Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows (1998)
Written and directed by Paul Jay

The Hitman Hart documentary turns out to be a surprisingly deep film, considering its subject. To me, pro wrestling always seemed like one long joke with no punchline, perpetrated by lots of huge guys with long greasy hair. I've now seen enough of it through the eyes of the converted that I can appreciate what it's all about.

I was never one of those "But it's so FAKE!" types of people, but the actual draw eluded me until this tape elucidated the notion that pro wrestling is "sports entertainment" rather than sports, and that it is essentially a "male soap opera."

That phrase alone explains a great deal of why so many people follow the WWF and WCW – it's a socially acceptable way for men to be interested in the same sorts of plots you'll find in romance novels, but with a bit less bodice ripping.

But when I say "socially acceptable," I better be careful, because there are definitely still those who have the typical knee-jerk reaction to wrestling: rolling the eyes, exasperated breathing, and of course "But it's so FAKE!"

It is fake, surely, but in some ways it's not fake at all. It's theater, but it's extremely athletic. You can't tell me that Mick Foley taking an tumble off a 20-foot steel cage and onto a press table is "fake"—hilarious or hideous, maybe, but there is real pain involved and the players are demanded upon for feats of physical exertion as well as comedy, pathos, and testosterone-fueled monologues.

One of the great aspects of Hitman Hart is that it brings the viewer behind the scenes, placing wrestling in a bit more of an accessible context instead of just playing along with the gag.

More importantly, it's really more of a genuine documentary than the typical wrestling tapes you see at Wal-Mart, which are more geared toward diehard fans. This one presents a truly deep storyline involving issues of loyalty and betrayal that wouldn't be out of place in a Greek tragedy.

Bret "The Hitman" Hart was being followed around by a camera crew that was doing a documentary on his life as one of the WWF's true post-Hulk Hogan superstars, and the crew was able to document a bizarre series of twists that ultimately forced Hart out of the WWF and effectively ruined his reputation in the rasslin' community.

Hart's almost blind allegiance to WWF founder Vince McMahon turned out to be his fatal flaw in this little tragedy, as McMahon exploited Hart for huge ratings and then screwed him out of his dignity (not to mention a lot of money) with some serious underhandedness.

Hart was the king of wrestling in the era when most people weren't watching (after the cheesy mid-80s wrestling trend died down but before it came back even harder with the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin), the leader of the Hart Foundation (also featuring Bret's brother Owen Hart and the British Bulldog, of course).

The film delves pretty deeply into Hart's personal life, showing his wife and kids and interviewing his totally weird family (father Stu Hart was a famous wrestler back in the "golden age"; all 8 of his sons became pro wrestlers; all 4 girls married wrestlers).

It offers a view of Hart as a very pensive fellow, almost Hamlet-like in parts, and whether this differs a great deal from his actual wrestling persona I have no idea.

Writer-director Paul Jay paints a portrait of Hart as wrestling's "last good guy" and documents the shift toward gratuitous violence, sex, and scatology that characterizes the current scene. As McMahon slowly morphs his business into a seedier type of thing, Hart becomes more disposable, and the rise of stars like Shawn Michaels (painted here as a villain, but actually a pretty hilarious fellow from what I've seen) made Hart's good-guy persona seem lame and tired.

Ultimately, Hart is robbed of his title with utter maliciousness by McMahon, who also does his best to tarnish Hart's hard-won reputation as a Canadian role model.

It's all done exceedingly well, and I actually recommend it more to people who don't like wrestling (or think they don't) as an ideal starting point toward understanding what the hell it's all about. The film ends on a down note and you get no real idea of what's become of Hart (I'm informed that his post-superstar work for the WCW has been unmemorable), but it's a gripping ride for the entire hour and a half.

Wrestling fans will enjoy behind-the-scenes moments with Mick Foley and The Undertaker (seen playing with Hart's son in a moment that is actually almost poignant), although some may not approve of the portrayal of wrestling fans as fat loser trash (well, that's not how they're portrayed, exactly, but that's how a lot of them come off in the film).

Overall, this is surely a classic of the cinema of wrestling, on which I will be teaching a summer class at the local community college, where you'll find 75% of wrestling fans anyway.

Review by The Crusher