It was either divine intervention or social media viral marketing that led me to the Christian wrestling film The Masked Saint. I do not know how many other people saw the movie's trailer earlier this week, but the attendance at a Thursday night screening in South Jersey suggested that not many others found it as stirring a call to action. During the previews, I had to cover my mouth during the trailer to Miracles From Heaven, a medium budget extravaganza with Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah that makes Heaven Is For Real look like The Rapture in its dedication to turning the tragic into the divine. I would have laughed, but I didn't want to bother the lone moviegoer who represented the other half of The Masked Saint's audience that evening.
I cannot tell you what that other patron thought of the film, but this is not my first rodeo when it comes to low-budget Christian films, and I'd like to think I've become pretty good at watching these (mostly pretty bad) movies. And while I wouldn't go out and watch most in this genre unless a pro wrestler or several Pro Football Hall Of Famers were in it, I've found that it's best to give such films the benefit of the doubt. You know, unless they're really bad. The Masked Saint has many faults, but being unwatchable is not one of them. Also it has the late Rowdy Roddy Piper in his last role, which makes any other critique more or less irrelevant.
Brett Granstaff is Chris Samuels, a Tennessee boy who loses his father but gains a very distant father figure in The Gladiator, a pro wrestler we never hear about again but whose footage is actually that of the real Masked Saint, Chris Whaley. Samuels grows up and becomes a top babyface in the (um) WFW. The late great Piper plays World Frampionship Wrestling head Nick Stone. When Samuels decides to retire to become a preacher, Stone understandably doesn't want a vacated title. Stone doesn't tell The Reaper to break Chris' leg, but he doesn't tell him not to either, and so he does. Always typecast as a nice fella, Roddy Piper was.
Samuels and his family move from Tennessee to Michigan, which is represented in the film by the production moving from locations in one part of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to another. This is convenient, because the WFW seems to move with Samuels to beautiful Rolling Springs, MI. Chris and Michelle's daughter, Carrie, tags along, as well as the family dog, Piper (you get it). At Samuels' new church, they encounter a colorful cast of characters, from Miss Beasley, the choir director whose possible dementia is played for laughs, to Judd Lumpkin, an a-hole businessman who is blindly bringing down the church from the inside.
Chris eventually rights the sinking ship, but it takes a while. He gets some sort of magic book from the magical Miss Edna, played by Diahann Carroll, whose professionally calligraphed text helps the rev open up and say more than "faith good, hell bad." There is a scene where you think Michelle is about to get Movie Cancer, but turns out merely to be Movie Pregnant. Faced with crippling debts and the loss of douchey moneyman Judd Lumpkin's patronage after a wonderful rec hoops meltdown, Chris Samuels has no choice but to head into the ring, fighting jobbers inside the arena and meting out vigilante justice outside of it.
And so, our hero gets to work cleaning up a town in north Ontario. He beats up a pimp named Jojo, who slaps his prostitute for praying; later, after no-showing a match during a crisis of faith, the Saint also apprehends a couple of armed robbers at a diner. There's a cop who tries to take down our Good Guy With A Gredunza, although he eventually agrees to let Saint be Saint after the town pimp is subdued and the town spousal abuser is de-fanged.
After Jojo vandalizes the church, Chris blames himself for doing the right thing, and for the false pride he gained from doing righteous things. There is a hilarious scene in which everyone turns on Chris after he admits that he is a (gasp) professional wrestler/low-rent superhero. (They immediately forgive him after Judd Lumpkin, the true hero of this movie, returns and pleads for forgiveness of his own.) Chris decides to have one more match against The Undertaker Reaper, aided by a parishioner who works for the IRS and who threatens Piper with an audit unless it goes down. The match itself is quite entertaining, with the real Chris "The Masked Saint" Whaley in the audience doing the requisite "I like this guy who is loosely based on myself" cameo. Given that this is a Christian film about a preaching wrestler, it is not really much of a spoiler to note that Good Triumphs Over Evil, which is something that has not happened in pro wrestling since 1979. Everything is tied up in a neat little small package.
