most well-known and dangerous racing events, the 24 hours of Le Mans – run each year on an eight-mile configuration that combines public roads with purpose-built racing corners, the film mainly follows driver Michael Delaney throughout the course of the race weekend. Honestly, the “story” here is almost non-existent and wholly irrelevant: director Lee H. Katzin focuses almost entirely on the racing action itself. The lack of a conventional story and minimum of dialogue means that Le Mans very clearly isn’t to all tastes, but in my estimation, the true flavor and essence of auto racing has never been better captured by a fictional theatrical feature.

phoca_thumb_l_24hdumans1971-0059Run since 1923,  the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands, with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500, as one of auto racing’s true marquis events

The film begins with a scene that finds a lone Porsche street car whizzing through the French countryside, passing through rows of trees, town squares, and stretches of farmland before stopping on a remote section of road. Steve McQueen (playing Delaney with a confident but low-key swagger) emerges from the vehicle and stares intently at a newly-installed section of metal Armco barrier running alongside of street. To those unfamiliar with the world of auto racing, this may seem an inconsequential, pointless sequence, but to anyone who knows a thing or two about racing – and specifically, Le Mans – it has devastating implications. Any time a major accident occurs, the likelihood that this Armco barrier will be destroyed is relatively high, thus a brand new section of barrier indicates a spot where a possibly horrific accident occurred previously. This turns out to be the case, since a flashback sequence shows Delaney’s involvement in a crash that killed a fellow competitor the year before.

urlSteve McQueen, who actually competed in several sports car races  and did much of his own driving in the film, stars as Delaney

Shortly afterward, we rejoin Delaney in the midst of the hustle and bustle of race weekend, with the sounds of a distant PA announcer providing the on-site crowd (and in turn, the viewer of the film) with a sort of crash course in how the famous Le Mans 24 hour race operates. An intense sequence leading up to the race start is next, punctuated by a rapidly accelerating heartbeat, a piercing moment of silence, then an absolute explosion of roaring engines and screeching tires. The race itself, filmed from a variety of camera angles situated around the track as well as on, in, behind, beside, and around the actual racing machines, makes up the main body of the film, with some downtime popping up when Delaney relinquishes control of his car to a secondary driver.

The Porsche 917K #031/026 of J. W. Automotive Engineering driven by Richard Attwood (GB) and Herbert Müller (CH) receives a full service

The Porsche 917K, one of which McQueen’s character pilots in the film

The first genuine dialogue in the film occurs around the 38-minute mark, a fact which should provide some indication of how this film is constructed. Removing the action cues, Harry Kleiner’s script would easily fit on one typed-out page and seems to delight in giving the viewer only brief glimpses of a typical Hollywood-type story. Perhaps the amazing thing then is that a viewer is able to pick up on the major dramatic elements of the piece, many of which relate to Delaney’s interaction with the widow of the driver killed in the previous year’s crash. These two exchange a very limited amount of words between one another, but the knowing glances they pass back and forth speak volumes. Aside from this rudimentary subplot, all attention is paid on getting through the endurance (and some might say torture) test that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and things do get rather exciting as the race nears its conclusion.

Racing in the rain at Le Mans; the race also runs through a full night of darkness

Truth be told, it’s quite shocking to watch a feature film in which the conventional story elements are downplayed to the degree they are here, but the nature of Le Mans makes it much more an experience to behold rather than an entertainment picture to sit through. The masterful film technique on display here only accentuates that notion – sound design, editing, and cinematography featured are absolutely stunning. It’s immediately clear from the film’s opening moments that an absolutely colossal amount of footage was shot during the production phase (much of the filming took place during the actual 1970 race, with additional footage shot to accentuate the film’s narrative). From the mechanics in the pitlane to the massive infield area at the track, to the actual on-track action itself, there’s coverage of anything and everything related to the Le Mans race, and even sifting through this massive amount of film to assemble a coherent work had to be a monumental undertaking. The cinematography by René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser is not only gorgeous to look at but incredibly innovative. Trackside vantage points provide eye-popping glimpses of the race, but the in-car perspectives are truly hairy, sometimes uncomfortably so – sequences filmed from the cockpit and in the rain prove just how far racing drivers push towards the edge of catastrophe. These amazing images are combined with fabulous sound design that accents the gut-rattling roar of the racing engines as well as the alarming silence that drivers face while away from the cars. All these elements are edited together precisely (to a wonderful, jazzy score by Michel Legrand) to create one of the screen’s most jaw-dropping and authentic portrayals of auto racing.

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One of several wild crashes in the film.

As I mentioned previously, Le Mans simply won’t appeal to everyone, but to car and/or racing enthusiasts, it’s simply a must-see. The 1970s were arguably one of the most thrilling periods in motor racing: the cars were wickedly fast, achieving speeds on the Le Mans circuit of some 230 MPH in spots – yet driver safety technology had lagged to the point where these vehicles were often described as “bombs on wheels.” The tracks themselves were often insanely hazardous as well, as evidenced in the film by the lack of a pit wall (literally, the mechanics servicing these vehicles were directly beside the racing line) and presence of a track-side runoff area that would virtually launch a car into the nearby forest. Though the fatal accident detailed in the film’s opening moments isn’t clearly seen, a pair of other nasty crashes feature prominently in the picture. One sequence, which finds a driver reliving the accident he just suffered in slow-motion while sitting in his mangled cockpit, pretty much nails what goes on in the mind of a racer following such a shunt, and I think the overall film captures the mindset of a racing driver very precisely and accurately.

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No pit wall at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1971 – fans of motor racing will be keen to note the many, many safety innovations that have been introduced since the making of this film

Over the years, audiences have gotten used to the “come from behind” story that features in sports movies of all types, but I was pleasantly surprised that Le Mans unveils a more realistic ending of the Rocky (I) variety. Combine its denouement with the documentary-like presentation of its story and Le Mans stands as the polar opposite of pictures like 1966’s thrilling but formulaic Grand Prix – to say nothing of the more recent, utterly loud and obnoxious Days of Thunder. It’s not at all surprising that audiences used to Hollywood endings and more or less predictable scripts wouldn’t quite know how to take this largely free-form and dialogue-free picture – it bombed at the box office back in 1971 – but I’m glad that over the years, the audience that could appreciate the picture has discovered Le Mans. For my money, this is the flat-out best motor racing film ever made and those interested in racing – or artistically-satisfying cinema – would probably enjoy it.


Widescreen format DVD includes the theatrical trailer as well as a take-it-or-leave-it featurette: “Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans.” One wishes there were more…


3/10 : A few incredibly violent auto racing accidents, showing the bloody aftermath.


1/10 : A single instance of the word “ass.”


1/10 : Apparent sexual innuendo on one occasion and plenty of onscreen tension.


4/10 : Not at all a movie the general public would appreciate, but it would hold significant appeal to the arthouse crowd and racing enthusiasts.


“Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

A Nicely-Composed Portrait of NASCAR Royalty: I AM DALE EARNHARDT

I AM DALE EARNHARDT

(4/5)

Pros: Well-selected archival materials; provides exactly what one would want in a documentary about “the Intimidator”
Cons: Nothing major – though this clearly was produced for and by NASCAR

Roughly 75 minutes in length, the 2015 Spike TV documentary I Am Dale Earnhardt chronicles the life and career of the iconic stock car driver. Born in small town North Carolina, Earnhardt grew up watching his father tear up the local short tracks, learning a level of aggressiveness that would make him one of the most polarizing talents in the world of auto racing. While there was no doubting Earnhardt’s driving ability, his tendency to do anything to win – including spinning out any car in his way – would land him in plenty of hot water throughout his career and bestow on him the nickname of “the Intimidator.” Winning his first points championship in 1980 – just a year after capturing the Rookie of the Year title, Earnhardt went on to six more championships and 76 race wins before being killed in a last-lap accident during NASCAR’s premier event, the Daytona 500 in 2001. Nearly fifteen years after his death, Earnhardt’s legacy still looms large over the sport of stock car racing, and it’s unlikely that that situation will change anytime soon.

Dale and the #3
Dale and his famous #3 car.

Though he’s most identified as being the driver of the black number 3 car, Earnhardt started out as a journeyman driver who went racing primarily to provide for his family. The documentary certainly emphasizes the sacrifices that Earnhardt made in pursuit of his dream, and devotes a lot of time to discussing the hardships that he faced in his life. Knowing this information makes the material relating to his relationship with son Dale Jr., who started his own racing career in the late ‘90s and continues to race today, all the more heartwarming. Another major point of focus in the documentary is on Earnhardt’s talents as a entrepreneur: though perhaps an unlikely public figure, Earnhardt’s business savvy made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world of sport, largely through his own marketing of his “man in black” image.

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Say what you want about his driving style, Dale Earnhardt had swagger.

