A lifelong fan of professional wrestling, director Barry W. Blaustein seeks in "Beyond the Mat" to put a human face on the larger-than-life spectacle, which he sees as an intoxicating fusion of showmanship and athleticism. Even though he's a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus (he once served as the show's head writer), his film never once makes fun of its subjects. Instead, Blaustein has made an affectionate and insightful documentary that's rewarding for novices and devotees alike.
Like many filmmakers who tackle neglected topics (or, as in this case, look seriously at derided subject matter), Blaustein tries to do too much. His detours include a glimpse of the post-wrestling career of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and a brief inquiry into women's roles in the sport, as illustrated by an interview with the dynamic Chyna. But "Beyond the Mat" primarily studies the forces that drive men to continually climb in the ring to hurt each other -- the action may be choreographed, Blaustein emphasizes, but the blood is real -- and institutions like the mighty World Wrestling Federation that enable them to do so.
It's the time Blaustein spends with legends of the ring Terry Funk, Mick Foley (a.k.a. Mankind) and Jake "the Snake" Roberts that makes "Beyond the Mat" so intriguing. At his family's urging, the 50-something Funk flirts with retirement, but can't forgo the thrill or the pain of performing. Neither can Roberts. Once a superstar who appeared before sellout crowds, the obese and drug-addled "Snake" now wrestles in near obscurity. He's a classic tragic figure, pursued by demons of his own making yet still able to succinctly discuss "ring psychology."
Foley is the film's most charismatic figure. A gregarious family man who carefully reassures his young children that their daddy's not really getting hurt, Foley is a wrestler who can take (and give) extreme punishment. Blaustein films not only a brutal match between Mankind and the Rock, but the Foley family's horrified reactions from their ringside seats. (The relationship between fathers and children turns out to be the film's poignant undercurrent.)
Wrestlers are "just like you and me," Blaustein concludes, "except they're really different." He's so right.