In 2008, Misha DeFonseca publicly admitted that her memoir about being raised by wolves after her parents were killed by Nazis during WWII was false. She was ordered to return over 20 million dollars to her publisher. Her “memoir” had had a substantial impact on popular culture, but mostly because she marketed it as fact. If her book had been published as the fiction that it was, it most likely would not have had the success that it achieved when it was apparently a “true account.”
Similarly, if You Cannot Kill David Arquette had advertised itself as fictional or even a nebulous “based on true events,” it wouldn’t have raised so much as an eyebrow. Perhaps best known for his role as Sheriff Dewey Riley in the Scream franchise, David Arquette went from longtime fan to actual participant in the world of American professional wrestling when he was promoting the World Championship of Wrestling (WCW) movie Ready to Rumble back in 2000. In a controversial publicity stunt, Arquette ended up winning the WCW Championship. This move was widely derided by wrestling fans and has been something of a pop culture punchline that gets brought up whenever Arquette’s name comes up. Now, facing obscurity, few career prospects, struggles with alcoholism, and substance abuse, Arquette takes a much questioned detour into pro wrestling and tries it for real.
If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it bears a more than passing resemblance to The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s drama starring Mickey Rourke, or even to a more classic Hollywood underdog story like Rocky. Even if we put aside the fact that Arquette and his wife Christina McLarty Arquette are executive producers of this movie, the narrative flows like predictable yet slick engine. He encounters many colorful characters at no-name wrestling matches to get experience and even spends a stint training with Mexican luchadors. To add to the stretching of credibility, there are even cameos from his famous acting family (and even ex-wife Courteney Cox), who appear as convenient obstacles in his misguided journey. Much of the efficiency of the narrative can be attributed to directors David Darg and Price James, the former making his name as a director and editor with documentaries about first responders.
Despite the obvious attempts to make Arquette’s struggles fit a familiar narrative, Arquette’s commitment to actually mastering wrestling rings true. We not only see him struggle with training but also witness him taking serious injuries, which end up hospitalizing him. One extraordinary scene calls to mind, of all things, James Corden’s segment on his talk show “Crosswalk the Musical.” As part of his training, Arquette accompanies some luchadors as they put on short wrestling matches on crosswalks while cars are waiting for the green light. Under blazing sunlight, Arquette climbs up a ladder to body slam several of the luchadors and throws himself body and soul into this move. The cars honk uproariously at the stunt. It’s a dramatic, almost cheesy moment, but one that Arquette fully commits to.
As Hollywood as this story is, there is a real, breathing man cracking ribs and bleeding at the center of it, and we witness his pain in extreme detail. Instead of comparing this to DeFonseca’s blatantly false book, it’s better to compare You Cannot Kill David Arquette to pro wrestling itself, which is not so much “fake” as it is staged, a soap opera with men and women in colorful garb and personalities. There is also a formidable athleticism behind the act and even obviously contrived stunts have to be rehearsed. Even with proper training, the effort takes a huge toll on the wrestler’s bodies just like any sport with intense physical contact. That commitment to go through the extreme conditioning and pain that wrestlers do to put on a hell of a show is unquestionably genuine in this story, and therein lies the movie’s ultimate charm.