Directed by Jeff Cvitkovic and highlighted by a combination of well-chosen archival footage and photographs, I Am Dale Earnhardt is presented in roughly chronological order and covers the most famous and well-known events from the driver’s storied career. Though I’ve distanced myself from stock car racing over the past fifteen years, I always like seeing footage of how things used to be back in the “good ol’ days” of motorsport. Covering such legendary events as the infamous “pass in the grass,” the 1982 Pocono flip, Earnhardt’s triumph at the ‘98 Daytona 500 after twenty years of trying, and even some of his heated confrontations with other drivers, the documentary was very enjoyable for me personally since I remember when many of these things took place. The dramatic scenes relating to Earnhardt’s fatal accident are quite moving and illustrate just how much he was not only loved by his fans, but respected by the NASCAR community as a whole.

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Slinking out of a destroyed race car after flipping at Pocono.

As might be expected, the documentary also includes substantial commentary from fellow drivers Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace, sports reporters Marty Smith and Jack Arute, pop culture figures like actor Michael Rooker (who played a character patterned after Earnhardt in 1990’s Days of Thunder), former MTV VJ Riki Rachtman, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, and even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who today is by far the most popular driver in NASCAR. These interviews compliment the film footage nicely, and I appreciated the fact that the program went a long way toward explaining Dale Earnhardt the man, as he was away from the racetrack. Vintage interviews and conversations with the man himself provide an insight into Earnhardt’s mind, and a viewer really gets a sense of how his most rewarding moments in life took place when he was working on his farm or enjoying the outdoors with friends.

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Despite his fearsome on-track reputation, Earnhardt enjoyed close relationships with many of his competitors.

Ultimately, the fact that Earnhardt was a “country boy” very much like the majority of the NASCAR fan base at the time earned him an incredibly loyal following, and I think one of the more interesting aspects of I Am Dale Earnhardt is the contrast between Earnhardt and other drivers of his era and the ones which populate NASCAR today. Over the past fifteen years, a sport that once was regarded as primarily a “redneck sport” has become much more polished and commercialized – one only has to listen to a contemporary driver interview and notice all the corporate sponsor name-dropping to see how the sport has evolved. Compared to a legitimately hard-nosed driver like Earnhardt who paid his dues and worked hard to get where he was, many of today’s drivers (even the so-called “bad boys” of the sport) seem like crybabies and whiners who have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Furthermore, in today’s high-profile, ultra-competitive motorsport, the team a driver is signed up with seems to matter more than actual driving talent, making it intriguing to ponder whether a rough-around-the-edges personality like Earnhardt would even get a shot at big-league stock car racing – or have a chance to truly shine – if he was trying to break into NASCAR circa 2015.

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NASCAR has change significantly since Dale Earnhardt’s death, and I’m not at all convinced that it’s gotten better…

During the film, sports reporter Marty Smith relates a story in the film about how people have exclaimed that they can’t relate to NASCAR drivers in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death, which says a lot about this driver and his relationship to his sport. The “old school” nature of stock car racing quickly became extinct once Earnhardt wasn’t around, and NASCAR has never quite been able to compensate for his loss in my opinion. Even if I might complain that the documentary seems to gloss over some parts of the story and over-dramatize others, I Am Dale Earnhardt is in the end, very worthwhile: a treat for Earnhardt fans and a fine starting point for those either new to stock car racing or unfamiliar the driver that was arguably its most iconic personality. It might not have wide-reaching appeal, but this documentary provides precisely what a viewer would want and is right on par with ESPN’s outstanding 30 for 30 series. I’d have no problem recommending it.

An Enjoyable but Unnecessary Chronicle of Pro Wrestling’s Worst: WRESTLECRAP by R.D. Reynolds

WRESTLECRAP: THE VERY WORST OF PRO WRESTLING by R.D. Reynolds/Randy Baer

(3.5/5)

Pros: Perfectly enjoyable and easy to read; nostalgic value

Cons: Doesn’t quite live up to its billing  – imagine that!

Spotlighting the all-around worst the world of professional wrestling has to offer, the was launched in the year 2000 and has gone on to achieve increasing notoriety and recognition over the years despite some sweeping changes and periods of inactivity. The site’s main claim to fame may be its annual “Gooker Award” (named after the infamous ) in which the year’s most asinine gimmick, storyline, or event is recognized, but co-founder R.D. Reynolds (the wrestling pseudonym of Randy Baer) has also branched out to author several books based on the content of the site.

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Tugboat – the wrestler who thought he was a boat – yes, just about anything goes in the whacked-out world of pro wrestling…

Though it may sound like an all-encompassing examination of pro wrestling’s low points, Wrestlecrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling (published in 2003 by ECW Press – which has no connection to the wrestling promotion of the same name) is, in fact, something slightly different. Though it does chronicle numerous wacky and/or jaw-droppingly awful personalities and situations from pro wrestling’s history, the book devotes a substantial amount of its pages (I’d estimate almost half) to the period of the so-called “Monday Night Wars” when Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now called the WWE) went head-to-head with Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling – in large part through their respective Monday Night Raw and Nitro television programs which played weekly in the same time slot.

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A veritable who’s who of Wrestlecrap!

Focusing on this period of wrestling history can either be viewed as a good or a bad thing. On the plus side, this era will be fondly remembered by fans as the time when performers such as Goldberg, Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and Triple H really came into their own while more established names like Bret Hart, Hulk Hogan, Sting, and Shawn Michaels solidified their Hall of Fame statuses. Additionally, the late 1990s were indisputably the period in which pro wrestling achieved its highest level of mainstream fame: before this period, the sport had been largely viewed as a lowbrow entertainment with minimal mainstream appeal. The period of the “Monday Night Wars” did nothing if not demonstrate just how popular pro wrestling had the potential to be, and I suspect many readers would enjoy and appreciate Reynolds’ text for the nostalgic value alone.

wtf
You really have to wonder about some of the things that fly in a wrestling ring…

On the downside, while it’s convenient to focus on subjects that readers probably would be familiar with, there’s more to the history of pro wrestling than just the period from the early 1990s until 2001. Even if Wrestlecrap provides a different perspective on this period of wrestling history, there’s no escaping the fact that I, being a seasoned and longtime wrestling fan who came of age as it were in the late ’90s, didn’t learn much of anything from this book. Maybe my main problem with the choice of subject matter to focus on is that less than a year after Reynolds released this first Wrestlecrap book, he would release another – this one devoted exclusively to the “death” of WCW. As such, there’s a ton of crossover between the two books, a fact which (when combined with Wrestlecrap’s very minimal coverage of non-WWF and non-WCW promotions) only further accentuates the notion that the book doesn’t honestly provide the all-encompassing examination of the stupidity and excess of pro wrestling that its title hints at.

no caption needed
No caption needed. If you have to ask, you’ll never know.

Potentially problematic as it may be though, there are still many reasons why a fan of “sports entertainment” would want to give this book a looksee. As mentioned, it offers up a ton of nostalgia, much of which is of the “I completely forgot about that…but it’s completely hilarious” variety. It’s very clear that Reynolds has the same love and appreciation of pro wrestling that many of his readers would possess, and his book is perfectly written in a manner to appeal to that crowd. Though easy to read to the point where I might even say that it appeals more to dim-witted readers, the tone and writing style seen here is precisely what the material calls for: I’d hardly expect a book dealing with this subject to be a scholarly piece full of ten dollar words. That being said, there are a handful of noticeable grammatical and spelling errors present in the final text, and some of the language used in this book might turn off some readers. Inexcusable though the errors are, I have to emphasize that the crowd who would read a book dealing with pro wrestling in all likelihood not only wouldn’t notice subtle errors, but also wouldn’t be turned off by the occasional instance of colorful word choice and raunchiness.

giant gonzales
The Undertaker versus … a hairy, nude man?

The book’s main selling point is obviously the humor inherent in the subject, and Reynolds emphasizes the comic value of the material at every opportunity. Generally speaking, the tone text seems to “laugh with” not “at” the wrestlers/performers involved in the situations – after all, pro wrestling is nothing if not completely absurd through and through. On occasion however, the author does seem to head down a path that’s somewhat tasteless and the whole of the book could probably be labeled as being “sophomoric.” Again, I think this is more or less par for the course in a book of this nature; in any case, I wound up chuckling to myself quite regularly while reading.

zombie!

Accompanying the text are a handful of photographs, including a section of full-color prints. Though I might have liked additional images just to see who and what the author was referring to at various points throughout the book, I think there was a nice assortment and amount of pictures here. It’s certainly fortunate that, with the aid of , a reader can virtually “re-live” any of the goofy gimmicks and storylines discussed herein. Overall, Wrestlecrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling is an enjoyable read from cover to cover even if it’s something I’d be more inclined to apply a somewhat mediocre rating to. 268 pages in length and featuring a font size that looks large to my eyes, it’s probably not the best or most comprehensive pro wrestling book out there: it’s one that ultimately is content to poke fun at the goofiness of the sport rather than tell the reader anything he didn’t previously know. Still, while it probably wouldn’t be something that the average reader would have an interest in, the book (which includes a forward written by the late , best known for wrestling under the name “Earthquake”) comes highly recommended to the fan of sports entertainment.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…
alex
bryan

The FMW Video Series Ends with a Whimper: FINAL ENCOUNTER

FRONTIER MARTIAL-ARTS WRESTLING: FINAL ENCOUNTER

(2/5)

Pros: Decent main event matches – that are GASP! shown in their entirety

Cons: Severe editing during the undercard and some so-called matches that are just plain awful

Initially started in 1989 as a promotion based around so-called “garbage wrestling” that involved brawling, extremely violent stipulation matches, and the use of weapons, Japanese wrestling organization Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (or FMW) had by the year 2000 completely changed its main focus. While FMW would still put on the occasional deathmatch and did feature more blood and outright violence than one would find in the mainstream American promotions of the late ‘90s, the days of matches like the “exploding swimming pool death match” were over by 2000, and FMW was devoting more and more time to outrageous in-ring antics in an effort to be more “entertainment” oriented.


