We all love amateur wrestling movies. For one, there’s just not enough of them.
Sure, football has plenty, boxing always translates to cinema very well, and even baseball and basketball show up on the big screen. But wrestling? More specifically, amateur wrestling? The well is pretty dry.
Even despite that, there are enough of them out there that deserve some mentioning. We should note that while this list is not all that serious, we do stand by any reasoning for a movie’s inclusion. But if you disagree, fret not: chances are, someone on our side of the fence feels your pain. Also – we’re not focusing on documentaries, so please save your Dan Gable SportsCentury complaints. This is a different deal.
The Top 5 Amateur Wrestling Movies Of All Time
5. Win-Win (2011)
The only reason this film doesn’t make it higher up on the list is because it’s sort of not about wrestling. The whole “backdrop” issue is at play. Win-Win is more about a lawyer, Mike Flaherty (played by the always-awesome Paul Giamatti) who swoops in to save Leo (Burt Young, hilariously enough), a senior citizen battling some sort of dementia, old-aged-ness, or what have you, from having to leave his home to enter the care of the state. Leo doesn’t want to leave his home, he wants to stay put and watch his 13″ black and white television while eating crackers. But here’s the thing: Leo’s caretaker is awarded $1,500 a month through his estate. Mike needs that money because his law practice is struggling and his wife is deftly kept in the dark about her husband’s professional ineptitude. So Mike tells the court he can care for Leo but puts Leo in a home anyway, because really, dealing with Burt Young in large doses is just too much for most people apparently.
In between taking advantage of elderly folks struggling with memory loss, Mike also happens to be the head wrestling coach for New Providence High School, a very real place in Union County, New Jersey. While this program has never exactly been a powerhouse, the movie script called for it to be especially scrubby, which makes sense if a guy like Mike Flaherty is in charge and Jeffrey Tambor (“Hank Kingsley” from the best TV show ever, The Larry Sanders Show) is the assistant.
This sets up perfectly for Leo’s grandson, Kyle, to come all the way from Ohio out of nowhere to see what’s up with his grandfather, despite not really knowing him. Fair enough. But here’s the catch: Kyle is a beast. He took second in the Ohio states so naturally, he’s not just good, but a super-freak whose opponents from the Garden State are no match. We find this out fairly quickly. After Kyle appears and Mike has no idea what to do with him (aside from putting him up in his basement being the all-around swell guy that he is), the kid follows the coach into the practice room one random day and basically annihilates his partners. Once again, we needed this right here. Watch the film to understand.
This is why Win-Win rules. Kyle is played by Alex Shaffer, an actual legitimate stud who took home an NJSIAA state title for Hunterdon Central THE YEAR BEFORE THE FILM CAME OUT. So director Tom McCarthy, who was a wrestler himself, nailed that shit down. Give credit to casting, give credit to Shaffer, whomever. But he was awesome as Kyle. Shaffer perfectly played a laid-back, monotone teen who looks kind of like a burn-out and smokes cigarettes no less, but also turns into a destroyer on the mat. Of course, his single mother is back home white-trashing it up with a boyfriend, neglecting poor Kyle’s sensibilities, thus thrusting him across a few states to find Leo (once again, the script had to find some reason for Kyle to be a factor).
The wrestling choreography is on-point. A little “movie-ish” with the tosses and what not. But you’ll take it and you want to know why? Because this might be the one instance where wrestling actually makes a film about something else better. It’s not romanticized. There is no parallel story being told about sidestepping the odds. It’s just what the kid does and high school wrestling served its purpose as the link between the two main characters. You can get poetic with the outcome if you like – super. But don’t overthink it. Win-Win takes an “okay” storyline and turns it into the most surprisingly entertaining 90 or so minutes you’ll encounter. It also scores really high on the “re-watchability” scale, which is always nice.
4. Legendary (2010)
Holy cow, Legendary has every right to be terrible. So terrible in fact, that it’s odd we included it. I mean, hey, John Cena isn’t an awful actor, is he? If anything, he’s a tremendous actor given his day job, and also, people liked The Marine, didn’t they? Maybe not loved it but wait, people saw it, right? Whatever. The point is, he’s not widely-respected for his acting ability and despite how wonderful of a human being he actually is, Legendary isn’t going to change that perception.
