Check out Part I here!
Check out Part II here!
Check out Part III here!
Check out Part IV here!
Check out Part V here!
No Holds Barred: The Film: Act III
We start with a mid-torso walking through nothingness, with… the Winged Eagle on a white strap across his waist. And as Rip enters the studio and we get a pan back of the crowd, sure enough Rip has the Winged Eagle. That means the Zeus-Rip and Rip-Bullet fights were saved for last to be filmed, after the Eagle had arrived. But in the film, we see the Eagle in Act I, the Andre ’87 in Act II and the Eagle again in Act III, despite the action in the locker room taking places only minutes earlier. Continuity! Oh, and to mess with my head further Mute Girlfriend gets her one and only line in the film: when an usherette helps her secure Randy’s wheelchair to a ringside spot, she says, “Thank you.”
In a neat moment not even spoiled by Hulk Hogan’s acting, Rip (in the ring) shoots Brell a dirty look (in his command station above) through the glass window. Brell smiles and looks up at the digital readout above him and chuckles to himself. Rip looks up as well and gives a weary nod. He will take the dive, for the sake of Sam. We hear a roar and the dressy crowd looks about in fear as Zeus emerges… dressed like a Dirty, Dirty Cylon Space Hooker. Zeus barely moves, due to the lifts and also sports metal kneecaps and silver toed boots. He’s also accompanied by a pal with a jheri curl (the March draft went out of its way to tell us that Zeus walks alone and has no entourage, here he has a posse). We cut to Rip’s face, which twitches as his nostrils flare and he growls out of the side of his mustache and shakes. Notably, Rip’s throat has, barely covered by makeup, abrasions on it. Hmm, if I had to guess, those are from the marks where Zeus would grab him to pretend to choke him with his hands and Rip’s T-shirt in the takes of the fight filmed before this scene. As the announcer tries to hype up Zeus, Zeus backhands him down and the mic gives feedback, with the Ref rolling out of the ring like a pro. I checked the IMDB credits, and the Ref is listed as Dean Warren Welch and this is his only credit. Hmm. I am wondering if this a cousin of Welches we had never heard about, or just a random local actor with a not that rare a surname. Regardless, the Ref does a good and quick roll out of the ring. Way to go, Dean. Then Zeus and Rip face off and growl at each other. Zeus smacks Rip around and chokes him with his own T-shirt, thus showing where those abrasions might have came from. On the set, Hulk Hogan encouraged Tiny Lister Jr. to make it look good and really get into the character, when Tiny asked what happened if he went too far, Hulk and him agreed on a safe word. Since both liked James Brown music, their codeword on the set was “Free James Brown,” a reference to the then recent news of James Brown being arrested in May of ’88 on drugs and weapons charges. Back to the exec lounge, where Ordway and Unger are glued to the violence on the big screen and the six small screens as well, and they talk about the ratings going up. Wait, what?
In the script, it was explained that the exec lounge small TVs each monitor ratings live – which is a far out concept for ’88, but that is what this universe wants to believe. But in the film, it is never explained or filmed, so the reference makes even less sense. Whoever was the script supervisor on this shoot either gave up or was just plain incompetent. Sam notes the Guards are distracted, while Brell cheers on Zeus whomping on Rip. Zeus beats on Rip some more as Sam plots her poorly planned and silly escape that goes exactly as in the script. Out of all the things to keep, movie. Rip keeps taking a pummeling and then suddenly mounts a comeback, realizing he has to keep up appearances for a bit more, which is as close to subtle as this film gets. The Guards and Minions chase Sam, while in the ring Rip punches Zeus to no effect. We get the poorly filmed stairwell chase, as Rip and Zeus do a test of strength which Rip gives way to appease Brell, as Randy looks on the verge of emotional breakdown. As Sam reaches the floor of the studio arena, Unger and the Guards lunge at her and she screams out, but Craig and Charlie come to the rescue. Instead of a cool forklift scene we get Charlie beating one of the guards in the gut with a fire extinguisher (!) as Craig engages in fisticuffs, though mostly off camera. Go, Craig go.