FMW was originally based more on extreme violence and stipulation matches, where sights like this were common. And you thought wrestling was .

Chronicling the “Backdraft” pay-per-view event which took place May 5, 2000 at the Komazawa Indoor Stadium in Tokyo Japan, the 2002 DVD release Final Encounter demonstrates that notion perfectly as it highlights eight of the nine total matches on the card that night. Unfortunately, the DVD is problematic right off the bat without even taking match quality into account. Many of the matches seen are clipped (i.e. edited) to the point of no return, showing only selected highlights of the various contests. This unsurprisingly severely disrupts the flow of the bouts and makes it increasingly difficult for a viewer to really get into the action. It also should be said that the undercard matches at the Backdraft event were by and large pathetic: even judicious editing on the part of the producers can’t convince me that several of the matches here are any good at all. To be honest, FMW’s roster of wrestlers had some genuine talent at one end – and pure jobber material at the other: the worst wrestlers in the promotion simply couldn’t hold their own in the ring and seemed incapable of having a worthwhile match. As a result, many FMW events were very much a mixed bag, with really good main events and a lot of trash leading up to them and that’s certainly the case with Backdraft.

FMW roster
Though there were some legit stars left, by 2000, the FMW talent pool was running pretty slim…

As if Tokyopop’s tendency to hack matches apart in the editing room wasn’t bad enough, the announce team featured on their FMW releases doesn’t help to make these programs any better. The team of John Watanabe and Dan “The Mouth” Lovranski simply don’t generate much interest in what’s taking place: listening to these two bungle through the program really makes me miss the good ol’ days of my youth when the likes of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Joey Styles (among others) would both entertain and excite the viewers with their commentary. Watanabe’s idea of making the program compelling is to repeatedly scream the names of various moves into the microphone, while Lovranski tries and fails to be a “heel” color commentator for the action (i.e. be “the bad guy”). Overall, the commentary only further sinks the already questionable Final Encounter.

That's about all
That face about sums it up when it comes to the commentary of Watanabe and Lovranski.

Without further ado, here’s the match rundown:

1. Ricky Fuji vs. Crazy Boy : Mexican wrestler Crazy Boy (first cousin of ECW’s Super Crazy) takes on Fuji, the Japanese version of Shawn Michaels, in this heavily edited opening match. Probably the highlight of the whole, rather lousy affair is seeing (and hearing) the apparently tone-deaf Fuji crooning on his way to the ring while being followed by some of the most unenthusiastic floozies you’ll ever see near a wrestling ring. As for the match itself, as good as it gets is seeing the Mexican combatant performing some of his trademark aerial moves, including the three-tier moonsault (in which he hits Fuji with the move performed from each of the three ring ropes in succession). Lackluster to say the least, I’d only give the match one star (out of a possible five).

Ricky Fuji
Ricky Fuji: he looks intimidating, then he starts singing.

2. June Kusanagi vs. Kaoruka Arai : Japanese AV actress (i.e. porn star) Kusanagi takes on the niece of FMW president Mr. Arai (who’s decked out in a schoolgirl costume) in this supposed match that’s really just a series of incredibly sloppy basic moves and a lot of pushing and shoving. Watching these two pretend to wrestle is excruciatingly sad: the only highlight (??) of the match (sadly, shown in its entirety) occurs when Arai awkwardly performs a Britney Spears-like dance in the center of the ring. Oh, did I mention wrestler Flying Kid Ichihara is the guest referee and will “go out” with the winner of the match? Yawn. No stars – it fails even as cheesecake.

no
Anyone looking for another of FMW’s classic women’s matches won’t find it on this program.

3. Yuka Nakamura, Emi Motokawa, & Azusa Kudo vs. Kaori Nakayama, Chocoball Mukai, & Kyoko Inoue : A six-person match shown in highlighted form, with female wrestlers Nakamura, Motokawa, Nakayama, and Inoue involved in a match that also features male porn star Chocoball Mukai and Azusa Kudo, who reportedly had a male-to-female sex change operation. What??!? Though there are a few legitimate wrestling moves in the match (the surfboard press performed by Inoue is actually really impressive), the “high point” of the match occurs when Kudo performs a crotch-biting maneuver against Mukai. Pretty tasteless, even by the standards of pro wrestling, and not at all a good match. I’m giving it a half a star due to the handful of actual moves which pop up intermittently.

Chocoball
Chocoball Mukai: not a wrestler.

4. Yoshinori “Mammoth” Sasaki & Hideki Hosaka vs. Matty Samu & Eddie Fatu : WEW Hardcore Tag Team Titles are on the line as champions Sasaki and Hosaka defend against the “Samoan Gangster Party” of Samu and Fatu (the late brother of the WWE’s Rikishi who also wrestled under the name “Umaga”). Shown in highlighted form, this match turns into a rambling brawl that’s fought all over the arena. Since it’s a hardcore match, both Sasaki and Hosaka bleed profusely for almost no reason whatsoever and the match features a lot of tables and chair shots. Culminating in a spot which finds Hosaka gingerly performing a crossbody from a ringside scaffold onto Fatu, the match nonetheless feels completely pointless with minimal buildup and next to no excitement despite the level of violence and destruction. Two stars.

Sasaki
Sasaki brawling in the middle of the cheap seats.

5. Kintaro Kanemura vs. Ryuji Yamakawa : FMW star Kanemura takes on Yamakawa, who made a name for himself in the even more violent Big Japan promotion, in this contest for the WEW Hardcore Title. As might be expected, this brawl spreads out to the farthest reaches of the Komazawa Stadium, including the main hallway where Yamakawa introduces fluorescent light tubes into the mix. Despite these weapon shots and the use of multiple chairs and tables, the most brutal thing in the match occurs when Kanemura is suplexed onto the unyielding floor in the refreshment area: there’s simply no faking some things in pro wrestling and taking a bump on cement just can’t feel very good. As the match nears its conclusion, it features some very rough in-ring action, including a pretty sick DDT from the top rope. Though again shown only in highlights, this is by far the best match on the program to this point. Three stars.

kanemura v yamakawa
Kanemura preparing to slam Yamakawa to the mat.

6. Sabu vs. Mr. Gannosuke : ECW star Sabu (whose wrestling style not just slightly resembles that of FMW’s Hayabusa) takes on one of the obvious villain wrestlers in Japan in this grueling contest, shown only in highlights (which is disappointing considering that the cover art of the DVD features an image from this match). The always-reliable Sabu utilizes his trademark innovative offensive, spring-boarding off chairs to perform splashes, dropping a leg to put Gannosuke through a table, and even pulling out a spike to rip the Japanese wrestler’s forehead open with. It’s a virtual spot-fest throughout, with Gannosuke at one point delivering a fire thunder driver through a table, but the ending (following a pair of fireballs) is disappointing. Three stars.

Gannosuke
Gannosuke drives Sabu through a table at ringside.

7. Kodo Fuyuki vs. Tetsuhiro Kuroda : WEW Title is up for grabs, as Fuyuki (who was kicked out of FMW after a “loser leaves town” match a few months previous yet was back in the promotion in record time) returns to stake a claim on the championship he created. Kuroda (who appears laughably small put alongside the barrel-chested Fuyuki) enters as the champ, but quickly finds himself on the receiving end of fork shots to the head from Fuyuki. To be honest, this entire contest seems like a mismatch, with Fuyuki generally dominating against the genuinely overpowered Kuroda, though the champ does his best to keep things interesting. Match reaches a low point when, after smacking Kuroda over the head with a satchel of eggs, Fuyuki drapes a pair of mens’ briefs over the champion’s face – which is not removed for several minutes. Fuyuki’s patented Plastic Surgery Facelock submission hold also looks really bad as performed here, but he does get credit for unloading a fire extinguisher into the face of his opponent at one point. I’m not sure I can really get behind a title match that builds up to be a battle of the clotheslines, but this hard-fought match is significantly better than any of the opening matches here – and is shown in its entirety. Three and a half stars.

Fuyuki
Fuyuki preparing to crack Kuroda with a broken piece of a table.

