Warning: Possible spoilers ahead if you’re not up on recent deaths in lucha libre
I’m hard-pressed to think of any sort of professional wrestling documentary that isn’t a company-produced fluff piece that isn’t essentially a tragedy. No matter the heights that some of these tremendous athletes achieve in their careers, the realities of the business reveal the cost of wrestling imposed on those who practice it. Lucha Mexico may be the darkest of these ever produced.
Though there is some delving into the history of the sport (you can’t very well talk about today’s superstars in Mexico without mentioning their often legendary fathers), Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz’s film is mostly concerned with the state of lucha libre in Mexico today. This is no exposé. You won’t see wrestlers revealing secrets or the exploration of some dark underbelly. Instead, Lucha Mexico is simply a bald look at the men and women who make up this strange cultural phenomenon.
The primary focuses of the film are Shocker, a popular veteran just now exiting the prime of his career; Jon “Strongman” Andersen, an American import to the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL); Fabian el Gitano, a talented performer in the midst of his comeback; and Perro Aguayo Jr., an exciting young star reveling in Mexico’s thirst for the more hardcore aspects of American backyard wrestling. Two of these men do not reach the end credits alive.
Before delving into that, there are some amazing moments that happen in the wings. The iconic Blue Demon Jr. appears often, as well as Sexy Star, Faby Apache, Damian 666 and Ultimo Guerrero. Each of these brings something special to the film, whether it’s Demon’s unique inheritance from his father’s age when luchadors were also film stars and national treasures, or the odd relationship between Apache and Star, who wrestle each other despite a real-life adultery between Apache’s ex and Star. The blur between real and staged is intoxicating.
Fabian features prominently early in the film. He’d put his career on hold, becoming a stripper in the meantime, in order to open a gym that became a popular home for fellow luchadors. This eventually led him back into the ring, only to lose his mask in a three-way cage match between him, Angel del Oro and Dr. X. The scene, pictured above, is one of the most moving in the entire picture.
You ever read the Civil War comic? Not see the Captain America movie, but read the actual comic event it was based on? In it, Peter Parker publicly reveals to the world he is Spider-Man, and it’s one of the most amazing scenes put to paper in comics in decades. That’s the feeling watching Fabian unmask. They don’t just reveal his face. They reveal his full legal name and age. There’s a weird feeling of both humanization and failure to the moment.
Fabian continued to work unmasked for a while, even receiving great praise for his good looks. Eventually, though, he took his own life in 2011. I apologize if this is a spoiler, but either you’re a lucha fan who already knew it, or you’re not and the film sort of assumes this is general knowledge without explanation.
Shocker is in a sense a less tragic figure. To give an American perspective to how he is, remember how Buff Bagwell was really popular in the ’90s despite being a completely mediocre talent? Now, imagine Bagwell, but as one of the best. That’s Shocker.
No figure grounds the movie as much as he. At once he's a larger-than-life presence in the ring, full of wit and tricks. Then, the next moment, he’s in a doctor’s office getting his knee repaired and confessing that his early childhood is full of memories of missing his wrestler father and folksinger mother while they were on the road. He attempts to connect with his own family by opening a restaurant as a joint endeavor, but his work keeps him on the road just as work did his parents.
Similar is Andersen, seen as both a beast of a man and the loving father of two daughters. Like Shocker, Andersen is injured through a lot of the film, but comes to peace with his career by scheduling long breaks with his family. He’s a gruff, likable chap who's at times sad because of the hell he clearly puts his family through, but also touching in his general affection for both co-workers and family.
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There’s a fatalism about the whole thing. Demon in particular laments that because of lucha traditions, he spends 18 hours a day hidden in a mask, leaving him often very lonely. Early in the film, Fabian remarks that he thought his mask would give him a double identity, but after losing it, his brother tells us, Fabian could not easily separate the two.
Of all the subjects, Aguayo seemed the most aware of how important it was to keep an eye on his safety, despite his hardcore style (those scenes with barbed wire and blood are a good reason the kids should avoid this one). He’s an oddly humble, conscientious young man always counseling others to be careful. And yet he died from a ring injury in 2015, a simple kick to the back by Rey Mysterio that injured his spine.
Lucha Mexico is a movie about why superheroes aren’t real, at least not as we see in the comics. It is a showcase of athletes who feel the impact they have on the lives of fans and even Mexico itself in their work, but who pay the physical price of it with an almost grim determination. The spectacle is as high as the cost, and if you want to truly see what it means to be a luchador, it should not at all be missed.
Lucha Mexico plays at Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park on Wednesday, July 20 at 5:05 p.m.