No Holds Barred

In 1989, I took a long drive with my mother to Lahaina, in hopes of seeing Hulk Hogan.. Our plan was to see “No Holds Barred,” the first-ever wrestling/action movie to star Hogan, one of my childhood heroes. The movie was one of three films playing at the recently opened Wharf Cinema Center, Maui’s first three-screen theater. To our surprise, “No Holds Barred” (which had just opened) was sold out for the entire day. Our consolation was seeing “Field of Dreams” instead (I remain an avid fan of the Wharf Cinema Center, which just celebrated its 27th year and is currently the oldest movie theater on the island).

Once I finally managed to catch “No Holds Barred” six months later on videocassette (back when we really had to wait for the home video debut), I was shocked by how unpleasant it was. Sure, it was fun to see Hogan as a film star and his big vehicle is never, ever dull but it was an oddly nasty little movie. For a PG-13 movie aimed at young adults, the impression it left me with was scenes of men soilng themselves, horribly unclean bathrooms and laugh lines about “dooky” and a “teeny weenie.” I was certain of one thing: seeing Kevin Costner learn to play baseball with a cornfield of ghosts was the better movie date with Mom.

Hogan stars as Rip, a popular, frequently salivating wrestler with a devotion to his brother and loyal fans. Unfortunately for Brell (played by Kurt Fuller), a sinister TV executive, Rip’s inability to sell out puts the two at odds. Brell fails to lure Rip into join his competing wrestling network and retaliates like a mobster. A vicious, quasi-mongoloid monster on Rip named Zeus (played bravely and quite well by “Tiny” Lister) is sponsored by Brell and forces Rip into a match. Once it becomes a matter of Rip’s family being tormented by Brell, the gloves come off. No ref. No rules. No holds barred.

Artlessly directed by Thomas J. Wright and, according to a Hulk Hogan biography, partially written by the star and WWF mastermind Vince McMahon, “No Holds Barred” is surprisingly mean spirited. Not in the agreeably silly way that WWF interviews and the matches that ensued would play. Instead, this strangely has the same scuzzy, dirt and blood stained-floor feel as “Road House” (which was coincidentally in theaters at the same time).

It’s a curious choice of film for Hogan, who should have just played the role he plays best: himself. As Rip, he’s a snarling, drooling, Neanderthal in spandex, closer to Thunder Lips (Hogan’s “Rocky III” character) than the iconic grand master of Hulkamania.

Fuller’s performance is a major asset. Whether he was instructed to go way over the top or decided he didn’t want to be upstaged by a WWF superstar, Fuller’s performance is something to see. If Hogan turned his acting up to an 11, then Fuller did him one better and went the full 20.

Brell’s nefarious plan, of broadcasting brutal wrestling matches on his “Battle of the Tough Guys” WTN program, is an eye opener. Was the character intended to be an “evil” variation on McMahon? Did McMahon mean for the character to be an early try-out for his own later persona as an on-air villain? Or, does Brell’s business bravado and forward-thinking, anything-goes proposals for franchising accidentally coincide with McMahon’s own structuring within his company?

Along for the ride is Joan Severence, cast as Rip’s unlikely love interest. Severence is like the Katherine Hepburn of B-movies. The only actress who could have played this better is Shannon Tweed, but I digress. She’s ideally cast, even if her chemsitry with Hogan is more like King Kong and Jessica Lange than Bogey and Bacall. Watching Severence and Hogan perform a lazily written reenactment of the “Walls of Jericho” bed sheet scene from “It Happened One Night” is a bizarre highlight.

Lister, a veteran actor who would later work with no less than Walter Hill, Luc Besson and Christopher Nolan (to name just a few), makes an unforgettable impression. Less a performance than a feature-length growl, his uni-browed “Zeuss” is like Frida Kahlo’s beefier, evil older brother.

Hogan’s later vehicles were also family films released by New Line Cinema: “Suburban Commando” and “Mr. Nanny.” I wonder if they would have done better had the rougher, decidedly not family friendly ‘No Holds Barred” had come out much later.

To give the movie a break it may not deserve, you could say that it’s as harmless a fantasy as an extended WWF storyline. The climactic defeat of the villains and the finale play like a grittier session from Summer Slam or the most violent Wrestlemania match imaginable. However, if this was McMahon’s first ever cinematic extension of his wrestling universe, it should have been the film equivalent of “Wrestlemania III,” arguably the greatest WWF event of its era, if not all time. It may be a lot to ask for, coming up with a movie as grand, entertaining and mythic as that event.

McMahon clearly grasps, then and now, the cinematic qualities of his profession. He should have pushed harder with his first Hulk Hogan movie. To date, the best WWE film remains the deliriously campy John Cena vehicle, “The Marine.”

no holds poster

“No Holds Barred” (which, unsurprisingly, spawned a WWF-spinoff, pay-per-view match) is too much for children but mostly seems to know its audience. There are bar fights, car chases, lots and lots of wrastlin’ and the money shot of Hogan busting out of the roof of a limousine. Had this been more carefully made and written, with young kids as the film’s intended audience, it would have played better. This is a sleazy exploitation film with lots of highlights for B-movie fans but not enough love The Little Hulksters.

What should play like a cinematic Royal Rumble is instead like the 37th Annual Slammy Awards: lively, amusing and really stupid.