Here’s the thing – the story actually works. You could argue the execution is questionable, because it is. You can argue some characters are incessantly annoying, because they are. Only, the title is misleading. Legendary doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. There isn’t some grand objective the film attempts to reach. It’s actually a fairly simple story and while there might be plenty of familiar elements, you’re not screaming at the screen over them. Therefore, if we’re judging this based on attributes good amateur wrestling movies should have, such as an internal conflict, desire for achievement, and decent character play, Legendary hits on all of them. It’s not that it’s such an excellent flick; it’s not. The reason why that’s okay is because it doesn’t really deserve to be and doesn’t try to be.
The story passes because it stays somewhat topical. The protagonist, Cal Chetley, is some nerdboy in Oklahoma who gets bullied around. Cal is not in love with being tormented and teased, naturally. Nah, he’s a good kid, just trying to make his way in the world. Sweet boy, he goes fishing to some spot near his area, befriends an old dude named Red (Danny Glover, because yep, that’s how Legendary does shit), and they talk lures for a couple seconds. Cal is pleased because hey, here’s one human not interested in breaking his balls. Not exactly up and out of the blue but kind of, Cal decides joining the high school wrestling team is the cure for all of his ills, outside of the whole gawkiness thing. But his mom Sharon (played by Patricia Clarkson) isn’t down with that. Want to know why? Oh, of course! Cal has an older brother Mike (Cena) who was a verifiable monster on the mat and also, one who has endured a seemingly endless parade of bullshit problems ever since he graduated. Sharon is afraid Cal would be heading in the wrong direction should he choose to follow in those “U Can’t See Me” footsteps and lets her feelings be known.
Wow, the mom really sucks in the film. Like, okay, I didn’t go to film school and have yet to be asked to participate in any production of any kind anywhere. So I might not know acting real well. But I sure know what “over-acting” is and boy, is Clarkson guilty. She verbally throws up all over her scenes, the script, your sensibilities, and everyone’s idea of how a mother-son dynamic should function. You know the kind of people who have to make every little thing about them? THAT is the mom in this film. You get to the point where you’re rooting for Cena to clothesline her while she’s at his place bitching and arguing with him. I’m not kidding. Maybe that’s my problem, come to think of it. Either way, if you want to know why this film made it to Red Box inside of a month and a half, she might be the reason why. Harsh? Perhaps. Argue the other side, I’ll be here waiting.
Nevertheless, Legendary plugs along, somehow staying afloat. Because even though the movie is NOT very good, by the time you’re halfway through it, you start to actually care about Cal and if he’s going to wind up becoming a credible, competitive wrestler. He starts off as horribly as one might expect. He sticks with it, but improvement is slow. Eventually, he makes contact with big brother Mike, who kind of behaves as if there is this one little gnat that is taking up his eye-space. Cal gets through to Mike, Mike agrees to help “train” him, and some dopey montage takes place. But not before you see Cena doing some man shit solo in his barren workout room.
This all culminates to Cal wrestling in the district tournament. While we’re going to go right ahead and guess no one cares about us spoiling the ending to the film just in case, let’s skip it. Because really, if you haven’t seen it your reaction might be priceless. The level of confusion and exasperation will be comically high given the circumstances.
Legendary did not make money (actually lost a bunch) and predictably, received awful reviews. It’s all easy to see why. And it’s not like we’re celebrating it here because we feel it is one of the best amateur wrestling movies you’ll ever see. It definitely isn’t. But this list is about the TOP amateur wrestling movies ever, ones that should be considered essential viewing. Like, you cannot consider yourself an aficionado of the genre unless you have not only see this one, but know it pretty well. It’s that kind of a thing we’re onto. Even if you cringe throughout the movie and/or feel the need to make sarcastic comments after every two minutes of dialogue, it doesn’t matter. You need to see this just to say you saw it.
