The all-consuming pop culture obsessions of one year are the embarrassing relics of the next. Try showing Gangnam Style to someone who managed to miss its ubiquity, and you’re likely to get a blank stare and a pair of safety scissors through the eyeball. Mostly because the only people who missed that video are in mental hospitals for the criminally insane. Professional wrestling has enjoyed several periods of Gangnam Style-level pervasiveness, rising and falling like the tides, or like King Ghidrah trying to get out of bed in the morning. In the ‘80s, Hulk Hogan was the pre-eminent good guy (or “Babyface” in wrestling’s bizarrely creepy vernacular), and in 1989, he made a movie called No Holds Barred to take advantage. I’d say it hasn’t aged well, but that’s like getting mad at Judi Dench for not celebrating her 83rd birthday by turning into Alison Brie.
Tagline: No Ring. No Ref. No Rules.
More Accurate Tagline: No Shirt. No Shoes. No Homo.
Guilty Party: Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) and Vince McMahon wanted to cash in on the WWF’s and Hogan’s (at that time waning) popularity with a movie. Unsatisfied with the script they were given, they supposedly stayed up for 72 hours rewriting it, because McMahon can’t do anything that won’t get him hospitalized. What we’re left with is a conception of professional wrestling that could only come from a seven-year-old who has over two decades of experience on the inside of the industry, which is only one way this film treats the space/time continuum like a lotion-filled tube sock. We somehow wind up with a movie in which pro wrestling is entirely real, yet the entire plot hinges on corporate meddling and grubbing for ratings. You know, what every kid loves about wrestling.
Synopsis: Rip (Hogan) is the most popular wrestler in the WWF, despite a weird biker mustache, no discernible ring skills, and a combination of stringy hair and male pattern baldness. In this, the film is documentary-level accurate. It opens with him dispatching a challenger with such distressing ease, the announcers wonder if anyone can challenge him. This isn’t important, but the challenger’s name is Jake Bullet. Due to announcer Jesse Ventura’s carnival-barker-meets-drill-sergeant cadence, it really sounded like he was saying Jim J. Bullock, leading me to the brief hope that Hulk would be fighting Monroe from Too Close for Comfort.
Sleazy executive Brell (Kurt Fuller) of the World Television Network, is desperate to sign Rip. Knowing Rip’s word is ironclad, Brell, nonetheless summons Rip to a meeting and hands him a blank check. Rip refuses by shoving the check down Brell’s throat and walking out (and giving his weird hang loose gesture to the camera because this is The Office now, I guess).
Rip gets a new account executive, Samantha Moore (Late ‘80s/Early ‘90s sex symbol Joan Severance) and they begin a deeply uncomfortable flirtation that reveals Rip to be a French-speaking erudite man of the people who loves to do middle-of-the-night calisthenics in an upsetting pair of hot pink bikini briefs.
His plan to hire Rip away thwarted, Brell somehow finds an underground club where men fight without the benefit of a referee or a full set of teeth. He decides he will televise this with the catchy name of “The Battle of the Tough Guys,” and recruits a vibrant cross section of hillbillies, hicks, and rednecks to do battle on TV. Into this kumite steps man-mountain Zeus (Tiny Lister), who wins the competition, and immediately becomes the face of the enterprise. He turns out to have a pretty extensive criminal record, which is mentioned by Rip’s trainer, who suddenly enters the narrative like a wise old ninja.
Zeus challenges Rip to a fight at a small charity event, because apparently a press conference would make no sense. Rip refuses, but reconsiders when Zeus badly beats Rip’s brother Randy (Mark Pellegrino, you remember him as Jacob from Lost). Rip awakens Randy from his coma with the power of love.
At the final televised battle, Brell kidnaps Samantha to force Rip to take a dive, but Sam escapes. Rip beats the tar out of Zeus, and scares Brell into backing up into some live wires, which electrocute him to death. Rip flashes a hang loose at the camera, and freeze frame.
Life-Changing Subtext: Murder is fine as long as you don’t break your word.
Defining Quote: The best quote in the film will have to be saved for the Transcendent Moment, but fortunately, Kurt Fuller’s Brell has maybe the strangest verbal tic I’ve seen in a long time. He calls Rip “jockass” at several points, clearly under the impression that that’s a thing and not something his cellmate brought up to make the experience seem more normal. Brell yells it so much it’s like his catchphrase, boldly bucking the trend of a catchphrase being catchy or a phrase.
Standout Performance: Tiny Lister really brings something special to the role of Zeus, a unibrowed monster who communicates entirely in whispers and animal screams, and who has the flexibility of a dead man in a full-body cast. His fighting style is a combination of yelling and double-handed chops. He makes Tor Johnson look like Jet Li.
What’s Wrong: It was written by two steroid monsters in the middle of a 72 hour writing binge. This movie has so much bull semen in it, it gives McDonald’s employees PTSD.
Flash of Competence: Kurt Fuller and David Paymer are both reliably good actors, and Joan Severance is pretty far from terrible.
Best Scenes: Rip and Sam have to embark on a romance, because Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon hate us. So when the two inevitable lovebirds are shacked up in a hotel together, sparks will fly. As Sam comes out of the bathroom in her 1989 high-waisted sleep lingerie, she finds Rip bent over in booty shorts. And these shorts would be considered daring for a German tourist. I think I gave Hulk Hogan an impromptu colonoscopy totally by accident. Later on in the same scene, apparently convinced he still had a shred of dignity that could be found with the more powerful electron microscopes, Rip strips off the booty shorts for a pair of pink bikini briefs.
The training montage is hilarious, somehow upping the ante from Rocky IV, which I thought had topped out on any scale it had attempted. While Zeus trains for the fight by breaking concrete blocks with his hands, Rip trains by teaching his brother to walk again. Sadly, this did not set up a finishing move in which Rip tenderly helps Zeus totter along a pair of parallel bars.
Rip dispatches his trainer to rescue Sam, and shoots the old guy the most stern, solemn hang loose I’ve ever seen. I had to rewind it three times just to make sure I wasn’t having a stroke.
Transcendent Moment: After Rip shoots down Brell’s attempt to hire him, the limo Rip’s riding in takes him to a warehouse. At this point, Hulk Hogan puts physics in a sleeper hold, and jumps out of the roof of the car. Yep, just jumps right the fuck through the roof. He then beats up all the thugs who were waiting for him using an array of pro wrestling moves ranging from “punches” to “slightly different punches.” And then, something incredible happens.
Rip yanks the door off and grabs the limo driver. He then proceeds to grunt and make a set of faces like he’s trying to shit out a watermelon. And he just… keeps… doing it. I kept waiting for him to break character, look off camera, and shout, “Line!” Or at least get a shot of the goddamn watermelon. As it turns out, he’s not the one with the bowel issue.
No Holds Barred was an attempt to cash in on the popularity and charisma of Hulk Hogan. It’s safe to say the project was doomed from the start.