In the ring, Zeus is focusing on the neck of Rip, choking him with the ropes and beating on it with his big clubbing forearms. All this is well and good, but since we never saw Zeus use the neck crank on Randy, it is meaningless, since we don’t know the neck crank is Zeus’s big move. That deflates some of the drama. Not all of course, we are still seeing a man getting pummeled and choked, but in the script it was more – it was a setup for a big, bad, dangerous move that put Randy in the hospital. Here, it’s just Zeus being a nasty cuss. In a “you can take a wrestler out of the wrestling, but you can’t take the wrestling out of the wrestler” moment, Zeus goes to slam Rip’s head into the exposed turnbuckle. This is obviously a safe move in Hollywood filming, even with a novice such as Zeus doing the action, but Hogan’s instincts take over and he juts out a right forearm to make contact with the nearby top ring rope to slow his impact before hitting his head on the buckle. It’s actually kinda goofily charming to see Hulk Hogan resort to wrestling moves in the middle of a choreographed fight in a film. Next the big moment of Zeus using the corner post as a sword to skewer a prone Rip. As Rip looks about in hazy confusion, he spots the post at the last second.
Out comes Craig, useless Charlie and frazzled Sam, who screams at the ref to stop the fight and then dead-ass stares at Brell, who stops smiling. In the ring, Zeus has Rip in the neck crank, but the camera cuts away quick, and of course without the neck crank of Zeus on Randy, the move just appears to be another in the arsenal of stuff Zeus does to hurt Rip. Divorced from context, it looks goofy as well, so all around negatives on that one. The Ref decides to get into the ring, now, because of Sam’s command, rather than previously when Zeus tried to skewer Rip with the ring post, and gets tossed for his trouble, with him doing a nifty roll. Good job, Dean. In the ring, Zeus does his neck crank and Ripster falls on the mat, convulsing. Once again, without seeing the move on Randy, this is now meaningless, because nobody is explaining what the move does or why it is important. And because the film suddenly got gun shy about violence, the camera keeps panning back from the neck crank, only allowing one close shot of it that also makes it look ridiculous.
As in the script, Rip sees Sam and Randy moving a pinkie, all with a Zeus boot on poor Rip’s neck. But the film has Charlie distract Zeus by yelling at him. What? Zeus walks off Rip’s neck and goes towards Charlie, kicking the twenty inches of air in front of Charlie, which causes Charlie to tumble. Well, that’s two things that Charlie did, but this time to the detriment to the film. It is not that Rip starts powering back upon seeing his beloved safely at ringside and his young brother trying to overcome paralysis (that was never mentioned in the film as well), it is literally Charlie calling off the mook beating on him and sacrificing his feeble old body to give Rip time to recover. That undermines Rip. He should have made the comeback himself, not had an assist. And of all the people who should have known that, it is Hulk Hogan. Baffling choices abound. Finally, Rip lies on the buckle, sweat pouring down his body and he looks out at the cheering crowd and mounts his comeback. So, hang on, it’s not the sight of Sam that makes him power up. It’s not seeing Randy fight back paralysis. And it’s not even his decrepit and quite useless trainer get kicked in the mush. It’s people chanting his name. That, that right there is pure Hulk Hogan. But once again, it is wrong for the film. So Hulk whiffs on one time that he should have known better. And then whiffs on another due to his nature. Regardless, both were dumb things to film.
The rest proceeds as in the script, though more slowly. Rip mounts his comeback. Beats down Zeus. And then hits him with his finisher, knocking him out of the destroyed ring. Zeus falls on the carpeted floor from the apron of the destroyed ring. Then, Rip stalks him. This is poorly explained by the film, and by poorly, I mean not at all, but Rip wants a little frontier justice for what Zeus did to Randy and do the neck crank on him. Someone decided that would not play well, and also having not seen Randy get his neck cranked, we don’t know why Rip is going for it or what it’s impact is, having only seen the move once now when Zeus did it to Rip and we are still hazy on the mechanics of it. But when Rip goes to pick up Zeus, Zeus does a zombie sit up and grabs Rip by the throat. This is why on TV wrestling fights have announcers, to explain that which the wrestlers cannot explain themselves. In the film, Brell’s announcer (having recovered from a Zeus backhand rather quickly), simply calls the action as a trained actor with zero wrestling knowledge does off the screenplay and lines given to him prior to filming. He fails to explain what Rip is doing or why, which may be a good thing, as that means they did not have to awkwardly post-prod dub him over due reticence to go into details of the neck crank. Curiously, once the action spills outside, the Rip and Zeus fight takes on more pro-wrestling match characteristics than their in-ring bout, with Zeus grabbing a bear hug, ramming Rip into the post from the outside, and Hulk Hogan selling it as he would in a wrestling ring. This is where Hulk Hogan does turn it up a notch, and you can see him start to lead Zeus through the match as Hogan pictured it and him calling the action. In the ring, the broad moves of Zeus and Tiny Lister Jr. wearing those stupid lifts made everything stilted and overly choreographed, but now outside, Hulk Hogan does better at calling a match. For about thirty seconds you catch a glimpse of what this film might have been if Tiny Lister Jr. wasn’t such a stiff and the fights better resembled a pro-wrestling match. Also, it only now occurs me that Randy is wearing Rip’s cross, and that should have been a big deal, and is a big deal in the March draft. Here, one more scene excised to keep running time going, but goodness me we needed those three minutes of Rebar Lawless wrestling over a piece of wrought iron with Zeus in the Sparks Factory Part Deux.