3. Reversal (2001)
Oh boy. Just…yikes. Win-Win has the benefit of coming from a major studio with an accomplished cast. So it had the resources behind it. Reversal has none of that working for it. Just zero. I mean, there are elements of the film that are a little too tough to take. That meant in order for this masterpiece to work, it had to deliver big on other fronts. Father/son conflict? Check. Oddball girlfriend? Check. Badass kid from another school coming to take your spot? Check. Kitschy, funny dialogue? You bet. Although to be fair, some of that dialogue might not have been intended to come out as funny as it did. Whatever, Reversal. Take the “W” and move on. Plus, no list of amateur wrestling movies would be complete without its presence.
Reversal is about a seriously above-average high school wrestler, Leo Leonne (played by real-life wrestler Danny Mousetis), who calls some roughneck area of Pennsylvania home. His father, Ed, is of course, the head coach of the town’s high school team and was a state champ. Now, let’s take a sec here so I can zero in on one aspect of the film that has driven me up a wall for years. The dad, played by Jimi Petulla (who also wrote and produced) non-stop is wearing Iowa Hawkeyes gear and other shirts from other programs, even when in “coach mode” during practice. Why he wouldn’t be wearing “Wash High” or whatever the name of school, is beyond me. What kind of program is this? How can he expect his kids to be “all in” if he’s walking around looking like a fanboy? I get it, he’s shouting out the sport in his own misguided way but come on, guy. Get a step.
The best part about Reversal is the girlfriend, Shaw. That name alone, such a reach. Just hysterical. It’s like Petulla was writing this out like “Nah, can’t go with Amanda, Nicole, or Marie. It’s gotta be something different, something the kids will be impressed with. Oh – I know, how about…” Ha.
So Leo has obviously been wrestling since he could appropriate proper motor function and is now a 17 year old who’s good enough to go through the motions, but not good enough to get out of his father’s way. Throw in the fact he cuts weight like a supermodel after a coke binge, and you get the prescribed recipe for disaster we all know and love. Look, weight cutting is the easiest mechanism for wrestling movies to take. It’s relatable to most athletes and is an easy topic to creatively warn against. No problem with the message, but by golly, the sport is about so much more than that, right? Right?
The plot to Reversal isn’t so huge that it requires another essay. Leo starts getting burned out; Shaw provides him with another perspective in life; a talented rival (played by PA state champ Justin Spates) moves to his town to set up the climactic wrestle-off, one in which Leo actually drops weight for (despite having been in the hospital for intestinal leakage or something a week or two prior); and then Leo second-guesses his life’s trajectory and blah, blah, blah.
So why is this movie on the list? The dynamics between the characters, for one. Ed falling asleep in his car in the driveway to avoid going inside and dealing with the wife is a keeper. Shaw, terrifically played by Kelly Vint, spits out line after head-scratching line. And most importantly, the wrestling is really, really good, thanks in large part to Mousetis and Spates actually scrimmaging somewhat in the climactic scene. If you haven’t see this one, you are seriously missing out on some decent choreography and “WTF” dialogue.
2. Takedowns and Falls (2010)
We swore we wouldn’t include documentaries, but this is an easy exception. This is about amateur wrestling movies, not amateur wrestling documentaries. But the thing is, Takedowns and Falls was actually produced and released like a motion picture, so it meets the criteria on a technicality.
This film follows the 2006-07 season for the Central Dauphin Rams, a high school team located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For those who follow PA high school wrestling, Central Dauphin is a name you’re probably familiar with. For those who don’t, just picture the New Providence Pioneers from Win-Win, and imagine the exact opposite of that. In other words, these kids aren’t a gaggle of scrubs and misfits. Instead, they are a high-speed collective of teenage mat assassins with a good number of state-caliber contenders. Central Dauphin is a team that is expected to win shit and they usually do.