8. Masato Tanaka vs. Hayabusa : By this point in his career, the popular Tanaka was transforming himself into the premiere “bad guy” in the promotion, and here takes on his one-time friend Hayabusa in a match which finds both competitors throwing caution to the wind. It’s matches like this (shown in full) that demonstrate what FMW performers were capable of when at their best: after a methodical start to the contest, these two trade jaw-dropping moves for the majority of the bout. There are some unbelievable sequences here: Hayabusa performs a moonsault, follows up with a Fisherman Bomb, which leads into the Firebird Splash and finally a Falcon Arrow. Another wild sequence culminates in Hayabusa being powerbombed over the ring ropes towards a table on the outside. When he mostly misses the table however, his head and neck land flush on the concrete floor. Ouch. Non-stop action here reaches mind-blowing intensity when Tanaka quite literally T-bones Hayabusa directly on his head with a suplex. This is the kind of move that ends careers (as Hayabusa would find out the following year when he was legitimately paralyzed following a botched in-ring maneuver), but the match nevertheless continues towards a thrilling finish. The only downside is that the camera coverage repeatedly shows a stone-faced Jinsei Shinzaki (the Japanese wrestler who performed in America under the name of “Hakushi”) sitting ringside; even with this distraction, I’d call it a classic bout. Four stars.

connects
Hayabusa connects on Tanaka.

Despite the fact that the main event certainly delivers the goods, Final Encounter never quite is able to overcome a definitively awful first couple of matches, and it ultimately stands as an appropriately mediocre finale to TokyoPop’s FMW video series. I’ve often wondered why the producers of these programs chose to include so many matches that were frankly unflattering to the performers involved – or to the FMW promotion in general. In the case of Final Encounter, including the undercard matches makes sense (even if the extreme truncation of these contests is infuriating), but this video series as a whole (which I would assume was trying to showcase the “best” of the promotion) winds up being perfectly underwhelming.

FMW's glory days
It’s odd that the TokyoPop DVDs don’t cover many of the matches from FMW’s glory days.

Circa the year 2000 when TokyoPop’s FMW series started to see release in the states, Japanese wrestling was extremely hard to find outside of the tape trading circle, so I was thrilled to be able to watch FMW events at all. Fifteen years later, the general sloppiness of many of these matches is glaring and I can’t help but feel that FMW (which folded in 2002) would have been better off to remain true to its “garbage wrestling” roots. Spectacle is more important than the technical brilliance of any performers involved in that sort of match, and I believe a more niche-oriented approach would have made better use of the promotion’s (somewhat meager) relative level of roster talent. Regardless, despite the rather spotty quality of this series, I can’t help but enjoy these FMW releases on a certain level: they’re reflective of an era in pro wrestling that will likely never occur again. Though I can’t in good conscience give Final Encounter (or many of the other domestic FMW releases for that matter) a glowing rating, I think many fans of the sport (particularly those who can appreciate the more violent and outrageous aspects of it) would enjoy or at least be interested in it.

funk fireball


The DVD from Tokyopop is a decent quality, full-screen transfer from the original VHS masters. Aside from a collection of trailers and gallery of wrestler biographies, the DVD includes two bonus matches as extras:
1. Hayabusa and Jinsei Shinzaki vs. Mr. Gannosuke and Kintaro Kanemura : More or less shown in its entirety with no commentary, this is a matchup for the FMW tag team titles between the obvious fan favorite team of Shinzaki and Hayabusa and the title-holding villain squad of Gannosuke and Kanemura. While Hayabusa’s wrestling prowess had been pretty well established by earlier volumes in the FMW series, this match goes a long way in proving Shinzaki’s in-ring abilities. A close-range, acrobatic head kick onto Kanemura is especially impressive. For their part, Gannosuke and Kanemura work quite well as a team and succeed at making things ugly: both Shinzaki and Hayabusa are driven through tables outside the ring (Shinzaki being powerbombed over the top rope is a definite highlight of the contest). After a wild final few minutes in which a barbed wire-covered baseball bat is introduced, there’s a surprise ending. A better match than I might have expected: three and a half stars.

2. Kodo Fuyuki and Kintaro Kanemura vs. Jado and Gedo : Tag team champions Fuyuki and Kanemura take on the veteran team of Jado and Gedo in this contest which takes place in a half-empty arena with a tropical island set in the background (??!?). Extensively edited, the contest seems even more low key and unexciting, with Jado and Gedo doing a fine job of isolating their opponents in the ring. Fuyuki, of course, cleans house at one point and gets to do his famous war cry, but there’s really nothing of note that takes place during the contest. One and half stars.


5/10 : Quite a few matches on the card feature someone getting “busted wide open” and there is some pretty gnarly violence at times – par for the course in FMW and not nearly as extreme as some Japanese wrestling discs I’ve seen.


1/10 : A few adult themes and related dialogue; nothing major.


1/10 : The catfight between porn star Jun Kasanagi and schoolgirl Kaoruko Arai might do it for some people, but there’s not much here.


5/10 : Generally forgettable as a disc of Japanese wrestling and a rather sad way to close the FMW video series.


Hayabusa endearing himself to the fans: “Look at my face closely in that monitor. I lost my front teeth. Don’t I look silly?”

Safety Comes a Long Way in the World’s Premiere Motorsport: 1

1

(4/5)

Pros: Nicely captures the sights and sounds of F1; crash course history is pretty decent; lots of amazing archival footage

Cons: I really mean that this is a “crash course” examination of F1…

It’s always seemed a bit odd to me, a longtime motor racing fan, that Formula 1, F1 for short and indisputably the most popular form of auto racing in the world, has never really taken hold in the United States. It’s easy to make an argument for F1 being a European-based sport (after all, most tracks, teams, and drivers are European), but while the vast majority of American race fans are content to watch drivers circle into infinity on the tracks of NASCAR, I remember many a day in my youth waking up at the crack of dawn to watch live F1 events (since they in many cases take place on the other side of the globe, F1 events usually play in the middle of the night or in the early morning in the United States). In recent years, Formula 1 seems to have gained a bit more prominence in the minds of the American race fan however, in part due to the construction of the United States’ first purpose-built F1 facility in Austin, Texas. Several films in recent years have capitalized on this new-found interest, including the excellent 2011 documentary (about the man who became the sport’s biggest star before his death behind the wheel in 1994), the 2013 docudrama Rush (focusing on the famed rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt), and now the documentary 1 which deals largely with how the sport’s safety has improved over time.

fuk1lFrom bomb to missile…

Produced in 2013 and directed by Paul Crowder, 1 begins with a bang by presenting footage of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix in which the car of British driver Martin Brundle went airborne and flipped end over end before coming to rest in a gravel trap. In previous years, this accident almost certainly would have proven fatal, but Brundle not only escaped from the vehicle more or less under his own power, but actually returned to the pitlane and got into a backup car to continue the race. Anyone familiar with the sport of Formula 1 would know that this level of safety wasn’t always a guarantee – during a period from about 1967-78, an almost jaw-dropping number of drivers were killed while racing. As a documentary, 1 seeks not just to tell the basic story of Formula 1 from its early days as a thrilling and dangerous post-WWII diversion to the modern era in which incredible technology, glitz and glamour threaten to replace the racing as the sport’s primary point of interest, but rather to reveal how this premier form of motorsport cleaned up its safety record over the years.

german GP
Getting air while circling the immense Nürburgring circuit.

During the course of the documentary, 1 devotes significant time to detailing the history of some of the sport’s most recognizable drivers, teams, tracks, and situations. While it’s cool to hear about such legendary personalities as Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, and Graham Hill, I find the information relating to the classic racing venues to be more interesting. On that note, Crowder’s film chronicles some unforgettable moments from the legendary Monaco street circuit (undoubtedly the most famous and historic track still in use by Formula 1 today), the incredibly fast Monza track in Italy, the famous (or is it infamous?) Watkins Glen circuit in New York State, and the unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring in Germany. Twenty-two kilometers in length, there are few in the world that would challenge the Nürburgring’s reputation as the world’s greatest and most challenging race circuit, yet the ever-increasing speed of Formula 1 helped ensure that the sport no longer uses the facility. It’s also pretty amazing to watch throughout the film as the typical F1 car (each of which is hand-designed by the individual teams from top to bottom, including the engine) have evolved from being clunky and frail vehicles that were little more than bombs on wheels to seeming like jet fighters that are planted to the ground.

yikes!
That is an ugly F1 car.

Easily the best thing about 1 is the presentation of astonishing archival footage and photographs (wait until you experience a lap of the from the perspective of Senna’s in-car camera). The program is assembled and edited quite well, occasionally taking a break from the chronological history to focus on more detailed discussion of various related topics. I also really appreciated the fine selection of classic and contemporary interviews that were conducted with various people who were involved with the sport. It’s always cool to hear from drivers like Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Damon Hill, and Mario Andretti as well as the those who worked behind the scenes: team owners, mechanics, and members of the F1 management. Along with the strong visuals provided in the film is a well-assembled soundtrack that contains some pretty classic tunes that serve to represent the time periods in which the story takes place very nicely.

USGP
F1 cars head through the esses at Watkins Glen.

