It’s a true statement that pro wrestling is a shitty, dangerously unregulated, exploitive business. It’s equally true that pro wrestling is a pure, unique, and valuable form of storytelling, capable of evoking every bit of the emotion that ballet or other art forms can. When it’s bad, it can be truly wretched and stomach-turning. But when wrestling is good? It’s better than just about any narrative form that I can think of, and I’ll go to the mat to defend that opinion. David Darg and Price James’ documentary, You Cannot Kill David Arquette, is a film about the love of wrestling, and what it means to sacrifice one’s body for an art form that most people ridicule or dismiss as simply ‘fake’.
Back in the year 2000, when pro wrestling as a whole was at its peak popularity in the mainstream, David Arquette was best known as the scene-stealing Officer Dewey from Wes Craven’s Scream films. At the same time, the ailing World Championship Wrestling (WCW), which had squandered it’s competitive lead over Vince McMahon’s WWE (then WWF) with hideous creative and ill-advised business moves, was grasping at straws for anything that might slow their plummeting ratings, revenue, and attendance. One of these moves was a forgettable film tie-in called Ready To Rumble, starring Arquette and several members of the WCW roster.
To cross-promote Ready To Rumble, Arquette made a number of appearances on WCW’s programming, and (again, out of desperation), the company’s creative team decided to put the World Heavyweight Title – a championship with perhaps the richest lineage in wrestling, winding its way through legends like Ric Flair, Sting, Hulk Hogan, and Dusty Rhodes – around the waist of the scrawny Arquette. Wrestling fans were furious, feeling that this prestigious accolade was wasted on a celebrity that neither deserved nor appreciated it.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette picks up nearly 20 years after Arquette’s infamous title win, with the actor in a pretty bad way from years of addiction and mental health issues. He seems creatively unfulfilled and is clearly holding on to the baggage from his WCW days. Arquette is burdened with the weight of an almost universal rejection from the pro wrestling community – fellow wrestlers, analysts, and fans alike – and wants to amend that with a return to wrestling. A return, not on his own terms but by the standard to which nearly every respected performer within the community has adhered. Rather than being the celebrity who was thrust to the very top of a giant wrestling organization in WCW, he commits to starting over from the very bottom. You Cannot Kill David Arquette is the chronicle of a determined individual rebuilding everything about himself – mind, body, and, soul – into a performer worthy of respect within a community whose acceptance he desperately craves.
Despite being almost universally reviled by the wrestling community, Arquette is nothing if not forthrightly and almost aggressively likeable, even in the throes of a literal overdose from ketamine. Darg and James emphasize his unflappable charm, and you can’t help but root for him as he tries to make his way back to wrestling. Like most memorable sports films – both real and fictional – there’s a struggle and a redemption here, and you genuinely feel that Arquette is revisiting wrestling for the right reasons. Scenes of his large LA home, complete with a small horse ranch, emphasize that he’s definitely not hard up for money, presumably coming from his substantial Scream residuals. If nothing else is clear from the film, it’s plain that Arquette is doing this because he genuinely loves the business, but also to right a wrong that he feels he committed to the wrestling industry.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette features several scenes of Arquette “paying his dues”, to use the industry parlance. These range from sad, in the case of Arquette taking great pains to establish a wrestling persona only to be completely ostracized at a wrestling convention, to genuinely upsetting, in a scene where he wrestles on a ‘backyard’ wrestling show and is brutally beaten with light tubes and other objects for a crowd of maybe fifty people. There are lighter moments too, like Arquette’s unfortunate use of spray-tanner and body waxing. There’s a scene with Arquette training with legendary wrestler and yoga teacher, Diamond Dallas Page in Mexico that seems a little too staged for my tastes, but redeems itself with strong Pai Mei energy. The whole sequence in Mexico is really interesting, though, and captures the little-known practice of ‘street wrestling’, where luchadors wrestle each other at traffic stops in order to promote local matches and to collect money from motorists for their efforts.
The key scene in the documentary is Arquette wrestling in a deathmatch against legendarily dangerous GCW wrestler Nick Gage, where he gets unexpectedly punctured in the neck and is in danger of losing a lot of blood. This is foreshadowed by a scene from early in the film where it’s revealed that he’s on blood thinners for a heart condition. Naturally, a copious amount of blood is spilled, the match stops and Arquette heads for the dressing room, being assisted by his real-life friend and fellow wrestling fan, the late Luke Perry. But before he gets there, he pauses and turns back, climbing back into the ring to finish the match, all while holding his hand over the wound, literally keeping himself alive. It’s the moment where you realize that the film, up to that point, hasn’t been untruthful in presenting Arquette as someone that wants to take wrestling seriously and redeem himself for the damage that he and many fans felt he did to the industry.
Scenes with the Arquette siblings – Rosanna and Patricia – as well as Arquette’s close friends, his kids, and both his current partner Christina McLarty and ex-wife Courteney Cox provide compelling background to the effect of Arquette’s wrestling obsession on the important people in his life. There’s justifiable horror on the part of McLarty and Cox especially as they see the grueling, violent things Arquette undertakes to earn back the respect of wrestling fans, and this leads to You Cannot Kill David Arquette’s ultimate resolution, which feels genuine and earned even in the context of the staged world of wrestling. Similarly, interviews with Perry’s son Jack “Jungle Boy” Perry, RJ City, and Brian Pillman Jr. provide a legitimacy to Arquette’s pursuit and really speak to the fact that the goodwill and acceptance into the wrestling community he earns is couched in real friendships and love. As it often shakes out, the wrestlers accept him first, which gives the fans permission to accept him as well.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette is a deep dive into the actor’s search for redemption in an insular business in which he was never truly accepted, despite holding it’s most prestigious title. There’s a great line by RJ City where he says (paraphrased) that caring deeply about wrestling titles is like wearing the king’s crown from your costume at home after the curtains close on your stage play. I think this cuts to the heart of the film. The performances in the ring may be predetermined, but the relationships between the performers and the emotions they elicit from the audience are as real as anything else.
You Cannot Kill David Arquette is now available on Netflix, or for rental from Elevation Pictures