Here is the unfortunate part: there isn’t a lot of funny stuff about the flick. It’s a documentary, so maybe that’s a given. But the fortunate part is really fortunate. Jeff Sweigard, the highly-successful head coach and resident difference-maker for the program, is trying to lead his Rams to PIAA glory while battling some private stuff on the side, that because he is some iron rock of a human, pretty much keeps to himself for a minute. So in the meantime, the filmmakers focus on the Peppleman brothers, Walter and Marshall, as they live life as badass Pennsylvanian high school wrestlers gearing up for their gauntlet of a season. Other such characters are included, like Tony Dallago, Simon Rice, and Kenny Stank (kudos on that last name). Dallago, Rice, Stank, and Patrick Wieger are all super-talented wrestlers. But it’s the Peppleman duo that a good brunt of the film tends to highlight.
And just as the season gets moving into “serious mode”, coach Jeff Sweigard has to open up to the kids about his own stuff. Only that stuff is LYMPHOMA. But you could barely tell by the way Sweigard cracks open this walnut. Look, a good head coach has to be the face of the program, even if he’s got a stable of stars under his watch. And even more so when we’re talking about a team with a reputation as lofty and celebrated as Central Dauphin’s. So you can imagine what it’s like watching this scene, where Sweigard, doggone it, has to break the news that he has, you know, cancer. This guy spills the beans as casually as a father telling his kids he might be a little late picking them up from school. You’re sitting there amazed partly out of compassion and mostly out of confusion. Because seriously, anyone who shares that kind of news with that level of tact should have a statue erected in their honor.
“You don’t worry about it; I’ll take care of my business, and you take care of your wrestling.”
– Jeff Sweigard
If we’re operating under at least some of the same parameters amateur wrestling movies should be held to, then this is pretty easy. The actual wrestling in Takedowns and Falls is obviously, all real. And since it’s a high-level team with high-level kids, the action is easy to watch. You get some match highlights, practice room battles, and even glimpses of what it’s like for the Pepplemans working out at home. Amateur wrestling movies, whether they are scripted or not, have to possess some level of adversity to overcome. It’s the rule. But when it is so contrived and the writers have to fill in details to make the story more compelling, authenticity has no choice but to take a back seat. You never have to worry about that with Takedowns and Falls. It might not be a “fun flick”, but the film is as engrossing and motivating as it gets.
1. Vision Quest (1984)
Vision Quest is wrestling’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
There is no equal. It is the king of all amateur wrestling movies. No other film has approached its status. And even if you have seen VQ 200 times, you never, EVER get sick of it. You can’t. People who love rock music don’t get flexed when “Stairway to Heaven” comes on the radio. No, they’ll eat up all eight minutes of it just because. You’ll even hit phases where you pick out different parts of the song you never really knew you loved so much until one day, you’re in your car when it’s freezing out, and Robert Plant’s voice hits you with, “There walks a lady we all kno-oh-ow” and every moment in your life up to that point seems like it took place just to lead you to where you are right then and there. That’s the kind of shit Vision Quest brings to the table.
The world was fricking ready for Vision Quest in 1985. Pop culture was starting to become expansive, allowing room for other industries and interests to enter in. I mean really, this is when MTV first shook hands with pro wrestling thanks to Cyndi Lauper and Hulk Hogan. Films about life in high school and “coming of age”, whatever that means, popped up as an entirely new genre. Most of the time, they were major comedies or at least, “dramedies.” Vision Quest just got in under the wire as something that Warner Brothers could figure out how to market. Madonna’s rise to fame in 1984 was also a vital component in the film’s perceived potential mass appeal.
Okay – back on the rails, everyone knows what Vision Quest is about. The hero of the world is high school senior Louden Swain (Matthew Modine), a dude that is pretty smart, but more curious than he is intelligent. Which is actually another sign of intelligence, but let’s not split hairs. Louden is a decent high school wrestler. He somehow placed in the Washington state tournament his first year, and by now he’s a reasonably dependable member of the team.
Stupid Otto, man. Of course, every team needs a knucklehead. It’s a requirement to have at least one half-idiot on the team who thinks they’re harder than everyone else, but usually gets teched out by anyone marginally better. None of this means you’re above getting a case of the feels when Otto starts egging Louden on to finish climbing the peg-board. You wanted your own peg-board probably after catching that scene.