Well, narratively, anyway. The Masked Saint at times goes from clueless to pyrotechnically problematic, especially in the treatment of Chris' next-door neighbor Mindy and her husband Ray. Ray physically abuses Mindy throughout the film, and while Ray gets his ass beaten by Chris, and Mindy eventually replaces senile old Mrs. Beasley as choir director, the audience is asked to almost instantly forgive Ray for many unforgivable acts after he apparently repents. Jojo the pimp also abuses women, but only gets his comeuppance when Ray, while trying to apologize to Chris before the final match, uses his hair-trigger temper and reliance on violence to knock an armed Jojo unconscious with a dumbbell. The sheer gall, the complete and utter absurdity and idiotic ballsiness of this scene made me laugh through the rest of the movie, until I realized exactly what I was laughing at.
The Masked Saint purports itself to be based on a true story, and like most things related to professional wrestling, the truth is much more interesting than that. Chris Whaley was a sickly kid who took to working out, and used pro wrestling as a means to work his way through divinity school and channel his need to entertain. Whaley worked for over a decade as "The Masked Saint" in Championship Wrestling From Florida and World Class Championship Wrestling. At one point he battled some schlub named Mark Calaway, who'd later find his gimmick as The Undertaker. Once Whaley retired, he would occasionally get back in the ring to spread the message of Christ, raise money for those in need, and at one point also to help troll Alabama Crimson Tide fans. He also once held a card so his church could buy a radio station to air Rush Limbaugh, which even in Citrus County, Florida, was not met with unanimous praise. Whaley did not become a pimp-fighting vigilante, but he did write the novel The Masked Saint based on his actual experiences as a wrestler and a Baptist minister.
Brett Granstaff has the type of name a wrestler would have in real life—you'd never root for a Brett Granstaff, but you'd totally root for The Masked Saint once you learned his real name was Brett Granstaff. He's pretty good in the title role, and so is Lara Jean Chorostecki (who played Freddy Lounds in the hit family sitcom "Hannibal") as his wife. Anyone who can deliver the line "where in the Bible does it say 'Thou Shalt Not Wrestle'" with a straight face is a great actress in my book. T.J. McGibbon, who seems to be an in-demand child actor in Canada, does a fine job as Carrie Samuels, the precocious, light-fixture stealing daughter.
The Masked Saint follows a lot of sports movie tropes, but the actors who play through these tropes make for a more memorable film. For instance, we have Smart Mark Diahann Carroll, an elderly fan of wrestling and Christian metal who is the reason why Samuels is in Michigan in the first place, though she would rather give God all the credit. Patrick McKenna steals the movie as Judd Lumpkin, the stage lighting king of the Upper Peninsula. Lumpkin is such a dick, and such an unremittingly sore loser, that I couldn't help but identify with him, to the point where half my notes were "where's Judd," and "bring back Judd."
Still, Rowdy Roddy Piper is the main reason a lot of people would see The Masked Saint. Piper lived to be 61 in a profession where making it to fifty is far from a guarantee. It is not an insult to call Roddy Piper wrestling's consummate troll, nor is it a stretch to call him one of wrestling's great actors. There was a lot of B-grade work in Piper's acting resume, and more ninety-second brawls with Tae Bo's Billy Blanks than six-minute all-time classic alley fights with Keith David, but Piper often raised the material with his presence. You might even say Rowdy Piper was the M. Emmett Walsh of Professional Wrestling, though that might be a stretch.
The Masked Saint is goofy, but it's also decidedly watchable, both because there are moments in which you are genuinely invested in the characters and because of the frequent instances of both intentional and accidental humor. The actual pro wrestling is fine, and the booking is very strong, but that is largely besides the point. I cannot stress enough how squeamish the domestic violence subplot is, and the abusive character's redemption is far more generous than what most any spousal abuser deserves. That said, The Masked Saint proves the notion that when God closes a door, he opens a steel cage.