You Cannot Kill David Arquette
Any regular readers of this site might have realised by now that I do enjoy professional wrestling now and then. My “Watches Wrestling” series can be viewed here, and Fighting With My Family was one of my favourite films of last year. It’s a good time for wrestling in many ways, discounting the effect of COVID: wrestling video essays, TV shows and feature documentaries seem to be coming out at a fairly constant rate recently. This was one of the latest of them, and man it is the perfect subject matter to delve into some of the reasons that the backstage politics and culture around wrestling is one of the most fascinating things about it.
And one of the victims of those backstage politics and that culture is one David Arquette. I would say that when people think of that name they probably think primarily of the guy who is a mainstay of the Scream franchise and a bunch of low-budget sci-fi movies, and who was married to Courtney Cox for a bit. Oh, and whose life has frequently been a train wreck due to various substance abuse issues. The idea that Arquette is still seeking rehabilitation in the wrestling community for what happened in 2000 is an intriguing one for a documentary, and in line with what I knew about his return to the ring last year, I was all in on You Cannot Kill David Arquette. Was it a Meltzer 8-star classic, or more in the line of -5?
In 2000, actor David Arquette, while promoting the film Ready To Rumble, allowed himself to be booked to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, a moment often cited as one of the worst in the history of professional wrestling. Nearly twenty years later, having seen his acting prospects diminish and suffering from the after-effects of a heart attack, Arquette determines to try and get back into pro-wrestling, to make up for what he was a part of in 2000, and to gain back some self-respect.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette is a wrestling fans wrestling documentary. It doesn’t do a whole lot to ease non-fans into the experience by explaining some of the finer details of the art, and so many prominent figures in the industry come and go so fast that I can well imagine that a non-fan would very quickly be lost. Ric Flair is an early interviewee, and his larger context in the business is explained only by the descriptor “the Godfather of wrestling” (which I would dispute). It’s the perfect film for someone like me, but I was struck very early on that this is a largely insular exercise. If you can get past that, then there is a lot to recommend in You Cannot Kill David Arquette (not least that amazing title).
Certainly, it is good to be reminded that Arquette exists. As the film makes clear, there was a time when the man was considered one of the rising stars of the entertainment industry, a person to watch, appearing on the same “Hollywood Edition” Vanity Fair cover in 1996 as Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Matthew McConaughey. But in a twist of fate that is positively Faustian, his biggest hit ended up being his downfall, as Arquette was largely typecast as a goofball comedy guy after his turn as the flailing Deputy Dewey in the Scream movies (he expresses some disappointment about this in the documentary, but it hasn’t stopped him signing up for Scream 5, due out in 2022). In the midst of that time came Ready To Rumble, and a fateful few weeks in the confines of World Championship Wrestling.
One of the most remarkable things about the way this film covers that moment is how, twenty years later, people are still arguing about whose idea it was. Eric Bischoff, featuring briefly, still claims ignorance, while Vince Russo, in archive footage, talks more about how the stunt made headlines so he considered it a success. Diamond Dallas Page, who appears briefly, says only that he knew it was a bad idea, but that he places no blame on Arquette for it. And Arquette, well, he was a gigantic wrestling fan, being offered the chance to become one of the biggest stars, albeit briefly, of the industry. It was a disastrous mistake of course, as was Ready To Rumble, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette is the story largely of how Arquette has tried to respond to it.
Because the whole thing hurts him so deeply. It might be hyperbole to place at the foot of pro-wrestling all of Arquette’s ills – substance abuse problems, bad-health, a waning acting career, a divorce (though he and Cox remain on remarkably good terms it seems) – especially when he was raised by what seems to have been abusive family, but one of the things that is captivating about You Cannot Kill David Arquette is how it makes clear those few weeks were more than just a bad idea or ancient history for Arquette: they are a gaping wound in his self-esteem. Wrestling is and was, one of Arquette’s obsessions, but it is a one-way love: wrestling, and its community, doesn’t like Arquette much at the start of this film. He’s derided as one of the men who helped kill WCW, a poser disrespecting the art and the many people who worked so much harder than he did and never got to that top level. And you can feel the pain radiating off of Arquette when he talks about this, about how he is seems to be permanently a pariah in the community of wrestling. He sits at home watching footage from the wrestling matches of his childhood, most notably any time Mz Elizabeth is on-screen, and you can tell he wants to re-capture the feeling he would have had the first time he watched, something that must feel impossible. In line with his not-exactly stellar career recently, one can understand exactly what Arquette means when he says “I’m just kind of sick of being a joke”.
