Growing up, I had two big loves: genre movies and wrestling. Who am I kidding? Those are still my biggest loves. I love nothing more than the many horrors captured on celluloid and the thrill of the fight captured in the ring. But, very rarely do the two obsessions meet. Of course, there’s countless classic luchador horror flicks like Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (known in the States as Samson vs. the Vampire Women), which is a very specific genre of pro wrestling that isn’t for everybody, but outside of 2013’s Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies, there doesn’t seem to be many American horror productions thematically using the great tradition of wrestling to their advantage. Unless, of course, you count whatever movie the Rock has in the theaters at any given time, but those represent a different sort of appalling all together. However, pro wrestling continues to gain more exposure and interest from new, increasingly diverse fans in recent years, and, I would say thankfully, not just for the WWE corporation, but for the independent scene, where the real work gets done—where wrestlers hone their craft, develop their talents, and innovate for the entertainment of passionate fans. There’s a punk rock, DIY fire on the indie scene, and that flame constitutes the foundation for B.J. Colangelo and R. Zachary Shildwachter’s Powerbomb.
The film stars pro wrestler, Matt Cross, as a fictionalized version of himself, a seasoned veteran who has the “big leagues” knocking on his door with promises of superstardom, but is more interested in maintaining the freedom he has as an indie wrestler who travels up and down the highways, earning his money. That kind of life is not without its strains and frustrations, and Matt must contend with it all from his scummy, underhanded agent, Solomon (Aaron Sechrist), and the family he spends so much time away from, including his wife, Amy (Roni Jonah), a retired wrestler herself. But after a match one night, as these frustrations begin to come to a head, the journeyman wrestler has a run-in with an overeager, overzealous fan named Paul (Wes Allen), who drugs, kidnaps, and holds Matt hostage after their negative interaction. Matt is now at mercy of a wrestling fan who has blurred the lines between fiction and reality, between pro wrestler Matt Cross and Matt Cross the human being.
The blurred lines of reality is, perhaps, the greatest achievement in Powerbomb’s script. The film is made on a very small budget, and that is, unfortunately, evident in some technical aspects of the productions such as sound design and cinematography, but filmmakers since the days of Roger Corman know (or should) that the shortcomings delivered by a microbudget mean nothing when they are overshadowed by good writing and story first and foremost, and this is certainly true of Colangelo and Shildwachter’s script. Their writing is engaging, horrific in the appropriate places, and complex.
Colangelo and Shildwachter rely less on scares and gore, and more on the cerebral, giving the film more of a psychological thriller flair than straight forward horror, which ends up being quite rewarding in the grand scheme of things. Matt and Paul’s interactions have a tangible, off-putting atmosphere—Paul represents the rabid wrestling fan, the sort who doesn’t understand boundaries and shoves programs in front of a male wrestler’s face at the airport in hopes of securing an autograph or puts their arm far too tightly around a female wrestler’s waist for a visibly uncomfortable photo. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely pleased with the idea of portraying a fan as the villain in the film at first, as wrestling fans have always been seen as jokes (much like horror fans), but it’s Paul’s disconnect from reality that really separates him from actual wrestling fans. He is the delusional obsessive who believes that wrestlers and their art exist solely for his pleasure, much like Annie Wilkes believes Misery Chastain exists for her own in Stephen King’s Misery. In a particularly cold moment during one of Paul’s emotional torments of Matt, he claims that Matt isn’t even real, and that says a lot about the mindset of the toxic member of any fandom, really, who has taken media enjoyment much too far and now lacks basic empathy, someone who demands ownership of art and for it to bend to his will and ideology.
Powerbomb’s writer/director team also endeavor to explore elements of pro wrestling metaphysically, sprinkling in these moments throughout the picture. One brilliant example is when Paul pressures Matt to open up to him about his past, likely because part of him wishes to cross the great divide and evolve from fan to friend. Matt begins spinning a tale of youthful hardship and abuse, darkness in his past that shaped him into the man he is today and drives him further. It is only when Paul is enthralled with Matt’s story, in the palm of the wrestler’s hand, that Matt laughs Paul off, sending him on his way thinking he’s been had. This works on a number of levels. First, Matt’s monologue is characteristic of personality segments one will find every week on WWE programming. Wrestlers often share their hardships to connect with fans, so, in essence, Matt is “working” Paul as his mark, which is the name of the game in his profession. However, how much of the monologue is a work? I think the real beauty of having an actual wrestler play himself in the film is being able to further blur that line and fool not only Paul, but the film’s audience as well. It’s a fantastic scene that succeeds because of Colangelo and Shildwachter’s insight into and understanding of pro wrestling storytelling and the acting prowess of Matt Cross.
There are other working parts in the script, though, that largely do not engage with the central conflict between Matt and Paul, and can feel a little thin or underwritten at times, but are elevated by the performances of the supporting cast. Matt’s wife, Amy, is a complicated role, for example. The character must balance being a mother while also being concerned with her husband’s disappearance, the pressure from Solomon to return to the ring, and the spite of her friend Kelsi Roxx (pro wrestler, Britt Baker), and Roni Jonah handles it well, giving a very fine performance that is surprisingly vulnerable and a satisfying sincerity. The aforementioned Britt Baker must also be commended for her turn as Kelsi Roxx, a wrestler who has been forced to retire from the ring due to injury and cannot fathom why her friend has chosen the life she has over their shared dream. Baker is given the least amount of screentime, which creates an urgency for her to make an impression, and, indeed, she does. There is a desperation to Baker’s performance that is wrenching. The only life she has ever wanted has been stripped of her and she now finds herself trapped in the life Amy chose out of what Kelsi believes is fear and doubt. There is no resolution for Kelsi by the end of the picture because there never really is resolution for the sudden cutting off of one’s legs in life. In this author’s opinion, Kelsi’s struggle is the most fascinating aspect of the film besides the central conflict, and Baker manages to pull this off of a little bit of material and a whole lot of talent.
Powerbomb is an oddity in many ways, which is the highest compliment I think a film can receive. Its subject matter ensures an engaged and uniquely diverse audience: wrestling fans who will no doubt understand just a little bit better how unnerving someone like Paul is (we’ve all been to small indie shows and sat next to a thousand Pauls). However, genre film fans in general likely won’t be turned off, as the film proves itself to be an interesting examination of toxicity in fandoms, idol worship, and the duality of an artist or celebrity’s public and private life. It’s a niche film with broader appeal than one would think at first glance. B.J. Colangelo and R. Zachary Shildwachter’s Powerbomb is sometimes unnerving, often captivating, and rises above its modest budget like a wrestler standing tall on the top rope.
Powerbomb is available on Digital and DVD.
Jesse Berberich | Twitter: @JesseBerberich
Image: Indican Pictures