The pageantry, the style and technique which has made wrestling a marquee entertainment product around the world has allowed its performers to develop skills which, on occasion, lead to success in other realms. Some wrestlers began as martial artists. Some had brief football careers. But quite a few of these amazing athletes selling scripted fights end up becoming stars on the silver screen, propelled by their popularity and stage presence. Sadly, many critically unacclaimed WWE-produced films gave them little help toward a prosperous film or television career. Sure, John Cena escaped The Marine films, but many of the actors in the sequels have had their careers constrained to those titles. Who knows how their careers would have blossomed? Cena has surpassed that series, but he’s hardly the first, the last or the most prominent.
You may find yourself getting to the end of this list wondering where all the women are. I have the same problem, but with the entertainment world. American wrestling has not yet afforded its female stars the same film opportunities it’s provided its men. I’ve already mentioned the Marine franchise swallowing WWE careers (Naomi is in The Marine 5: Battleground. Summer Rae is in The Marine 4: Moving Target). Chyna mostly played herself in brief TV appearances, had one-episode roles, or direct-to-video movies. Sasha Banks (credited by her real name, Mercedes Varnado) has been in two episodes of The Mandalorian and will hopefully be in more this coming year. Supu: Umarekawari no Monogatari features New Japan wrestler Kairi Sane, but I haven’t figured out how to watch that yet. (If you know where it’s streaming, please let me know.)
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the continued success of those that have already crossed over, and the hopefully blossoming film careers of many of the sport’s emerging stars. The following is a chronological list of some of the best films (and one TV show) starring wrestlers, and some of their best performances.
Here are the best movies featuring wrestlers:
Rocky III (Hulk Hogan, Mr. T)
If you don’t count the Creed movies, Rocky III is probably the third or fourth best Rocky movie, and the second-best directed by Sylvester Stallone. It was originally included here because of Hulk Hogan’s brief appearance as Thunderlips, who fights Rocky at a charity event that gets way out of hand. But Mr. T is the main event in the film as antagonist and rival Clubber Lang. Stallone wrote the role for the famous bodyguard, who won the toughest bouncer competition and would take his success in this film to star in The A-Team. Lang is a menace, who beats Rocky in an early fight and gets his comeuppance later on. He’s also a great trash talker, which of course would help him later on. Aside from The A-Team T would end up at the first Wrestlemania, with Hogan as his tag-team partner; so Rocky III has got them coming and going: A wrestler on his way into acting, and an actor on his way into wrestling.
Predator (Jesse Ventura)
Predator is an inimitable sci-fi action horror film, the first in a long series with many sequel duds but which culminated in last year’s very good Prey. This 1987 film is known for its cast of ripped action heroes having to run to ground after their military commando hardware fails to be a match for an alien apex sport hunter with gadgets from outer space. Predator is also famous for having two members of its cast go on to govern U.S. states. One of those is, of course, the former Governator of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The other? Minnesota Reform Party’s own James George Janos AKA Jesse “The Body” Ventura. About 12 years before his election, but only a few months after Predator, Ventura would appear alongside Schwarzenegger again in the dystopian action movie The Running Man. He was a busy man. In Predator, Ventura plays Blain, who uses a machine gun nicknamed Old Painless, chews tobacco, spits on Dillon’s (Carl Weathers) shoes, has a close, maybe romantic relationship with Mac (Bill Duke) and dies a grizzly death. He pairs with Mac as a stoned-faced killer: Super serious, abrasive and the first off the board. Even with limited screentime, he’s a personality matching the size of his gun, blasting Little Richard out of a boombox on the helicopter that drops the commandos deep into the Central American forest for a rescue mission that turns into a race for their lives. “Ain’t got time to bleed,” indeed.
The Princess Bride (Andre the Giant)
There’s no more iconic strongman of the ring than Andre the Giant. He wrestled from 1966 when he was 19 years old until his untimely death at age 46 in 1993 and was the first person inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Immortalized by Shepherd Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse” street art, which in turn became the template for the brand OBEY (which also draws from the following film on this list), Andre the Giant starred in of one of the most beloved fantasy films of the 1980s. In The Princess Bride, André René Roussimoff portrays Fezzik, henchman of Vizzini and later compatriot to the protagonist. Fezzik is a character of great violent potential, but also patient, soft-spoken and wise. Director Rob Reiner drew fantastic performances from the whole cast, not least of which stars Cary Elwes (Westley) and Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup). Of course, Andre the Giant’s performance as Fezzik is centered on and around his great size and strength. His utility to Vizzini in the kidnapping of Princess Buttercup (Wright) and carrying her—with Vizzini and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin)—up The Cliffs of Insanity relies on his strength, but his friendship with Inigo rests on their shared wit and understanding, as well as the great compassion at Fezzik’s center. Andre’s unique voice, the thickly accented boom, is a complement throughout the film to his character’s role (including yelling to disperse crowds) and his face sells confusion and bemusement as well as wrath. He appears humble or unsophisticated at times, but never stupid. And he is, always, a captivating presence who makes a lot out of what could have been a nothing role in the hands of a lesser performer. Of course, as with many of these performances, the martial stage prowess of Andre the Giant comes into play when he first faces off against Westley.