Randy falls out of a wheelchair and Zeus punts him and goes up the staircase (to escape?). Rip chases after and gets up to the scaffolding before Brell. I will give the film this, it makes more sense on film than in the script as to how each participant ended up there fighting in front of Brell, and they made the scaffolding extra wide to accommodate a pair of 300 pound men doing a mini-fight up there. The fight ends with Rip doing his finisher on Zeus and killing him by having him fall back 20 plus feet through the air and into the collapsed ring, as the audience cheers. Then Rip starts making animal noises and goes after Brell. I would estimate 15% of Rip’s dialogue is growling noises in the film, by the way. Zeus – if you count yelling – closer to 90%. Brell is cornered, scared and gets electrocuted, by backing his buttocks against an exposed wire, and the crowd cheers even harder. Because the only thing better than murder is a double murder. Randy is inspired by the murder to stand up and a smiling Rip comes down, hugs Randy and gets in the ring in a really awkward cut and shoots the crowd a “Rip ‘Em” sign, and freeze frame and roll credits. Except, because it is a freeze frame, we realize it is not in fact Rip doing the sign at the studio arena, it is footage taken earlier from Act I, from the Kansas arena after he beat Jake Bullet. Our film ending screen shot is from the start of the film. Is this what George Lucas meant when he said “The Phantom Menace” was poetry because it rhymed? Did the “Rip ‘Em” sign scene in the studio turn out that badly? Why the edit?
Let’s try to discuss.
No Holds Barred: The Film: The Discussion
There are three films here. The film as written. The film as filmed. And the film as edited and presented as a final product. The script was bad, but goofy and had so many insane touches it almost developed a charm. The film as filmed is harder to judge, but seems to have been closer in spirit to the script than what we end up watching. Still, even if there is a director’s cut or extended cut of this film, it would reveal a film at odds with itself: how much violence to show, and against whom and when? The film as presented as a final product is a mess. I have already touched upon the major issues in my review, but what stands out the most is how idiotically inept the post-prod dubbing and edits were made and the choices made about what to edit. Randy has nothing to do but to stare, weep and fall, thanks to the film removing any scenes which could in any way define him. Craig comes off as more of a rounded character than him. Craig! Randy’s Girlfriend was clearly meant to be a bigger role and while I doubt it would have made the film better, it’d be nice to learn more about her. For a film that goes to the trouble to tell us Randy is closer to Rip due to their parents’ death (and this, in a kids movie, in the first few minutes) just to explain why there are no parents in the scene where Randy lays in the hospital, we are thrown this weird female character that has one line and we don’t know. It is not clear what happened to Ordway and Unger either. In the March draft, Charlie pins them to the wall with a forklift, in the film, it is presumed Craig kicked all their asses (!) while Charlie uses a fire extinguisher one of the two guards. Did the audiences not react well to Craig punching Unger? Seems like an odd choice. The entire chain of scenes and sequences involving Sam and Rip while out on location shoot were cut to a mere voice-over, and comes off weird. But the crown of nonsense is taken by the Zeus and Randy scene which is so butchered as to make it impossible to tell why Randy is in a wheelchair, paralyzed, wearing a neck brace and was nearly in a coma. Instead of talking of the film’s many faults, it may be easier to talk of the things that did work.
Joan Severance and Rip fooling around after she escapes Brell’s clutches actually goes well for a scene involving a pair of novices under the errant eye of a confused director and bad lighting, poor plotting and terrible dialogue. Ordway’s character is a joy and his scenes with Brell are only mired by the bad dialogue, so that when they have non-verbal scenes they come off much, much better. Stan Hansen got free medical insurance for three years by walking around with his mid riff exposed for a couple of weeks, pretending to defecate in a horrible bathroom and telling men they have tiny genitalia. Good for him! And the non-verbal scenes in the board room, with a toxic manager and a culture of fear rang true, because the people filming it could relate. Also, Joan Severance is an attractive woman, whose beauty shines through even the bad lighting, terrible cinematography, a director of photography who should be hanged and a silly script. So there’s that.
Let us talk about how this film was released, and then dwell a bit on its mystery budget.
