Saturday mornings, for me, were opportunities to enjoy a bowl (or two) of cereal and sit on the couch, television remote in hand. After I had my fill of Shirt Tales, Snorks, and Smurfs, I often had to decide what to do next. Should I watch a new episode of Dungeons and Dragons or enjoy some wrestling? Normally, I just turned the TV off and went to play, but one morning, I changed the channel to professional wrestling and entered a new world.
I would sit, transfixed, as the likes of Ric Flair, The Ultimate Warrior, and Hulk Hogan took part in battle. Afterwards, my friends would gather and attempt the moves on a trampoline or with the action figures we received for Christmas. We all knew the stuff was fake, but it didn’t stop us from having hours of fun imagining we were the world champions.
In the new film The Masked Saint, wrestling is brought to the silver screen—this time in the form of a pastor named Chris Samuels (Brett Granstaff—check out my interview with him here). Yes, I said pastor. It’s a unique idea based on a true story and has the potential to connect with a cross-section of Americana, but it falls prey to slow pacing and trying to accomplish too much.
Samuels is a professional wrestler who looks similar to NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and wears a mask (a la Jack Black in Nacho Libre) and goes by the stage name The Saint. He’s extremely popular and has made promoter Nicky Stone (the late ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper) a lot of money. But the script is about to change, as Samuels is set to retire and a new wrestler is selected to beat him in a title match. That fighter is The Reaper (James Preston Rogers), who looks like a clone of The Undertaker. The fight is supposed to be fake (as one might expect), but The Reaper goes too far and breaks Samuels’ leg in the process.
This is a setback for Samuels, who is also a seminary graduate and has accepted a position as pastor in Rolling Spring, MI. The church is a half-step from disbanding, only surviving thanks to the ‘generosity’ of Judd Lumpkin (Patrick McKenna), a character who is the embodiment of every bad church member rolled into one person. Judd is loud, brash, crude, egotistical, and isn’t afraid of promoting himself or throwing his congregation under the bus—sometimes all at once. After Samuels has to put him in a sleeper hold to get his attention during a rec league basketball game, he gains the attention of Ross Harper (Mykel Jenkins), a local detective in town.
Rolling Spring is a rough town, and Samuels is about to learn how rough in his first month on the job. He’s not a fantastic preacher—actually, he’s horrible—but he’s willing to invite people to the church. Unfortunately, in a humorous yet sad scene, Samuels and his wife Michelle (Lara Jean Chorostecki) go door to door, only to find doors slammed when they mention the name of the church (thanks a lot, Judd). It’s not a pretty picture, and when Judd (and his money) leaves, the couple find themselves trying to survive the harsh Michigan winter. Samuels has to pull himself out of retirement and wrestle in order to keep the church afloat.
But although the congregation has no clue about his alter ego (save one lady), things are happening in town. Samuels finds himself putting on the mask to help a lady in an alley and starts doing covert acts of good. The lady in the church who knows who he is, Miss Edna (Diahann Carroll), gives him a book and acts as his spiritual mentor. He begins to find a rhythm with preaching and the people begin to listen and respond. Samuels begins to face questions of priority, ego, faith, determination, family, and his other identity. How far will he go to do what is right for his family, the church, and others?
This sounds suspiciously like an adaptation of the Daredevil series currently on Netflix, but it’s not; there’s only a minor focus on the vigilante crime prevention. I do think the film could be so much more if that were the case—after all, who wouldn’t want to see a wrestler using real moves to clean up a town? Instead, the script branches out into too many topics (bullying, domestic violence, crime, corruption, to name four) and tries to become all things for all people. Limiting the scope somewhat and delving into a few character-based topics would’ve been much more beneficial to the audience. Instead, it’s like trying to focus on everything going on in Times Square—a task that often doesn’t work. In addition, the film drags in the second half as it builds up to a rather big wrestling match. The fighting scenes are pretty good, but way too few and far between for those people intending to see a wrestling film.
This is not to say The Masked Saint is a disaster, as it’s not. The acting is quite good and the production values are better than many faith-based movies. Carroll does a great job as Miss Edna, encouraging the young pastor and sometimes taking him to task for his decisions. She gives him a journal she calls “Mastering the Gift,” which becomes his main focus for the remainder of the film—even over the Bible, in my opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised to see copies of the journal in Christian retailers soon. Granstaff also does well in his role as the pastor/wrestler, adding an authenticity that’s not often seen in films of this type.
One of the more interesting themes in the movie involves Samuels dealing with his past. It wasn’t an easy life, and wrestling helped him survive constantly being bullied as a kid. But when he begins to become the bully and sees himself as more than he is, things get tense. Many times in the Bible, characters found themselves dealing with the past—take Moses as an example. He wasn’t a great leader, didn’t speak well, and had a black mark in his past by killing an Egyptian. And yet God was able to use him to lead a country through a sea on the way to the Promised Land. Even despite this, Moses didn’t learn all his lessons and eventually made himself equal to God when attempting to get water from a rock (see Numbers 20:6-12). We’re not to dwell on the past, but we’re to look and see the new things God is creating and join Him in that work. When that happens, life becomes a fulfilling journey that brings purpose and satisfaction to many.