They Live (Rowdy Roddy Piper)
A cult classic for the conspiracy-minded, nonconformists and generally discontent across the political spectrum, John Carpenter’s 1988 science fiction action satire starred the late Roderick George Toombs AKA “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. The Canadian who wrestled for the National Wrestling Alliance, the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) and World Championship Wrestling stars as a homeless drifter credited as “Nada” who—with the help of a hacker, a priest and a coworker he meets at a construction gig (Keith David)—discovers and fights a global conspiracy of alien infiltrators controlling humanity through advertising. These monsters have simple goals: Induce the mass production of cattle-like people to be worked to death and exploited for value. It’s a movie which explicitly features a shrinking middle class and police brutality toward the homeless. It’s uncannily prescient for a kooky sci-fi from the late 1980s because of the trajectory the U.S. has remained on in the intervening three and a half decades. It’s also a movie about the difficulty of getting your friends to face the truth of society, as depicted in a nearly seven-minute fight that comes from trying to get Frank (Keith David) to try on the truth-revealing sunglasses. It feels pulled right out of a wrestling match. Piper strikes an attractive figure here: Gruff but open-minded, generally a bit silly. He finds his surroundings remarkable from the first time we see him walking lazily by a train, taking stock of L.A. He has an air about him of trouble even though he tries to express a relaxed sensibility. He attracts trouble anyway, and the aggression with which he immediately confronts the aliens once he can see them shows a clear moral core and a simmering anger beneath the calm façade. While not the hulking physique of some of the wrestler-actors listed here, he’s no slouch either.
Spider-Man (“Macho Man” Randy Savage)
Born Randy Mario Poffo, Randy Savage had a 32-year wrestling career, accented near its end with some TV and film appearances. His performance as Bonesaw McGraw is not necessarily the most prominent featuring of a wrestler in a movie, “Bonesaw is ready” is no less memorable for that. Plus this is a well-made superhero movie from a time when superhero films weren’t completely ubiquitous and when their directors weren’t interchangeable. The Macho Man’s appearance in this film as a wrestler at a small New York-based production where Bruce Campbell plays the announcer helps establish Spider-Man’s story—the character classically first tries out his powers at a wrestling match and, in this adaptation, he lets the person robbing the promoter escape…and kill his Uncle Ben. So Randy Savage and Bonesaw are truly crucial to the pre-MCU Spider-Man’s story arc. Where would Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker have been without him? But in the moment—in the cage match and immediately preceding—he’s the encapsulation of a wrestler caricature. Bonesaw McGraw is like a successor to Thunderlips, a filmic example of wrestler as savage, a total heel and a genuine menace to any audience member that volunteers to step into the ring looking to make a name for themselves. And in this world, it’s not scripted fighting—it’s real, with an offer of $3000 to anyone that can last three minutes in the ring with Bonesaw. The Macho Man is throwing people out of the ring while looking every bit the part of a rippling, sweaty, late-career wrestler. Without the glamor of the McMahon production or its competitors, Bonesaw is the centerpiece of an unscripted New York state-confined circuit and Savage sells the role just as he would any work for WWF, WCW or TNA. But Bonesaw is more curt, concise and even more crazy-eyed than the real life Macho Man, an unstoppable killing machine that gets knocked out by a teenager with radioactive spider blood.
Pain & Gain (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson)
Some people think they need the perpetual nostalgia of reusing intellectual property from the 1980s—draining every drip of comic book history—to make movies that give them hope and joy (Dwayne Johnson recently tried this in the unremarkable Black Adam). To these people I shout “Nay! What you need is to watch The Rock as a coke-addicted born-again ex-con bodybuilder.” Pain & Gain is based on a three-part magazine report revealing the incredible true story of a gang of bodybuilders kidnapping a Miami businessman, stealing all his assets and killing a phone sex magnate. The film plays fast and loose with the facts of the case, which really didn’t sit well with the real-life survivors. Changes from reality included compositing several people to create Johnson’s character. Still, Johnson brings a lot of manic energy and fluctuating empathy, intelligence and passion to the role. This is The Rock at his finest, one of his most creative and rangy roles in one of Michael Bay’s better movies.