On the downside, 1 almost plays like a blow-by-blow history of Formula 1 fatalities and checklist of safety innovations than as a more straight-forward history of the sport, spending the majority of its duration covering the period of the early to mid 1970s. At a certain juncture of the documentary, it seems like another driver is getting killed every three to five minutes in the chronology. Obviously, the material in this film was taken straight from actual history and the sport was overflowing with tragedy in the early 1970s. Still, it seems to me that the film could have perhaps been handled a little differently so as to ensure that the sense of loss comes through more poignantly. As it stands, I could almost see a viewer being turned off of F1 due to the “consistency of death” that surrounded the sport or even becoming numb to the tragedy that’s present in the film. To me, that doesn’t much do justice to the drivers who lost their lives while piloting F1 cars, and the final five minutes of the documentary, which play as one extended advertisement for the sport, just seems a hastily-executed and empty conclusion to a film that I would have wanted to be more substantial at the end of the day.


Driver Jackie Stewart speeds past a mess of burning cars in Spain, 1970.

An additional issue I had with the film was that there was too large an amount of time spent on the 1976 season – the same story was told by filmmaker Ron Howard in his fictionalized film Rush. Obviously, I can see why this was done – the tie-in factor probably would have helped both films gain some exposure, but considering that many championship seasons are barely mentioned during the program, it seems questionable to spend this much time on a season which wasn’t ultimately that noteworthy in the bigger picture of the sport. I should also point out that although this film does include footage of fatal racing accidents, it shies away from really presenting the grim reality of how some of these drivers were killed. This could either be a good or bad thing depending on an individual viewer’s point of view, but having done a substantial amount of research into racing accidents over the years, I thought the film seemed as if it was brushing the sport’s darkest moments under the rug a bit (the for instance, was absolutely horrible in real life and played out under extremely dramatic circumstances; I don’t think the documentary does justice to just how bad it was). In truth, the producers of the film probably had to do this in order to secure the much-needed support of Formula 1 administration, but I didn’t much care for the sugar coating.

purley
A dejected David Purley walks away after failing to be able to pull fellow driver Roger Williamson from his burning vehicle. Purley, who stopped his car and thus abandoned the race in an attempt to save Williamson’s life, was awarded the George Medal for courage due to his actions.

In the end, 1 is outstanding for what it is, even though it perhaps isn’t the objective and comprehensive program that someone looking to be introduced to Formula 1 might have wanted. This program conveniently ignores large portions of the sport’s history in its attempt to detail the innumerable innovations that have made racing significantly more safe in recent decades, but I suppose it would be an agreeable (literal) crash course in F1 for interested viewers. Most longtime fans wouldn’t be learning much from the documentary, but as I mentioned, it’s always cool to see this vintage footage and hear from the people who experienced F1 during its glory days and helped make the sport what it is today. Though it’s imperfect, I’d still highly recommend the film to anyone interested in motor racing in general or Formula 1 specifically.

today's formula 1
Today’s F1 is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.

** Final note: at one point during 1, the film presents a brief image of a trackside sign that exclaims a “warning” to race attendees that “motor racing is dangerous.” I feel this point is often forgotten in an era where auto racing for the most part has been relatively safe in recent years. The illusion of safety was shattered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix which took place in early October: French driver Jules Bianchi was critically injured when his race car slammed into a crane removing a stranded car from the race course. I’ve studied this accident and there’s no doubt in my mind that modern F1 safety tech enabled Bianchi to survive an accident which at any other point in history would unquestionably have been fatal. Unfortunately, despite what race broadcasters, drivers, and documentary filmmakers would have us believe or like to believe themselves, there is always some element of risk involved in getting in any sort of car, especially one designed to travel and indeed race at speeds that often fall in the 150-200 mile per hour range. While the traditional causes of driver fatalities (basilar skull fractures; fire; internal injuries) have been mitigated, there is always the chance of “freak accidents” which can be very difficult to predict or prevent: there never should be a point at which driver safety is not improving.

bianchi
Bianchi being extricated from his car following a tremendous impact at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.


No extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, widescreen editions from the Millennium Studio. This film has screened numerous times this year on the NBC Sports Network as a supplement to their coverage of the 2014 Formula 1 season.


2/10 : Generally non-graphic but nonetheless violent footage of sometimes fatal auto racing accidents.


1/10 : Minimal profanity; much of this is bleeped in the version of the film that’s played on television.


1/10 : A few isolated instances of blurred topless nudity; I’m unsure as to whether this footage is similarly obscured on the DVD release.


4/10 : Probably a must for auto racing enthusiasts, with a ton of fascinating archival footage and interviews.


“We want to see something exceptional, breathtaking; that we think can’t be done. We want to see gladiators, warriors, and let’s face it: we do like to see a bit of a shunt. But we don’t want to see deaths. It is incredible how this changed and suddenly it became unacceptable to die in the name of sport.”

Real-Life Days of Thunder Racing Rivalry Plays Out in RUSH

RUSH

image-placeholder

(4/5)

Pros: Awesome racing sequences; nice attention to detail and historical accuracy; compelling drama

Cons: Ending was a bit on the soft side; selection of popular music on the soundtrack could have been better

Having been a fan of Formula 1 for decades, it’s always struck me as surprising and unfortunate that this form of auto racing, easily the most popular in the world, has never quite caught on in the United States for one reason or another. While NASCAR drivers typically circle around painfully similar tracks week in and week out, F1 travels to some of the most challenging and varied courses the world has to offer, with most every race playing out as high drama – particularly for those familiar with the intricacies of the sport. With the construction of the America’s first purposely built F1 circuit (Austin, TX’s Circuit of the Americas, which opened in 2012), Formula 1 appears to have finally gotten some sort of foothold in the United States, and over the past couple of years there have been a handful of films dealing with the sport.

ferraris
A sampling of Ferrari’s Formula 1 machines from over the years, from clunky bombs to jet planes on wheels.

Ron Howard’s 2013 feature Rush operates in roughly the same manner as the excellent 2010 straight documentary (which chronicled the man perhaps rightfully regarded as the best F1 driver in history) in that it focuses its attention on Formula 1’s past and plays like a biography dealing with two of the most legendary names in the sport. The film opens by introducing two young and hungry race drivers working their ways up through the ranks of Formula 3 in Europe. Almost immediately, there’s a sharp contrast between a carefree British driver named and perfectionist Austrian named : the two clash instantly on the track and a rivalry which eventually stretched across the globe was born. Flash forward several years and the pair of drivers have made their way into Formula 1, the most prestigious, high-tech, and outright dangerous form of auto racing in the world. Lauda has landed on F1’s biggest and most famous team Ferrari, while Hunt has struggled in driving for smaller and more cash-strapped organizations. Going into 1976, Hunt lands a spot on the McLaren team, arguably the “best of the rest” in the world of F1, and this sets up an epic and extremely dramatic fight for the points championship with Lauda. The main body of Rush documents this season and the ramifications it had for all parties concerned.

real life
Real life Hunt (left) and Lauda.

Howard’s film plays a bit like Days of Thunder if it was more realistic and based on actual historical events, with the brash, playboy James Hunt serving as the “Cole Trickle” type character while the wily and calculating Lauda seems like the grizzled veteran “Rowdy Burns.” Written by Peter Morgan, Rush emphasizes the differences between its main characters throughout, and details the frequently tense on-and off-track interactions that defined the relationship between Lauda and Hunt and the men themselves. A viewer really gets the idea that these guys may not at all have liked each other (at least initially), but they had to respect one another when both were piloting what amounted to a bomb on wheels that was traveling some 150 miles per hour around twisting and turning racetracks while only being inches apart. Acting from Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) is outstanding: the two actors not only have a wonderfully compelling rapport with one another, but really seem to have identified and accentuated the true nature of their characters. It’s interesting to note that Morgan’s script and Howard’s direction seem most often to take the standpoint of Lauda, the character who comes across as the “villain” at the onset of the film. Though Hunt appears to be living the life that every male race fan would dream of, it seems like part of the goal of the film is to suggest that Lauda’s story is actually the more heroic, uplifting, and ultimately triumphant.

in the film
The pair as depicted in the film: Chris Hemsworth (left) as Hunt, and Daniel Brühl as Lauda.

Even if F1 is the most high-tech racing found in the world, in the 1970s, it was incredibly dangerous. The film drives home this point right from the beginning with the declaration that “twenty-five drivers start every year in Formula 1 and each year, two of them die,” and that statement is absolute fact. The racing scenes in Rush capture the “shake, rattle, and roll” – and overwhelming noise – of auto racing in a gritty and absolutely mesmerizing manner, and never quite allow the viewer to forget that these drivers are often quite literally teetering on the brink of life and death. The film visualizes several extremely nasty accidents (the moment early in the film where driver Francois Cevert is decapitated at Watkins Glen, though somewhat low-key in how it’s presented, really reinforces the dangers of the sport) and eventually, there are some incredibly harrowing scenes here. Midway through 1976, Lauda is horrifically burned in an accident at the German Grand Prix while leading the points standings, and the scenes relating to his medical treatments are excruciating to watch. His eventual return to the sport in just a few weeks later stands as the story’s almost obligatory “overcoming the odds” angle, but the script also takes time to point out that there are things more important than winning.


Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring. Warning: Graphic.

