Movies about pro-wrestling seldom star actual pro wrestlers. Instead we get Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”) or Ryuta Sato (“Gachi Boy: Wrestling with a Memory”). But the ascent to Hollywood stardom of Dwayne Johnson, who wrestled professionally as “The Rock,” has inspired New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Japan’s biggest pro-wrestling organization, to do something similar for NJPW star Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Their vehicle of choice, Kyohei Fujimura’s “My Dad is a Heel Wrestler,” is an earnestly inspirational movie for kids. It’s based on two picture books by writer Masahiro Itabashi and illustrator Hisanori Yoshida, but adult fans can enjoy the scenes of hardcore wrestling action performed by pros, minus the stunt work and editing tricks used to disguise the inadequacies of nonwrestler actors.
I’ve actually seen Tanahashi and his fellow NJPW wrestlers live and can testify that, though the results may be predetermined, the athleticism and risks are real. To quote ex-wrestler Diamond Dallas Page: “You can’t fake gravity.”
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||111 mins.|
And Tanahashi can’t fake acting, though he is an amiable (and looming) presence as Takashi Omura, a one-time up-and-comer who badly injured his knee and is now playing a heel, that is, a mask-wearing villain the fans love to hate. He also has a supportive wife, Shiori (Yoshino Kimura), who works as a hair stylist, and a 9-year-old son, Shota (Kokoro Terada), who has not been told about his dad’s profession. Then one day Shota sneaks a ride to Takashi’s place of employment and discovers that he is playing a despicable character called Gokiburi (Cockroach), jeered by fans in a packed arena.
Mortified, Shota later rages against his abashed father and, when his classmates learn about his dad’s job, he tells them Takashi is Dragon George (Kazuchika Okada), a blond-haired good guy.
Meanwhile, an excitable magazine reporter, Michiko (Riisa Naka), hears that Takashi will take the place of an injured wrestler in an upcoming bout with Dragon George. A huge fan of Takashi in his pre-Cockroach days, Michiko persuades her editor (Yo Oizumi) to let her cover it.
Then Takashi makes a decision that brings these storylines to a head and his own struggling career to a halt. But since this is a wrestling movie, a comeback is in the cards.
One of the film’s objects is to humanize and normalize a sport outsiders are prone to ridicule, so Takashi and his square-jawed tag team partner (Ryusuke Taguchi) may play jerks in the ring (such as using a can of bug spray on their opponents) but are nice guys out of it. And while Michiko is a caricature of a rabid fan (one more funny than annoying), she becomes Shota’s kind-hearted confidante and ally.
The film also offers an insider’s view of the sport, sanitized for general consumption. Though playing Takashi’s implacable foe in public, Dragon George treats him as a respected senpai (senior) in private. And when Takashi breaks “kayfabe” — wrestling jargon for the fictive personas and storylines wrestlers perform for the fans — Dragon George supports him, even though Takashi has committed a firing offense.
Tanahashi vehicle it may be, but “My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” is also a full-throated, body-slamming celebration of a spandex brotherhood.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5