Louden has an issue. He actually has a few, to put it kindly, but his main one is that for some odd reason, he feels it is necessary to cut down two weight classes to wrestle Brian Shute (Frank Jasper), a dude who looks like he was put together in a lab for the sole purpose of seeing how long it would take a man-child to smash another human’s skull into dust. Louden, mind you, is two weight classes higher and looks like he’s a good 20-30 pounds lighter than Shute. I mean, okay, sure, Louden is taller than Shute, but he’s not 9″ taller. Nitpicking, maybe, but don’t act like you hadn’t considered these peripherals yourself.
Of course, every hero needs a sidekick and we get that with Kuch, played by Michael Schoeffling. Why is this important to your life? Because Michael Schoeffling, in real-life world, was a US junior national team member and wrestled all his life (pretty much) up to when VQ was filmed. Obviously, Kuch is more for comic relief than anything else, which makes Schoeffling’s casting even more outrageous. I mean, I get it, he was gaining traction coming off Sixteen Candles, but it’s just ironic that they went and took an actor…who also happened to an experienced and talented wrestler…in a movie about wrestling…and made him suck. No other film gets away with that kind of shit, but Vision Quest does because it is bigger than your feeble misconceptions.
Things get interesting when Louden’s dad (Ronnie Cox) hauls off on his boss, the town’s car dealer, for ripping off out-of-town drifter Carla (Linda Fiorentino). You don’t actually see this happen – Louden shows up at the scene only to find car-dealer-guy bleeding. Louden gets brought up to speed and it turns out, Carla needs a place to stay while Larry (the dad) finds a way to fix her car. A fortuitous turn of events for Louden, given that he’s at the age where anything remotely female short-circuits his understanding of the world around him.
Carla’s presence in the film is everything. Take the casting choice, for instance. This was Linda Fiorentino’s first major gig. Since she looks somewhat Mediterranean, her being from Trenton, New Jersey fits like a glove. She is definitely attractive, too, though the idea she is 21 is a bit much. Carla is supposed to be a worldly sage compared to Louden. But how? She’s three years older! Either way, she acts the act and talks the talk. If you’re watching this movie at any age below the main characters, this all wraps up neatly for you. When I watched Vision Quest in my teens, I didn’t want some classical, cookie-cutter hot high school chick. No, we all wanted Carla. She had the look, the voice, the attitude…everything. Larry Swain could have brought home any woman within a stone’s throw of Louden’s age and there would be static. But no – he brought home Carla, a girl who is just enough of a wildcard to throw everything into chaos.
Louden has to get down to business and begin cutting weight. He takes it like a champ though, doesn’t he? No mood swings, no curt responses. The dude is loving life. He puts on his silver plastics, runs to his job as a room service waiter, and fits in some practices and matches in between. You just got to hand it to him. Here’s a kid at the prime of his life, his body is still growing, he’s inexplicably dropping two weight classes, and is as care-free as can be. Tell me, seriously: whether you have cut weight yourself or have been around those who’ve done it, have you ever witnessed someone so happy to do so? The answer to that is “no.” Nope. Not even close.
Meanwhile, Shute is training. In the dead of winter, he’s carrying a log over his shoulders up and down bleachers. Not because he cares about Louden, but because he’s bored. Louden doesn’t know what to make of this and neither does Kuch, but Kuch is a moron, so no one cares.
The first hiccup is Mr. Tanneran meeting Carla. Tanneran is Louden’s English teacher and pretty much his best friend, outside of Kuch. He is also like, 40 years old, so the fact that there is any sort of spark between he and Carla is a little unsettling. But sure enough, Kuch is riding Louden around on the back of his bike one night and lo and behold, there’s Carla and Tanneran in the window of some restaurant, sitting together enjoying each other’s company. This would be a rage-inducing situation for nearly anyone. Louden deals with it the best way you can as a nerdy recluse in the mid-1980’s: he bolts home and shortly thereafter nearly commits sexual assault on Carla. (Note: sexual assault is never funny. But the absurdity of a seeming innocent kid like Louden losing it in frustration and then getting his nose ketchup’ed by Carla is really something else.)