To an extent, Rush is more effective as a dramatic film than as a pure action picture, but the action scenes that are here are absolutely fantastic. Editing throughout the piece is very crisp and purposeful, seeming to alternate between focusing on the humans in the midst of the action and on the mechanical beasts that they are attempting to wrangle. Camera angles during the picture frequently place the viewer right among the race participants, and we often seem to be on the verge of banging wheels with either Lauda or Hunt ourselves. I noticed a few times when the digital effects looked a bit jerky (especially during one key racing sequence), but I really appreciated the attention to historical accuracy in terms of depicting the race cars and courses of the 1970s. It was really cool for me, as a fan of F1, to see these vintage cars in action around tracks that haven’t been used in years – the epitome of which is the immense and unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring. The occasional use of on-screen graphics does a fine job of establishing the basic facts relating to this story, and the film’s sense of pacing is excellent since it seems to focus just the right amount of time on the home lives of the characters without becoming sappy or boring. Hans Zimmer provides a typically pulse-pounding and rousing music score for the story to play out in front of, and even if I thought the selection of popular music was a bit on the cheesy side, these tunes solidify the setting in which the story takes place very well.

thrill of victory
Like most sports dramas, Rush has plenty of triumph and tragedy.

Though the film takes a few liberties with its telling of the story and seems to add intensity to the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that may not have actually existed, to me Rush seemed fairly accurate which is commendable in itself. Considering how compelling this film is both for its technical aspects and for its dramatic storyline, I’d have to call it one of the honestly better films I’ve seen in a while and a return to form for director Howard, whose career has been up-and-down in recent years. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed this film more than most simply due to the fact that I recognized the names, places, cars, and circumstances being discussed, but I think most viewers would get caught up in this intriguing story if they gave this film a chance. Despite the fact that it operates in a generally similar manner to just about every other sports biography or drama that’s out there, I’d have to call this simply outstanding cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

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Widescreen Blu-ray from Universal includes a selection of deleted scenes, a piece focusing on director Ron Howard’s approach to the film, a multi-part “making of” feature, and a trio of documentary segments dealing with the real life story behind the film. A very nice video package overall.


6/10 : Shows the dangerous side of auto racing without flinching; some of the scenes dealing with Lauda’s medical treatments are very disturbing and graphic.


7/10 : A healthy dose of profanity, featuring many f-bombs and occasional crude remarks.


5/10 : Sexual situations pop up several times during the film and occasionally include brief glimpses of topless nudity.


5/10 : Though this would be a must for fans of F1, it comes across as a fairly typical, if more hard-hitting than usual, sports movie.


“Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose…”

Trailer:

The Not-So Glorious History of the FMW Double Title:RULE THE ASYLUM

Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling: RULE THE ASYLUM

(3/5)

Pros: Tanaka vs. Ganosuke is BRUTAL; program has a sense of purpose

Cons: Two matches here are repeats from previous FMW compilations; match lineup loses momentum down the stretch

Chronicling the two-year history of FMW’s prestigious double title championship which was made up of the Independent Heavyweight World Title and the Brass Knuckles Championship, Rule the Asylum (released on video in 2001) really should have been one of the best entries in TokyoPop’s series of DVDs featuring Japanese wrestling promotion Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling. Other volumes in this series were more or less a hodgepodge of matches that varied in quality from being mind-blowing to absolute garbage, but here was a disc that had only title matches on it and featured the top names in the promotion. Sad then that even this DVD has problems that keep it from rising above mediocrity: though all the matches on the main program are seen in their entirety (my biggest, most all-encompassing complaint about the FMW series overall was the amount of truncation that was done on many if not most matches), two of the five have been included on previous TokyoPop DVDs, prompting a WTF response. When there are relatively few entries in this series in the first place (the series ended after volume 14) and there are literally hundreds of FMW shows to draw material from, why would there be any recycled footage present on these US releases?

hayabusa with belts
Hayabusa displaying the two belts of the FMW Double Title.

Though FMW was known as a “garbage wrestling” promotion due to the prevalence of stipulation matches and extreme violence (at least in the early days of the promotion), by the time the double title championship was unified in 1996, the promotion was headed more in the direction of becoming more like the American promotion WWF, i.e. focusing on “entertainment” over brutality. Matches on Rule the Asylum therefore focus more on athleticism, though at least one contest here is much more graphic in terms of its level of bloodshed than I’d ever expect to see in the states. Commentating on the card is provided by the (yawn) duo of John Watanabe on play-by-play and Dan “The Mouth” Lovranski providing color commentary. These two seem generally lackadaisical, even when Watanabe starts excitedly blurting out and repeating the names of moves he’s seen in an apparent attempt to win a cracker from the viewer. Announcing on these FMW programs was a problem since day one, and though I like the non-scripted, less jokey commentating provided by Lovranski and Watanabe better than what was heard on the first half dozen FMW discs, the pair simply doesn’t add much to the program. All in all, few of the FMW DVDs would be ones that anyone aside from hardcore Japanese wrestling fans would really need to check out: they pale in comparison to any of the programs released by the then-WWF or ECW promotions.

now that is impressive
Now that is impressive: Ultimo Dragon with a ridiculous amount of gold. Sheesh!

Here’s the rundown of matches featured on Rule the Asylum:

1. The Gladiator (Mike Awesome) vs. Kintaro WING Kanemura (12.11.1996) – Independent heavyweight champ Kanemura takes on Brass Knux title holder Mike Awesome in this contest from the Komazawa Olympic Park Gymnasium that would unify the two belts and establish the double championship. I was a bit skeptical about this match from the get-go considering the language barriers between the American Awesome and Japanese wrestler Kanemura, and the contest does seem quite awkward at times. Complicating matters further is the fact that these two had very different styles of wrestling: Awesome relied on his power and agility, generally avoiding the most violent matches while Kanemura was more a brawler who reveled in excessive brutality. The fact that the first five minutes or so mainly deal with Awesome getting his foot caught up in the ropes so as to bring him down to the skill level of Kanemura due to the “injury” speaks volumes about the contest, and as a whole, it has a sputtering quality to it. When one guy is firmly in control, it’s ok: Awesome gets to show off his power, Kanemura demonstrates his more rough and gritty style. In the standoffish moments however, it’s clear these two don’t quite know what to do: witness several herky-jerk segments in which moves barely connect – the worst of which is when Awesome gingerly taps Kanemura’s head with a piece of broken table. C’mon Mike – this is FMW: had something like this happened during his ECW days, Awesome would’ve been booed out of the arena. I suppose the match is actually better than I would have thought, mainly due to the fact that Awesome sells the leg injury pretty well, but it’s plenty sketchy at times… Three stars.

kanemura fired up
A bloody Kanemura getting fired up during his battle with The Gladiator Mike Awesome.

2. The Gladiator (Mike Awesome) vs. Masato Tanaka (9.27.1997) – From the Kawasaki Stadium, these two powerful rivals square off in a match that was previously seen on The Enforcer compilation; full match rundown can be found in my review of that DVD. It’s an outstanding match for sure (I gave it four and a half stars the first time around), but I’m disappointed and frankly, flabbergasted that TokyoPop would re-use a match that’s already been seen in the FMW video series – even if they are trying to reveal the history of the double title.

tanaka v. awesome
…and this is why fans still remember matches between Tanaka and Awesome.

3. Masato Tanaka vs. Mr. Gannosuke (1.6.1998) – Tanaka defends the title against the absolutely brutal Gannosuke in this contest from the Korakuen Hall. After a standoffish start to the match, the two combatants wind up brawling through the crowd (cue a few table spots including one where Tanaka misses the table and lands lower back first on the floor OUCH), and when they finally get back to the ring, Gannosuke uses a broken broom handle to rip the hell out of Tanaka’s bicep. This gaping wound is pretty nasty, even compared with the types of things seen in the most gruesome FMW stipulation matches, and Tanaka proceeds to lose a rather excessive amount of blood throughout the rest of the contest. Gannosuke appears to almost be in Jerry Lawler mode here: doing as little as possible to win the match while obliterating and bloodying his opponent. This of course is a technique used to turn Gannosuke into even more of a villain, but his overall performance doesn’t speak well to his actual in-ring abilities and I would have expected more out of him. Irregardless, Tanaka’s gutsy performance makes this match memorable: even with all the punishment he takes, he’s still able to pull off many of his signature power moves. Down the stretch, a match that was pretty uninspired at times starts to get exciting, and in the end, I’d give it four stars.

no
No handshakes in the double title match between Tanaka and Gannosuke – it’s ugly.

4. Mr. Gannosuke vs. Hayabusa (4.30.1998) – Another (surprisingly dull) recycled match; this one featured on TokyoPop’s Flying Assassin compilation: see that review for a full match description. Interesting to note that Lovranski and Watanabe seem to have recorded new commentary tracks for the pair of recycled matches seen on Rule the Asylum, which makes about as much sense as including them in the first place. I gave the match a generous three stars the first time around, but it’s forgettable and not worth watching for a second time.

gannosuke v. hayabusa
Gannosuke with Hayabusa locked up in a headscissor.

