El Santo, the greatest luchador who ever lived, was buried wearing the silver mask that had become his signature. Pedro Aguayo Ramirez, known in the ring as Hijo del Perro Aguayo, died from a cervical fracture that he sustained from a flying kick from one of his fiercest opponents. Fabian El Gitano committed suicide (most sources believe) after losing a match and being unmasked in front of his biggest fans. Mexican wrestling may not be “real,” but it sure as shit isn’t fake.
Lucha libre (which translates to “free wrestling,” but operates like a less corporatized, more cultured and similarly colorful version of the WWE) is a matter of life and death, silly and serious in equal measure. Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz’s “Lucha Mexico” may not explore the sport’s performative middle distance with the same intellectual rigor that Robert Greene’s “Fake It So Real” applied to American independent wrestling, but their semi-successful documentary benefits from an instantly appealing cast of characters, the rich history of the world they inhabit and a keen understanding of how time is every fighter’s greatest enemy.
The historic Arena Mexico was built in 1956, and thousands of anonymous luchadors have been thrown over its railings in the 60 years since. “Lucha Mexico” isolates a small handful of the current crop, each of whom represents a different side of the sport they love.
There’s Blue Demon, whose father was one of the first luchadors to parlay his athletic success into an acting career (he portrayed his wrestling character in a series of B-grade, Bond-like action films, hilariously wearing a suit at the same time as his patented blue mask). There’s Jon Strongman, an aging American muscleman who follows the work wherever it goes, even if that takes him away from bodybuilder wife and their two young daughters. A few minutes are spent on a female wrestler named Faby Apache, and a few more on a dwarf called Kemonito who climbs into the ring dressed as a blue gorilla and absorbs more abuse than anyone.
Finally, there’s Shocker. The barrel-chested heart of the movie, Shocker — whose head is spiked with a tuft of electric yellow hair — feels like he’s on his way to becoming lucha libre’s very own Randy “The Ram” Robinson. 44 years old and stuffed into a body that’s endured several lifetimes of physical punishment, Shocker is the indefatigable embodiment of a guy who doesn’t know how to draw a distinction between his life and his livelihood. Being a luchador isn’t just what he does, it’s who he is, and the scenes in which he’s forced to work at his family’s restaurant are heartbreaking.
Hammond and Markiewicz, whose previous feature was a 2011 profile on late garage rocker Jay Reatard, largely allow these stories to speak for themselves. While not strictly vérité (talking heads are introduced for exposition), the filmmakers’ approach boils down to looking at their subjects with a focus and intensity that distills each wrestler’s various personas into a single person. Sure, Shocker can go by a different name when he’s hanging out with his mother, but just because he was in character when his kneecap ripped out of place doesn’t mean that he can walk home after the match (and they often walk, disappearing into the night alone and with a rollaway suitcase full of their gear rattling on the dirt behind them, part superhero and part Snoopy).
Throughout the film, the question of whether wrestling is real or fake very seldom comes up in explicit terms. The truth is that — like all of the arts — it’s an intoxicating combination of the two. Artists like Shocker can’t deny the reality of their bodies, and audiences like those in the Arena Mexico can’t accept it. As “Lucha Mexico” goes on, the dynamic between fighters and their fans grows more complicated, eventually beginning to feel like something of an abstract hostage crisis. But Hammond and Markiewicz are only interested in amplifying what their characters feel, and that comes at the expense of grappling with the context around them.
There’s just enough history about lucha libre to make you curious to learn more. Likewise, there’s a peripheral thread about how gang-related violence in former wrestling hotspots like Juarez is crippling the sport, but the film hesitates to root lucha libre in a uniquely Mexican context, ultimately operating with the same sense of tunnel vision with which the wrestlers see their own lives. Had the doc committed to a more experiential vibe, that limited perspective may have paid off; as it stands, “Lucha Mexico” gets broader when it ought to be getting deeper (a feeling that grows increasingly hard to shake during the aimless final chapters).
“What you earn from lucha libre is injuries and a lot of love from people,” one of the luchadors concludes. In “Lucha Mexico,” only the former makes much of an impact.
“Lucha Mexico” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, July 15.