Furious 7 (Ronda Rousey)
Ronda Rousey hasn’t been a big star in many films and entered Hollywood more as a direct chronological result of her MMA career than wrestling, following Gina Carano into this racing/espionage/adventure movie blockbuster franchise. She was filming the movie simultaneously with Expendables 3 and training for her third of seven consecutive successful UFC bantamweight title defenses. The film’s release was delayed until 2015 due in large part to the passing of Paul Walker. The weekend it came out in April was one week after Dwayne Johnson brought her into the ring for her first match in a tag team against The Authority at Wrestlemania 31, stylistically different but vaguely echoing Hulk Hogan’s introduction of Mr. T against Rowdy Piper and Paul Orndorff. All that said, Rousey’s appearance in this film is rather brief, as the head of a prince’s security and his all-woman personal guard. She notices Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) sneaking off and challenges her to one-on-one combat after Letty dispatches her guards. In a movie full of unbelievable action—this is after Vin Diesel lifts a car with his bare hands but before he flies it through the air between three consecutive buildings—Letty winning that fight is still what I find least believable. It’s a credit to Rousey that she was able to both convey her ability as a martial artist (incorporating real judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu) and sell the loss. It’s just a shame she didn’t have more screen time so they could bring her back on the side of the angels like they do with three-quarters of the other antagonists.
Blade Runner 2049 (Dave Bautista)
Dave Bautista was a six-time world champion over a 20-year wrestling career which included multiple retirements. He’s also been in a lot of movies, with his first billed role at the direction of Werner Herzog. He was in the underrated RZA-directed The Man with the Iron Fists two years before his career took off with mainstream success in Guardians of the Galaxy. In the same year as the second Guardians film, he appeared in Blade Runner 2049. The film is an emerging showcase for Bautista, allowing him to show the depth of emotion he could convey with brief screen time and the way his huge body could convey uncertainty, patience and resignation. It was a better use of him than in Spectre (where he plays a Jaws/Oddjob-like sub-villain) though perhaps not as excellent as in Knock at the Cabin, which is a worse film but one in which he excelled. He’s also very good in Glass Onion, and I’m looking forward to seeing his expanded role in the second Dune movie. The point, as ever when I mention Bautista, is that he’s a very good actor—almost without a doubt the best wrestler-turned-actor.
The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker (John Cena)
John Cena originally took the role of Peacemaker for The Suicide Squad, a soft-reboot late in the DCEU’s life that plays like a hardcore version of Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a movie that’s probably better than a lot of what the MCU has put out in the intervening 18 months, but one that hit at the nadir of my tolerance of superheroes. Imagine my surprise when Cena’s solo (well, relatively solo) effort in the spin-off TV show absolutely ruled. Robert Patrick plays his dad, a white supremacist supervillain. Danielle Brooks plays one of his government handlers, on her own journey out of the shadow of an amoral parent. Peacemaker has a CGI pet bald eagle. The title sequence is a serious-faced silly dance number to Norwegian glam metal band Wig Wam’s “Do Ya Wanna Taste It.” Cena develops a nuanced performance as his jingoistic hardcore antihero grows as a person and as a friend for the group of operators tasked with stage-managing him on his journey to stop alien parasites from taking over the world.
The Guardians of Justice (Diamond Dallas Page)
Page Joseph Falkinburg Jr. AKA DDP wrestled for WCW, WWF, TNA and AEW, starting as a wrestler before becoming a manager. He’s also got his own yoga series and supporting roles in over a dozen films. But what I’ve most enjoyed from him as an actor is his role as Knight Hawk in last year’s The Guardians of Justice, which, yes, is a TV show and not a movie. But still. Creator Adi Shankar drew on the ‘80s action figures, cartoons and comic books that are the backbone of contemporary mass market media, doing the same sort of commentary and analysis done in comics like Watchmen and Marshall Law in order to point out that the flattening of morality and political perspective is an easy way to fall into the thrall of brutal strongmen. DDP’s Knight Hawk is a sort of Batman parody who, like Batman, is a master manipulator bent on controlling the state to his own ends. He’s also credited, with much of the main cast, as a co-creator by Shankar. It’s a tremendous performance, and one in a show that starts off as a spectacle incorporating myriad animation styles but that evolves into something as intellectually brilliant as it is visually disorienting and engaging.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.