Hayabusa vs. Kodo Fuyuki (11.11.1998) – A classic hero (face) versus villain (heel) match from the Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium, this match pits the barrel-chested wily veteran Fuyuki against the fan favorite Hayabusa. Another obvious clash of styles in this match: Hayabusa dazzles crowds with his technical ability and high-flying moves, while Fuyuki plays the quintessential bad guy, doing as little as possible to win while showing off gritty technique and letting loose with his trademark, high-pitched war cries. A fairly slow, methodical match, this more or less drags through its opening section before getting into some sort of rhythm around the halfway point. Fuyuki eventually lands a pretty gnarly brain buster on the floor against Hayabusa, who retaliates with his showy aerial moves. I almost got the idea here that Fuyuki just wasn’t going to sell Hayabusa’s moves like his typical opponent would: the more popular wrestler was going to have to really work to get the win here, not just land a couple somersault splashes. Towards the end of the contest, this becomes a botch fest, with both wrestlers missing moves and generally stumbling their way towards an unconvincing, lame-o finale: genuinely disappointing even if the announcers attempt to convince a viewer otherwise. Two and a half stars.

hayabusa v fuyuki
Hayabusa and Fuyuki in battle.

A final noticeable problem with this DVD is that its format makes it impossible to avoid spoilers in the matches featured: a viewer who reads over the match list here knows who is going to win each and every fight. Along with the fact that two matches here were carried over from other FMW DVDs, this makes Rule the Asylum much less enthralling than it really should have been. We’re told right off the bat that achieving the Double Title Championship was the ultimate goal of every wrestler in the promotion, but I’m not sure this hit-or-miss lineup of matches could actually convince a viewer of the title’s importance. As this program wears on, the caliber of matches here actually gets worse, and the retirement of the belts in 1998 doesn’t seem like an altogether bad idea. In the end, we’ve got another FMW DVD that ultimately does little to dispel the notion that FMW was at best, a second-tier Japanese wrestling promotion that never really could compete with either the outright insanity and violence of Big Japan Pro Wrestling or the spectacle of either New Japan or All Japan. Hardcore wrestling fanatics might want to check out this DVD, but those looking for honest quality in their wrestling entertainment would be wise to look elsewhere.

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Decent but not great quality, full-frame DVD from TokyoPop includes a trailer gallery and selection of wrestler bios as well as two bonus double title matches:

1. Masato Tanaka vs. Kintaro Kanemura – Champ Tanaka faces off against the always game Kanemura in a rough technical match. Shown in highlighted form only with no commentary, this match features bad attitude galore from Kanemura who power slams Tanaka through a table from the ring apron, then proceeds to use the broken wood fragments and even the ring bell against the champ. At one point, Tanaka delivers a ridiculous lariat that whips Kanemura around like a rag doll, and the match culminates in an exchange of brutal forearms. A decent match overall. Three stars.

2. Hayabusa vs. Hisakatsu Oya – Heavily edited match (16 minutes down to three) with intermittent Japanese-language commentary in which champ Hayabusa faces off against the technically gifted Oya. After an initial grappling exchange, Hayabusa demonstrates his usual, dazzling array of high-flying moves, including a vaulting suicide dive over the corner turnbuckle that lands on Oya outside of the ring. Final back and forth battle of suplexes is kind of cool, but these highlights don’t convey much about the quality of the match. One and a half stars.


5/10 : Though this DVD as a whole is not as rigorous as other FMW programs, it gets plain nasty at times


1/10 : Some rough language and vague threats

0/10 : Not even a single homely woman in spandex to be seen


5/10 : Fairly straight-forward Japanese wrestling disc, though more worthwhile and consistent than some.


“Whoa Dan – you’re starting to sound like some of these marks on the internet…”  HEY, WAIT A MINUTE….

R.I.P. Michael “Mike Awesome” Alfonso

Title Says It All – The Worst of the FMW Video Series: WAR OF ATTRITION

Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling: WAR OF ATTRITION

(1/5)

Pros: The one match shown in its entirety is pretty great

Cons: Heavy truncation of matches that seem very gimmicky; way too much (confounding) storyline material

Opening with a recap of the tenth anniversary show for Japanese wrestling promotion Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (which was released on video as The Judgment), War of Attrition is the aptly-named twelfth volume in TokyoPop Home Video’s FMW series. While some programs in the series provided “best of FMW” style compilations and others (like the aforementioned Judgment) featured entire individual events, War of Attrition exists solely as a “clean up” (or filler if you like) program in which a hodgepodge of matches is screened for the viewer: its sole reason for existence is to tie The Judgment to the next major FMW card, entitled “Backdraft” that occurred roughly six months later in May of the year 2000. As such, Attrition mostly focuses on the soap opera aspects of pro wrestling, following various storylines that existed in FMW circa late 1999 and early 2000. Though the matches here do feature many of the top talents in the promotion, this disc as a whole is not something that I’d probably be all that enthused about recommending, even to fans of Japanese wrestling.

entertainment
Long before the WWE, FMW proclaimed itself as “entertainment.”

Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling was founded in 1989 by legendary wrestler Atsushi Onita as a sort of hardcore or “garbage” promotion – most of the traditional rules of the squared circle were relaxed to the point of almost being nonexistent, and FMW matches frequently involved use of weapons or outrageous stipulations. FMW pioneered many so-called “death matches” including ones involving electrified barbed wire, exploding land mines, and more and this style of hardcore or “extreme” wrestling was eventually borrowed by various other promotions, and perhaps used most effectively in the United States by Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling. By 1999, FMW had entered into a sort of talent swap program with ECW in which American wrestlers would appear in Japan and Japanese performers would occasionally make tours of the states. Around this same time, FMW also was in the process of becoming more “entertainment-oriented:” instead of focusing on rough and often bloody hardcore action and stipulation matches, the promotion was attempting to become more similar to the mainstream American promotions WWF and WCW, a move that in my opinion was rather questionable.

this kind of match
One probably wasn’t going to see this kind of match in FMW circa 1999, which is kind of a shame really.

Nevertheless, drama seemed to take precedence over wrestling by 2000 and to that end, numerous feuds and storyline arcs were going on during this time period, with the main one revolved around a struggle for power in the organization between H (the wrestler formerly known as Hayabusa) and Masato Tanaka. Both these extremely talented performers had aspirations to be the best, most well-known superstar in FMW – and had the credentials to back up their arguments. By 2000, Tanaka had not only become a star in Japan, but also had a run as ECW’s Heavyweight Champion after a series of ridiculously hard-hitting battles with Mike Awesome, while H was easily the most popular figure in FMW. A clash between these two had been brewing for years and War of Attrition’s main goal seems to be to set the table for the inevitable showdown which would occur at the “Backdraft” event.

h&T
Hayabusa and Tanaka during happier times. By 2000, their feud was the biggest in the promotion.

Providing commentary throughout the program is the usual team of John Watanabe and Dan “The Mouth” Lovranski who are tolerable but nothing more. Neither of these announcers really take the program to the next level, and neither are as compelling to listen to as guys like Jim Ross, Joey Styles, or (God forbid) Gorilla Monsoon. Adding to the problems on War of Attrition is the fact that virtually none of the ten matches included here is seen in its entirety. Clipping these matches down to shreds of “highlight material” ruins the flow of the action – as a whole, this plays more like an episode of than a honest wrestling tape. For my money, the truncation of many if not most matches was the biggest problem with TokyoPop’s FMW series: I was willing to look past individually sloppy wrestling to an extent, but the heavy editing on these DVDs makes watching them borderline on being absolutely pointless. War of Attrition is probably the worst volume of the FMW video series in this regard.

can be
Sloppy wrestling is sloppy.

Here’s the “matches” included on the program.

1. Kintaro Kanemura vs. Axl Rotten (12.11.1999) – One of the most rough and tumble wrestlers in FMW takes on Rotten, who was known as one of the most violent performers in ECW mainly due to his notorious battles with his “brother” Ian. As expected, this match gets ugly, with the use of a fork to carve open the head of Kanemura, both men being slammed into and through piles of chairs, and a pretty crazy senton bomb from the top of a ladder which puts Rotten through a table. What’s more shocking is the handful of technical moves in the match: I never thought I’d see Rotten pulling off a superplex in this match, but it does indeed happen. While the match seemed decent, I can’t give this collection of highlights any higher than a two star rating.

balls, tanaka, axl
From left, Balls Mahoney, Masato Tanaka, Axl Rotten.

2. Masato Tanaka vs. Balls Mahoney (12.11.1999) – Another match featuring an FMW standout taking on an ECW star. This match is a bit more technically-based than the previous one – Mahoney actually was fairly capable as a technician, though he usually adopted the style of a brawler. Both he and Tanaka take some pretty sick chair shots in the contest, which sees Axl Rotten join Mahoney at ringside to offer assistance. Lots of rough action, though again, heavy editing ruins the match. Two stars.

Tajiri
Tajiri, one of the more “eccentric” performers in ECW.

3. Kintaro Kanemura, Koji Nakagawa, Jado and Gedo vs. Balls Mahoney, Yoshihiro Tajiri, Super Crazy, and Axl Rotten (12.12.1999) – About as wild a group of wrestlers as one could get in one match, this out-of-control 8-man tag match sees the fight taken all over the arena and only intermittently being fought one-on-one in the center of the ring. The best moves here are (unsurprisingly) pulled off by ECW combatants Tajiri and Super Crazy – these two perform simultaneous, dual somersault presses flipping over the top ropes at one point and Tajiri also locks up his famous Tarantula submission. Very difficult to keep tabs on what’s happening during the match in these highlights; though I suspect the contest was pretty amazing to see, it pretty much stinks when edited down to smithereens. One and a half stars.

scamble fire match
The infamous “Scramble Fire Death Match” in which Kanemura was powerbombed into a pool of burning gasoline by Jado, resulting in third-degree burns on 75% of his back.