Of course, when he says those words he is doing a photo shoot on a horse while dressed up in bright spandex with flairs going down both arms, chest exposed, so it reads a little strange. But that whole experience is what You Cannot Kill David Arquette is all about: his sometimes ridiculous, sometimes sad, but always engaging efforts to get back in the ring, no matter how weird the costume, no matter how out-there the gimmick, and no matter how dangerous the spots he is volunteering to do. The second half of the film is a roller-coaster ride through the various strata of the wrestling industry, as Arquette, his loved ones fears be damned, proceeds to take some incredible risks, all in the name of some manner of catharsis, in a larger battle against his anxiety and depression.
That ride includes taking some very dangerous looking bumps in a a backyard wrestling “event” seemingly attended only by the participants (Arquette is deliberately potatoed repeatedly by unhappy opponents, one of home appears to be at least 30 years his junior); going to Mexico for training, which includes “street wrestling”, ie, performing brief encounters on busy city roads for the spare change of motorists; deathmatches with mainstays of that type of wrestling; and then a fairly big name contest with Ken Anderson, around which the conclusion of the film revolves. The recurring theme of all of these segments is Arquette getting a little bit better and learning a little bit more about the inherent nature of the business, but also perhaps going too far: on multiple occasions, most notably after that death match with Nick Gage, Arquette is left with injuries, one of which requires a trip to the hospital (long time friend Luke Perry accompanies him, only a short time before his premature death). His dedication cannot be questioned – Arquette finishes that deathmatch despite being fully aware that he has received a dangerous cut to the neck (the directors have stated they were close to intervening themselves at the time) – and after viewing this documentary neither can his respect for the art and for wrestlers: but what can be questioned is his sanity.
A lot of people look on with concern about what Arquette is doing – his current partner, his ex-wife, his kids, his friends, other people in the wrestling industry – and if Arquette has a serious flaw it is mostly that he doesn’t seem to care. His desire to redeem himself is a selfish one in many ways, and a somewhat manufactured reconciliation between those desires and the approval of his loved ones at the conclusion doesn’t really do enough to vindicate him. But in another way this fits with what wrestling is, where so many are unable to let go, and to hell with what anyone else thinks: more than one of the people interviewed are guilty of out-staying their welcome. With Arquette the risks are quite large though, what with his recent heart attack and his substance abuse issues. It’s impossible not to root for him though: this guy who loves to wrestle with his kids, who maybe could have been huge, and is now just trying to win back some love.
Price James and David Darg’s film is one that I think could be described as a pretty good showcase of pro-wrestling in some ways, with that kind of in-your-face indie style of cinematography; there is no shortage of up-close looks at blood, sweat and tears, with the directors as close as anyone to that infamous deathmatch. But is is also mostly because it blends the line between fiction and reality. Arquette is participating in what is essentially ballet with fists, and while the results are pre-determined, the blood, bruises and broken bones are most definitely real. There appears to be “shoot” fights that Arquette gets involved with at times, and even in lighter moments there’s an occasional resort to sticking to kayfabe-thinking that seems positively ancient by today’s standards (when criticised about once being in a Muppets film, Arquette responds with deadpan seriousness “Hey, I elevated that movie”).
Ken Anderson, whose scary promos threatening to tear amateur Arquette apart open the film, is only revealed to not hold any antipathy towards him after their match (unlike Gage it seems, who nearly flat-out kills Arquette in the ring), and at all times the framing leaves you wondering just how much acceptance Arquette is going to be able to get. He perhaps overstates the case in the last instance: I wouldn’t say people in the community despise Arquette more than he despises himself: he’s more a figure of pity, which makes his rehabilitation all the more interesting. There’s also an exaggeration about Arquette’s acting career, with the man himself claiming to have had no meaningful work in a decade, which is simply not true (his partner was a producer, so the film can be seen, in part at least, as a demo for him). But hey, call it kayfabe.
I hope that Arquette has found some peace with his passion and will not be hitting the ring again after this stint; that would be the perfect end to the story told. This is an entertaining and engaging documentary, that trips along nicely, never loses your attention, and which proves an interesting journey for its main focus to go on. Arquette comes out of the piece looking very well: a guy who just wants to be loved, and has chosen a unique way of going about getting that love. It will not have the mass appeal of something like Fighting With My Family, or the educational value of something like Beyond The Mat. But, in the end, You Cannot Kill David Arquette is a film that reminds me why I like wrestling: the intensity of it, the art of it, the audience participation element, the community and that sense of belonging that only comes from something that can be described as niche, but which is also a bold, brash loud affair. It’s no wonder Arquette wanted to get back into it. His love for wrestling feels like an affirmation of my own I suppose: In the words of maffew of Botchamania, I’ll stop watching wrestling when they invent something better.
(All images are copyright of Super LTD).