Two things sabotaged Vince’s dream of making his WWF Champion a movie star — a tag team of mediocrity, if you will. The first thing was Hogan himself. Despite his near-complete lack of technical ability in the ring, Hogan in his prime was an electrifying performer. His matches unfolded formulaically, but worked to showcase his strengths and hide his many weaknesses as a wrestler, and he had an infectious exuberance during staged interviews with the likes of “Mean” Gene Okerlund. But outside the ring he was no different than most other pro wrestlers; his charisma evaporated, and everything Hogan said or did seemed understated and inert. In the ring a ferocious champion capable of bringing an entire arena to its feet, outside the context of pro wrestling Hogan was awkward, mumbling and insincere.
He still is — watch an episode of Hogan Knows Best next time you feel you can stomach it. In his own house, surrounded by his own family, the guy can’t even play himself convincingly. He seems inauthentic even when pimping his own teenage daughter, for God’s sake.
The second wrench in the works was the film they chose to showcase Hogan to the rest of the world. Sure, calling it a piece of shit is accurate, but about as adequate as saying Haystacks Calhoun was fat. If No Holds Barred was a literal piece of shit, it’d be a turd the size of Haystacks Calhoun. Its story is silly and simplistic, its humor falls flat every time, its acting is atrocious, and its target audience is apparently children and teenagers who laugh at poo-jokes and are willing to completely accept a film made on the central premise that pro wrestling is a real and 100% legitimate combat sport. The target audience also must necessarily have included the parents of many of those children, since the film was rated PG-13.
The world depicted in No Holds Barred is a slightly fictionalized version of the already mostly fictional world of the World Wrestling Federation in the late 1980s. Hogan portrays Rip, the incredibly popular champion of this imaginary WWF-like promotion. Rip is a fierce and tireless competitor in the ring, but a sincere, loyal and selfless man dedicated to charity and goodness outside the ring — which should inspire an earnest spit-take from anyone who knows anything about the real Hogan. When scheming, avaricious TV executive Brell (played by Kurt Fuller, who played a similar character a few years later in Wayne’s World — guess he found his niche) offers Rip the chance to jump ship and earn a bigger payday wrestling for his World Television Network, Rip politely declines. From how persistently Brell, the head of his own entire TV network, pursues Rip, you’d think there was nothing to watch on TV except wrestling. A wet-dream for some, I’m sure.
Brell isn’t ready to take no for an answer. Feeling somehow that a vicious beating will persuade Rip to want to work for him, Brell instructs a few of his goons to work Rip over in a garage on the limo ride home from their meeting. Since Rip is not only a wrestling champion but a superhuman indestructible war machine (apparently), he bursts through the roof of the limo and defeats the thugs single-handedly. The fight is rather like a typical Hogan squash, except instead of ending with a leg-drop and a pinfall, it ends with one of the thugs shitting his pants in terror, at which we are expected to laugh uproariously.
Unable to lure Rip, Brell finds his own superstar in the person of Zeus (Tiny Lister), a perpetually enraged monster who recently served some prison time for killing one of his opponents in the ring. Seeing money in a Rip vs. Zeus match-up, Brell sends a woman to seduce Rip and win him over to Brell’s side. When that fails, due to the innate and incorruptible goodness of Rip, Brell has Zeus beat Rip’s younger brother near to death instead. With his brother in the hospital, Rip finally accepts Brell’s invitation to fight Zeus. To ensure Rip will lose the match, Brell has Samantha (the woman he originally sent to seduce Rip, who is now Rip’s girlfriend) kidnapped and tells Rip that unless he loses to Zeus, Brell will have her crippled. Nice guy, ol’ Brell. Rip refuses to take the dive. His inviolable integrity won’t allow him to save the life of the woman he loves by losing a wrestling match. Turns out it’s a moot issue, since the morons assigned to guard Samantha ignore her to watch wrestling, allowing her to slip away undetected and join Rip at the arena. Half-dead Randy is there, too, in his wheelchair, guaranteeing the climax its quota of treacle.
The Rip vs. Zeus match follows the tried-and-true Hogan formula, only with more slow-mo than you’d expect to see in a pro wrestling match not involving Paul Wight. Zeus whips Rip’s ass for awhile, then — inspired by a twitching in his paralyzed brother’s finger — Rip hulks-up and takes over. Zeus flees the ring, Rip chases him up to the top of the arena and knocks him all the way back down to the ring with a double-axe-handle, destroying the ring and probably killing Zeus to the delight of the assembled fans. But Rip’s not done killin’ yet — he menaces Brell back into a malfunctioning piece of broadcast equipment, which electrocutes him to death. Yes, Brell dies. That’ll teach him to employ nefarious business practices!
Rip then picks up his seriously injured brother and celebrates in front of the adoring crowd. All’s well that ends well, I guess. Except most wrestling fans can tell you that it wasn’t the end. Tiny Lister began appearing on WWF television in-character as Zeus, demanding matches with Hulk Hogan. Yes, not only was pro wrestling real, but the matches shown in No Holds Barred were real, too. The Hogan vs. Zeus feud raged throughout the summer and through the rest of that year. In December of ’89 the WWF promoted a special pay-per-view airing of the movie, followed by a tag team match pitting Hogan and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake against Zeus and Randy Savage. I’ve never heard a buyrate on that one, but I can’t imagine it was very high. With shit like this and the WBF (that’s World Bodybuilding Federation), it’s a miracle Vince McMahon didn’t run his company out of business in the early ’90s. But that’s right — I forgot — he’s a genius.
No Holds Barred was a disaster at the box office, and certainly did nothing to help the WWF’s wrestling business. If anything, the movie hurt business by pissing off existing fans, most of whom were insulted by the depiction of wrestling as a legitimate competitive sport. Even in that bygone era (18 years ago) most adult fans of wrestling had figured out it was all for show. Hogan went on to star in a few more theatrical films, including the god-awful sci-fi comedy Suburban Commando (which’ll probably get its own review here sooner or later) and Mr. Nanny, before being exiled to home video. Vince McMahon did finally get himself a legit wrestler/movie star over a decade after the failure of No Holds Barred: The Rock, who bolted from Vince and pro wrestling and into full-time acting the first chance he got. Can’t say I blame him.
Being a horribly written and acted film with no redeeming qualities hasn’t left No Holds Barred without its fans. One guy on the IMDb message board a few years ago even posted that it was a better film than The Godfather. His reasons: “Better direction. Better script. Better cinematography. Better acting.” In his final post in the same thread, posted a year and a half later, the same guy claimed that No Holds Barred has saved over 24 million lives, reunited 50,000 estranged families, caused over 13,000 crippled people to walk while watching it, returned sight to over 3,400 blind people, cured over 2,000 lepers, and exorcised 6,666 demons. His username on the board is psycho_charlie666, which you probably already guessed.