4. H and Mr. Gannosuke vs. Masato Tanaka and Tetsuhiro Kuroda (12.12.1999) – WEW Tag Team Title match that’s also a key moment in the feud between Tanaka and H. During the contest, a pumped-up Tanaka seems to be showing off his improved technique and raw power since this match occurred just after his first tour of duty in ECW. There’s some decent scientific wrestling here as Tanaka works over Gannosuke’s legs and arms, eventually unloading a wicked dragon screw that’s dazzling to say the least. Once H (finally) gets into the match, he’s like a house on fire for a few minutes, nailing Tanaka with a devastating fisherman bomb that shows Tanaka’s ability to absorb tremendous punishment. It’s Kuroda being abused late in the going, though Tanaka eventually empties the tank on his opponents by running through his repertoire of power moves. A really exciting match – but why wouldn’t the producers of the DVD just show the whole damn thing? Three stars.

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I’m not quite sure what’s going on here, but it looks like Hido (left), Fuyuki (middle), and Kanemura (right) are abusing and/or molesting Kuroda (legs spread???).

5. H, Mr. Gannosuke, Hisakatsu Oya, and Ricky Fuji vs. Kodo Fuyuki, Kyoko Inoue, Balls Mahoney, and Pitbull #1 (1.5.2000) – Eight person tag team match – labeled as such since female wrestler Inoue participates in this match on the ECW Japan team of Fuyuki, who previously had been “kicked out” of FMW but nonetheless was written back into the scr…I mean found a loophole to re-enter the promotion. This highlighted match begins with Fuji attempting to sing “Sexy Boy,” a.k.a. the entrance music of WWE star Shawn Michaels, in mangled Engrish. Cover your ears is all I have to say. Once the match gets going, it’s perhaps most notable for being one of the few times that H (now clearly established in the storyline as FMW’s chosen messiah) bleeds like a faucet. He’s absolutely covered in blood right off the bat after being attacked with (you guessed it!) a fork. Other than that, the match seems very gimmicky, with quick tags and decent pace, but not much in the way of genuine excitement. Again, the match is heavily truncated, making it difficult to really gauge its true quality. Two stars.

kuroda tanaka
Slapping contest between Kuroda (left) and Tanaka.

6. Masato Tanaka vs. Tetsuhiro Kuroda (1.5.2000) – Former tag team partners square off for the WEW Heavyweight Title. Though he’s a solid technician, Kuroda’s never much impressed me as a compelling performer. That said, he really ups his game here, showing his ability as a counter-wrestler. Both competitors attempt to “one-up” one another with a dazzling array of maneuvers; this is easily the most exciting and jaw-dropping match on the DVD, helped by the fact that it’s the only match shown in its entirety. After battling in the stands, Kuroda and Tanaka exchange big-time power moves in the center of the ring. Very tough, back and forth action with a truckload of near pinfalls; the ending of the match is a bit surprising (or maybe not). Either way, the highlight of the disc for me. Four stars.

spike
Some sort of spike being driven into the head of Kodo Fuyuki by Mr. Gannosuke.

7. Kodo Fuyuki and Kyoko Inoue vs. H and Mr. Gannosuke (2.25.2000) – Another gimmicky match for the WEW Tag Team Titles; remember, Inoue is a woman. She is pretty much pulverized early on by H and Gannosuke, but even when Fuyuki enters the match, his gingerly movements don’t do anything to improve the contest. Seriously – Fuyuki looks awful during this match and one has to wonder how in the world he was even being booked at this point. His story lines stank and he simply couldn’t pull it off in the ring. A thoroughly inconsequential match, with a dumb ending. Remember when actor David Arquette won the WCW Heavyweight Title? Like that, this is total soap opera. One star.

Fuyuki vs. Kuroda
Fuyuki and Kuroda battling it out.

8. Tetsuhiro Kuroda vs. Kodo Fuyuki (3.27.2000) – For the WEW Heavyweight Title. Not so much a match (especially in this highlighted form) as an excuse to have a locker room clearing brawl, with virtually every wrestler in the promotion entering the ring at some point, thus nullifying the match. To give you some idea about the relative quality, Tracy Smothers gets involved. Oh my. Absolutely worthless, and doesn’t settle a thing. One star.

smothers
Tracy Smothers – the man who was once a respected wrestler was a complete joke by 2000.

9. Masato Tanaka and Balls Mahoney vs. H and Mr. Gannosuke (4.11.2000) – Fire thunder driver from top rope puts H out of action immediately in the match; he’s carted backstage, leaving Gannosuke to fight for himself. At least until (groan!) Kodo Fuyuki enters himself in the contest to fight Tanaka. Lots of dirty tactics from Tanaka, who’s clearly become a heel (i.e. villain) at this point in his career: check out the moment when he chokes Gannosuke with a TV cable. Eventually, who should return in the match but Hayabusa – mask and all – who proceeds to deliver his patented aerial moves and trades finishers back and forth with Tanaka. Decent enough even with all the drama, but I would’ve liked to have seen the whole match. Three stars.

uncomfortable
Tanaka appears to be in an uncomfortable position versus Mr. Gannosuke…

10. Masato Tanaka vs. Mr. Gannosuke (4.25.2000) – Borderline squash match designed only to create more drama and tension between Tanaka, Gannosuke, and Hayabusa leading into the “Backdraft” event. Match is almost irrelevant: edited down to a mere two minutes or so, most of which consists of Gannosuke bleeding heavily and getting beaten up by Tanaka. Post-match confrontation between H (no mask) and Gannosuke is confusing, and indicates that even the writers behind the scenes were starting to lose touch with where they wanted this story arc to go. It completely loses me, and the perplexing script only makes War of Attrition as a whole more disappointing. One star for the match.

Even if I could argue that some of the previous FMW DVDs were messy, none approaches the level of ineptitude which seeps through War of Attrition. As mentioned, the storylines that we’re supposed to be following throughout this haphazard collection of matches is inexplicable, and since a viewer doesn’t even see a whole lot of straight-forward wrestling on the DVD in the first place, I’m left wondering what the point of this DVD really was. Viewed in the chronology of TokyoPop’s FMW series, I suppose War of Attrition would have some value since it does chronicle a period of time in the bigger history of the promotion. Unfortunately, most everyone involved at this point doesn’t seem to have so much as a clue what’s happening in the bigger picture – and that’s doubly true for the writers behind the scenes. Their storytelling is starting to get noticeably muddled, and that’s dangerous in the often black and white world of pro wrestling. After viewing this DVD, it’s not surprising at all that FMW as a promotion would fold less than two years following these matches: the company seems disjointed and mismanaged, and it really seems like the writers were clutching at straws in an attempt to maintain audience interest. There’s simply too much soap opera shenanigans and gimmicks here, and not enough wrestling. For all but the most ardent fan of Japanese wrestling, the frustrating, confusing, and generally pointless War of Attrition would best be avoided.


Full-frame DVD from Tokyo Pop includes the usual trailer collection and wrestler bios as well as two bonus matches:
1. Kintaro Kanemura vs. Flying Kid Ichihara (1.5.2000) – Pretty typical FMW singles match with some rough action, pitting an almost jovial-seeming Kanemura against the more technical wrestler Ichihara. Action spills outside the ring almost immediately in the match highlights shown here, with Ichihara being slammed into a pile of chairs and the two combatants brawling into the bleacher area. Japanese commentary only is provided for this match, which I’d rate as a two star bout: it’s not especially exciting.

2. Hisakatsu Oya and Tetsuhiro Kuroda vs. H and Mr. Ganosuke – For the WEW Tag Team Titles, this contest seems a bit more substantial but is still seen only in highlighted form. An exchange of submission holds early on eventually gives way to a lot of power moves later. Many near pinfalls and good tag team dynamics between the combatants; the match also demonstrates that no one in FMW apparently knows how to sell the Kuroda Crunch (where Kuroda drops his opponent’s neck across the top rope). A decent contest, but not at all surprising. Two and a half stars.


6/10 : A few matches include some rather excessive amounts of bloodletting; there are also a few fairly violent moments including forks slicing into human flesh. Pass the potatoes!


5/10 : It’s all fairly tame until a promo scene in which FMW president Mr. Arai confronts a group of ECW wrestlers. Suddenly, the f-bomb quotient of the program goes through the roof.


0/10 : Inter-gender wrestling may interest some, but there’s not much here to get excited about.


5/10 : Too much soap opera and story to be of interest to anyone but the most hardcore Japanese wrestling fan.


Drama! Tension! Men in Spandex! Thems is Fightin Words! –  “It wasn’t a good idea to bite my head off. It pissed me off. He’s gone too far.”

Hayabusa – the Falcon!