Blu-ray Review - Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows [CIP] | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows

Studio: Canadian International Pictures

Mar 20, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Wrestling was never allowed on our home’s television set. It was a weird place for a line to be drawn in the sand—the ban was handed down from the same father who rented Chuck Norris tapes on family movie night, and had no problems with his son bingeing horror flicks with his buddies after school. But something about wrestling irked him, and I’ll never know exactly what. Something about the fakeness bothered him, I think. I knew it was all a show, and told him that—but it never made a difference. If I was caught with wrestling on the TV, I was ordered to change the channel.

And thus, my background knowledge of professional wrestling is almost entirely limited to the roster of WWF Superstars, the late ‘80s arcade game that sat in the snack bar of our local roller rink. I quickly learned their names—Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and Macho Man Randy Savage, et al—but they were little more than colorful characters in a fighting game. Without the rivalries and storylines that go with them, I eventually lost interest.

All of that is to say that I’m likely not the prime audience for a documentary like Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998). It looks at an era of wrestling—the mid-90s—that I never had even a passing familiarity with. The film’s about far more than the performance aspect, however, and hit me in ways I never expected.

Bret Hart was the shining star of a family wrestling empire. His father, Stu, established one of the major Canadian wrestling promotions in the 1940s, and in the 1950s started training wrestlers in a school affectionately referred to as “The Dungeon” that was located in the basement of the family’s sprawling Calgary mansion. It was there where Bret and his siblings grew up, listening to the screams and pained whimpers of grown men in submission holds echoing through the furnace vents. Of course Bret and some of his brothers would become wrestlers. After their father’s promotion was sold to Vince McMahon, they became employed by the WWF. Projecting a wholesome image, Bret quickly became a star and one of the Federation’s most beloved good guys.

The documentary—made at Bret’s behest—starts at what feels like a turning point in professional wrestling. The moment’s certainly not lost on Bret, who’s been offered a massive contract by the WWF’s main competitor to jump sides. It’s a massive decision, and we watch Bret weigh his loyalty to McMahon—who he regards as a second father—against financial security for his family, and the possibility that the WWF might be a sinking ship. He’s also genuinely bothered by wrestling’s change in direction, as the shows become more sexualized and fans begin to gravitate toward villains and their outrageous antics. He feels the shows are no longer friendly towards the children who look up to him, and fears that his feel-good character is growing outdated.

Above all else, Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is a movie about family, with complexities and dynamics that you rarely see outside of something like The Godfather. What’s good for one family (the wrestling family) might not be good for the other family (Bret’s). It’s a story about fathers, sons, double-crosses, and heartbreak—told through oversized men in neon tights (and occasionally masks). It’s compelling whether you’re a wrestling fan or not. Bret Hart is a magnetic subject: intelligent and charismatic, yet highly invested in the world and characters he’s helped manufacture. It’s so interesting to watch someone speak openly about the fabrication that goes into these shows, yet take it so seriously. Even when he admits to aspects of his profession being fake—you can tell there are parts of it that are more real to him than any outsider could understand.

The momentum of the movie builds towards a moment known as The Montreal Screwjob: one of the most controversial and infamous calls in wrestling history. Those in the know will no doubt be engaged in the behind-the-scenes machinations of this notorious event. If you—like myself—find yourself watching a wrestling documentary while not knowing what the Montreal Screwjob was, don’t look it up beforehand. The moment it happens will feel like a punch in the gut, and the aftermath is riveting.

Canadian International Pictures have assembled a great package for the movie’s 25 anniversary. While packed with bonus materials, the standout is the inclusion of director Paul Jay’s follow-up documentary, The Life and Death of Owen Hart (1999), which runs just under an hour but works as a continuation of the Hart family saga by looking at brother Owen Hart’s accidental death in a WWF arena. Both Hart and Jay provided new, on-camera interviews, which pair nicely with their archival Q&As from a prior disc release. Hart can be heard on two commentaries, one specific to the Screwjob, and the booklet includes an essay from the film’s producer. All-in-all, it’s a packed release of a stellar documentary. If I enjoyed it this much as a wrestling neophyte, it should absolutely thrill any dedicated fan of the subject matter.

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