In our social-media 24-hour-news at-a-glance connected world, a “troubled production” would get instantly exposed. As soon as any feature film gets even a whiff of trouble, the stench of it reaches all our nostrils immediately. But such was not in the case in 1989, and horrific films could sail through their entire production cycle and land with a thud in the theaters, with only a few trade papers and critics giving early warnings. The earliest warning of the awfulness of “No Holds Barred” came in the form of not what was said, but rather what was left unspoken. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, portraying himself as an announcer in the film, and when reached for comment about the picture, refused to discuss it. Ventura could be accused of many things, but being tight lipped was not one of them. But the second and much better publicized warning came in March of 1989, when a screening was arranged for the distributors, to let them see on what they would soon bid. Most left halfway through the picture. Of those who stuck through, only two expressed interest in distributing the film. One was a small outfit whose name has been reported differently by various publications, and who could not recall of ever hearing it. The second company was New Line Cinema, and their bid for the rights was zero dollars.
New Line Cinema executives indicated they would distribute “No Holds Barred” to the theaters but not pay any fees for the right to do so, oh and furthermore, New Line said they would not pay to actually distribute or promote it either, leaving Vince McMahon with the bill for the cost of getting the film into the theaters and all the commercial and marketing work, but allowing McMahon to use their distribution network to get the film into the theaters. Essentially, New Line Cinema would let Vince distribute the film himself, and pay for the privilege. And New Line Cinema won the bid. Recall, Vince McMahon had no major studio backing. This was his first effort, with no track record of success, and he had no name talent behind the camera and only Hulk Hogan before it. And while Hulk Hogan was a brand, why would Paramount, Warner Brothers or even Orion bother to distribute a film in which they had no say in making, and in which they held no financial stake? Well, why would any company risk financial exposure in a project presented to them after it has been completed? There is only one – if they thought the project was well done and financially viable to justify the risk of investment. Since none wanted to invest in the distribution of the film, it was a clear signal it was terrible. And since a terrible film with no studio backing would find it hard to get into the increasingly crowded (even in 1989) theater space, New Line Cinema essentially was loaning Vince McMahon their good name to even get theater chains to look at the film.
“No Holds Barred” therefore faced the challenge of not just earning back its budget, but also making back enough money on top of it to cover the costs of marketing and distribution, and do it all with an unfavorable money split with theaters who knew a bad film when they saw it, given all that had transpired with New Line Cinema. And that’s where the math gets really crazy, because to this day no one knows the budget of the film, because Vince McMahon kept changing the number to try to present the film as a success, and had to keep reducing the announced budget as the additional costs multiplied. Thus, when the film finished shooting in August of ’88, the budget was announced by Vince as being $11 million. By the time of the first screening, it had somehow become $6 million. And then, once New Line Cinema got done putting the boots Vince and the picture, the budget suddenly became $1.5 million. Vince tried to make the film profitable by retroactively reducing the cost of making it. For his part, in his ghostwritten autobiography Hogan put the budget at $8 million, in 2002. I have a guess as to how that numbered was arrived at, and I will share my theory in a bit. The only independent contemporary source who took the trouble to cover the financial goings on of the WWE at this time, our very own Dave Meltzer, estimated the budget at somewhere between $15 and $19 million, a figure which makes sense to me. However, given the realities of distribution and marketing, the total cost of getting this film into the theaters and trying to get anyone to see it must be therefore put at double that. So it is more than likely, the final costs of the film come out to close to $40 million. That’s a lot of red to try to turn to black.
Vince McMahon has often been accused of living in his own reality, and there are plenty of examples of him seeing things from a point of view not shared by anyone else, but by mid April of 1989, he had realized the enormous costs he would need to cover to turn profit and tried to do his best to try to salvage the situation. First, the retroactive budget revision as outlined above. Second, earmark the use of WWF TV to aggressively market the film and use the commercial time allocated to WWF on their TV programming by TV networks to promote the film instead of being sold to their regular advertisers. Given that the WWF had become a TV juggernaut, such things alone would have given the film exposure few non-studio films could ever hope to achieve. But it would still not be enough, because Vince could do the math. No matter how much he promoted the film, his aforementioned efforts could only be rewarded if the public actually turned out to watch the film. If they had not, then while he could hide the costs from the public and the hacks who wandered into Madison Square Garden to write a terrible column for terrible local papers about pro-wrestling success and slap the word “bodyslam” into the headline, he really could not achieve profit unless he increased revenue, and the odds were now very much against him. So he turned the problem on its head. Instead of using the film to turn Hulk Hogan the wrestler into Hulk Hogan the movie star and ride the profits off the theater going public, what if he used the film to turn one of the actors in it into a wrestler and ride the profits off the wrestling public coming to see Hulk Hogan wrestle one of the actors from the film – Zeus. After all, Vince may not know how to make a film, promote it, or distribute it, or do the same to a boxing bout, but he knew pro-wrestling. So what if he were to use the entire film as nothing more as a giant commercial for a new character and opponent to face Hulk Hogan in the world in which Vince felt he was master, and conquer the box office from the wrestling side.
