Barbed Wire City: New Extreme Championship Wrestling Documentary Review
The story of ECW's birth and death is told once again in Barbed Wire City; The Unauthorized Story of Eastern Championship Wrestling, a new documentary directed by Kevin Kiernan and John Philapavage.
The ultra-violent, now-defunct wrestling promotion has been analyzed and remembered in film version before. WWE put out The Rise and Fall of ECW in 2004. Jeremy Borash released Forever Hardcore in 2005.
Barbed Wire City ran the risk of redundancy but manages to be relevant by being more comprehensive than its predecessors. The film captures the rawness of the wrestling product, the dysfunction of the company’s administration, the cult-like status it had among fans and most of ECW’s warts and blemishes.
Using a blend of fan footage, talking-head interviews and glimpses of the ECW product itself, Barbed Wire City tells the story of ECW, from inception to the company folding to Shane Douglas' Extreme Rising reunion shows. It goes beyond the broken tables and bloodshed and into the culture that surrounded ECW.
The film begins with making parallels to ECW then and Extreme Rising now, but the focus quickly turns to ECW and stays there for the most part. Journalists such as Dave Meltzer from Wrestling Observer, Wade Keller from PWTorch and Mike Johnson from PWInsider offer a mélange of outlooks on what made ECW work and what made it fail.
Keller is the most critical, discussing how the company pushed the violence of their product too far. Johnson provides some intriguing inside stories and an enthusiastic look at ECW's glory days.
The documentary also relies on interviews from ECW founder Tod Gordon and wrestlers like Sandman, New Jack, Stevie Richards, Rocco Rock, Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney. The opinions and outlooks among these performers is even more varied than those of the journalists.
New Jack is unforgiving of Paul Heyman, grumbling cuss words about him. Barbed Wire City features clips of Rotten and Mahoney in the waning days of ECW and several years later as well. Rotten's speech in the more recent interviews is impaired by Bell's palsy. Both he and Mahoney share an emotional moment reflecting on their hard work and what they gave to the company, which is one of the highlights of the film.
Smashing Pumpkins frontman and ECW fan Billy Corgan speaks in the film as well. His perspective on the company is poignant, providing a touch of poetry to the documentary.
Barbed Wire City does just as good a job of showcasing ECW's cult-like following, the escalating violence and the intensity of the fanbase as it does the company's weaknesses.
Heyman's rousing, rallying speeches from various panels and conferences are captured in the film. He is made to look just as much a pied piper as he is a folk hero, as much a creative genius as a man in over his head.
The film aptly explores ECW's fundamental flaw—its inability to balance authenticity with expansion. Heyman's struggles as a businessman are chronicled here as well, but the philosophical dilemma of how to stay true to itself while moving to TNN and to a wider audience is presented without being heavy-handed.
Barbed Wire City doesn't have as many detailed, specific stories as Forever Hardcore, but it provides a better overall look. Forever Hardcore suffers because it has little actual ECW footage and is a more detailed dissection of some of ECW's subplots and incidents.
The Mass Transit Incident (where New Jack cut an untrained wrestler named Eric Kulas too deeply) is discussed in Barbed Wire City, but viewers will see no video or photo of what happened. In fact, it's talked about by New Jack and others but not explained. Folks not familiar with it already may be a bit lost.
The film doesn't cover any of Terry Funk's contributions to the company and has little mention of Cactus Jack. It zeroes in on some wrestlers like Tommy Dreamer and The Dudley Boyz, but for the most part, it keeps its focus broader, covering the company and the fan experience more.
Tony Lewis, the fan who helped get ECW on pay-per-view by way of gathering signatures for petitions and rallying public support, gets a major role in the film. His inclusion is indicative of how Barbed Wire City attempts to convey the passion and dedication of the ECW fans.
This is not just a rehash or retread. Barbed Wire City gives a more honest look at ECW than The Rise and Fall. It provides a wider range of perspective than Forever Hardcore. In a way, it seems that this newest ECW documentary is a marriage of those two previous ones.
Fans who have read and viewed everything previously available about the wildness and combustible experience that was ECW will see plenty in Barbed Wire City that they have already seen before, but this newest film offers a uniquely intriguing look.
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