Life goes on. Carla forgives Louden. Louden ignores Tanneran. Louden bleeds, because well, he’s a BLEEDER. The weight cut is getting to him, along with the pressure of living under the same roof as a sexpot. What’s baffling is that Margie Epstein (Daphne Zuniga) liked Louden a lot and he didn’t give her the time of day. Why? She was cute, no? Did he know something everyone didn’t? What was the deal with that? Perhaps any interest Louden may have at one time had in Margie was wiped away once Carla sauntered into the picture.
The reason why this is the standard bearer for all amateur wrestling movies is because the arc is just untouchable. It slowly builds. Even if you have never seen Vision Quest before and have an idea how it ends, the story doesn’t plod. There might be a lot going on, but it’s never complicated. You might have expected Louden to wind up sleeping with Carla, but how and why it goes down is a nice surprise. You, the viewer, feel validated in your own right. VQ has that going on for you all day long. Just when you figure the goal is to make weight to wrestle Shute, it switches to having a shot at Carla. And then it switches back. It’s incredible.
As we make our way to the match to end all matches, Carla bounces. She’s gone. Where is she? Louden doesn’t know. Obviously, this is a concern for him. So what is he to do? He made a commitment, he has to honor the commitment. But before he does, one of the best scenes in cinematic history takes place. On his way to the main event, Louden stops by work and has a chat with Elmo, the hotel cook and next to Tanneran and Kuch, Louden’s closest friend. Elmo is about 50 years old, somewhat sardonic, and doesn’t really get the whole weight-cutting thing. No problem. This is a grand occasion for ole’ Elmo, he’s even getting dressed up to go to the match. Louden tries convincing him it’s not that important (nerves?) and Elmo fires back with a story about Pele that really isn’t about Pele, but he knows Louden has a weird enough brain to get his point. That’s when the best line in the history of all amateur wrestling movies, if not film itself, is uttered:
If you ask me, they could have ended the movie right there. Boom. Nothing else needs to be said. That line doesn’t just sum up what ALL amateur wrestling movies should encompass, but life in general. Everyone should be required to have that tattooed on them somewhere. And that isn’t to be pretentious. But no, the audience needs to see Louden lock horns with Shute, maybe we all do and don’t know it. Not before, however, Louden is forced to drop trou in order to make weight and not before Carla, whom we all used to love, shows up in the locker room. Pretty much the one thing you probably don’t want before the biggest match of your life is an ex-girlfriend making her way into the locker room. For numerous reasons. Ah, but Carla doesn’t play by the rules. She’s seen boys before. Ugh. Anyway, she and Louden come to some kind of understanding, make peace, and we all move forward.
Compared to more contemporary amateur wrestling movies, the action in Vision Quest is not fantastic. Headlocks, laterals, fireman’s carries, rinse, repeat. At the same time, the wrestling action is absolutely everything we need given the color and tone of the film. It wouldn’t have looked or felt right if there was serious, deliberate technique being showcased. It just wouldn’t have played correctly, not for the era, not in front of the packed gyms, and especially not with the mood of the film. The practice stuff is great, though. Come on, the coach with a singlet on? The crucifix without a setup? Louden doing lat pull-downs and jumping rope? You love every precious second of it.
The book, written by Terry Davis, is demonstrably different than the film adaptation. Your enjoyment of the film should almost be a separate thing if you have read the book. In the novel, we don’t get to find out what happens between Louden and Shute. Because if you read it, the climactic match-up is almost immaterial.
Wherever you stand on the issue, there is no denying Vision Quest’s place in the canon of amateur wrestling movies. It is number one and likely will always be. Even now, some thirty years later, there isn’t one little bit of the film that feels dated or unnecessary. We’ll always need it in our lives, whether that means throwing it in the DVD player a couple times a year or catching it on TV out of nowhere. If you’re a coach or a parent, it’s probably also the first film you tell the kids to watch. After all, art doesn’t belong to the creators. It belongs to the people who enjoy it. So here’s to all “the bleeders” out there – this one’s for you.