With WWF TV machine all in on promoting “No Holds Barred” for over a month and WWF TV announcers and commentators suggesting the film might net Hulk Hogan an Oscar (yes, that really was a talking point on WWF TV), the film opened on June 2, 1989 in 1,318 US theaters and grossed $4.957 million in its opening weekend. The critics were not kind, and it was immediately understood barring great word of mouth, the drop off would be steep and no more than $15 or $16 million could be squeezed out of the theaters, though Hulk Hogan would tell us the film was a great success, since it was holding its own against “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and beating “Ghostbusters II,” which is an idiotic lie, but would not even crack the top ten lies told by Hulk Hogan. Records show Hulk Hogan’s film dropped like a stone and not once – in any market – doing better than “Ghostbusters II.” As for Dr. Jones, his film would go on to gross $197 million (not adjusted for inflation). After three weeks “No Holds Barred,” a third of theaters stopped showing it, and the rest would try various gimmicks to drum up any sort of audience, such as a double bill with “Pink Cadillac.” In a month, the picture would be gone from the theaters entirely, earning $16 million, and becoming a flop. And the $16 million provides a clue to the $8 million budget Hogan said, because he too could have heard of the math of the costs of the film doubling since WWF was doing all the marketing and etc., and since even Hulk Hogan could not claim the film was box office greatness, the best he could do was to make the film break even by giving the budget as half the revenue collected from the film, therefore quoting the budget at $8 million. Or at least that’s Greg theory.
After the film’s release, Vince McMahon recalled that during the filming of “No Holds Barred,” Hulk Hogan promised to return his salary should the film not be profitable. McMahon therefore impatiently waited for Hogan to give back the alleged million dollars he paid him for the film. It would be a long wait. Forever, in fact. Whether the conversation took place or not is impossible to know, but even if it could have happened, nobody who has ever worked with Hulk Hogan in any capacity could ever be under any illusion he would forsake the First Rule of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. Prior to his foray into reality television and his subsequent divorce, Hulk Hogan was often called the shrewdest negotiator in pro-wrestling and the smartest with his money. Hogan would not part with a million dollar paycheck based on the one sided recollection of a conversation which may or may not have occurred. However, years later, Hogan did acknowledge he was aware Vince thought he would and that Hogan’s refusal to return it hurt his relationship with Vince. Only in pro-wrestling could one be expected to bribe one’s boss to make him happy by giving back the money earned from work done for him.
For most people involved in the film behind the camera, “No Holds Barred” (1989) was but a weird blip on the radar of their uninspiring careers, save for the writer most associated with this flop, whose career was effectively over as a result of it. The extent of his contribution to the film has been disputed by the Hulkster himself, but as we have seen, the Hulk has a tendency to gild a lily. At the end of the day, the man whose name was on the script paid the price for having lend his name to it. The director slunk off to the world of TV and continued his existence largely unscathed.
Most of the talent before the camera went nowhere, some remained good character actors, others stuck to being bad ones, and for some this was to be their sole feature film or TV credit. Some of the men who fought Zeus were wrestlers in their own right and they tried to squeeze their five minutes of fame from it into the wrestling world and failed. The most successful wrestlers were those who went into the film already successful in their chosen profession. Stan Hansen continued to wrestle for All-Japan Pro-Wrestlingr. As for Hulk, the film did dim his wattage considerably in the eyes of Hollywood. Hogan has a different tale to tell, but Hogan always has a tale to tell. For Joan Severance she went on to have an uninspired career as well, but seems to have regarded her time on the set of NHB fondly, and had nothing but nice things to say about Hulk Hogan, calling him a “teddy bear.” As for Tiny Lister Jr., the film is partially responsible for landing him the part of bully Deebo from the “Friday” films. When casting began, at first the makers of the film concentrated on locating football players to be physically imposing, but none they tried out for the part made a positive impression, then someone asked what if they were to cast pro-wrestlers and that is how Tiny Lister’s name came about. The strangest knock on effect of the film came about in Memphis, where they decided they had to get a Zeus of their own, giving a career break to one Charles Wright, our favorite supreme pimping voodoo priest.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for sticking me with on this journey. The balcony is now closed. Have a good one, and please be safe.