Presented with a sincerity and enthusiasm that’s considerably less cloying than your average Christian-minded Hallmark-style movie.
For such a fascinating industry, the world of professional wrestling has birthed precious few seminal films. The Masked Saint doesn’t do much in the way of changing that, but it does use the iconography of the squared circle to gussy up an otherwise regrettably milquetoast movie about the power of the church. It was marketed as some kind of thrilling superhero film, but in reality, it’s more of an oddball biopic. It’s based loosely on the true life story of Chris Whaley, an ‘80s-era professional wrestler who retired from the fictional sport to be a full-time Southern Baptist pastor. While The Masked Saint’s prologue does have more in common with a Marvel origin story as young Chris fends off bullies after the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, it veers off into a more interesting – if inconsistent – direction.
When we meet Chris “The Saint” Samuels (Brett Granstaff), he’s working the final match of his career, defending the title against a newcomer called The Reaper. Samuels, in his bone white mask and spindly Spider-Man-like frame, looks like a crime fighter while his opponent looks like someone pumped entirely too much air into Glenn Danzig. There’s some pretty overt heaven/hell imagery at play as his wife Michelle (“Hannibal”’s Lara Jean Chorostecki) watches ringside with their daughter. His promoter, Nicky Stone (Roddy Piper, in one of his last roles), doesn’t want Samuels to give up the business to become a pastor, so he books him to lose on his way out. But Samuels doesn’t want to play ball, leading The Reaper to legitimately injure him in front of his family. He then has to begin his new career working for the Lord on crutches, making him a fine match for his new abode.
Up until this point in the movie, we’ve been behind the scenes of wrestling promotion where the characters are outsized, colorful and far from anything resembling normalcy. But the supporting cast he inherits is something else. The church he’s coming to work for is a disorganized mess with dwindling membership, strung along by the machinations of affluent lightbulb magnate Judd Lumpkin (Patrick McKenna). Lumpkin makes Nicky Stone look like the Pope with his megalomania and jaundiced understanding of how worship is supposed to work. Samuels’ neighbors are all church projects in waiting, from a battered housewife who just so happens to be the missing piece the church choir needs, to the lovable prostitute he saves from her villainous pimp who becomes the metaphorical embodiment of the parish’s unfortunate cynicism.
This whole section of the movie is difficult to stomach. At its worst, it feels like Tyler Perry remaking Nacho Libre, where Samuels is forced back into the ring to generate the funds necessary to keep the church alive after having ran Lumpkin off. It’s a high wire act that drains him and feeds the angry beast inside that drove him to a life of fighting strangers in a mask in the first place. There’s also a weird subplot where a cop works tirelessly to catch Samuels for the two acts of vigilantism he does in the entire goddamn movie. Seriously, the trailer makes it seem like fighting crime is going to be a big element of the narrative, but it happens fucking twice and this cop puts more effort into trying to arrest Chris than he does the pimp or the wife beater.
If there’s a reason to sit through this film beyond the casual thrills of its in-ring sequences, it’s in the presence of Diahann Carroll as Ms. Edna, the film’s heart and soul. Ms. Edna is the woman who helped recruit Samuels in the first place, knowing their community needed a fighter to send it down the right path. She spends most of the running time inhabiting the role of the magical negro who aids Samuels when he errs. But Carroll is too charismatic and warm a performer to sink as low as the writing has left her. Along with a reliably magnetic Roddy Piper, she gives the film a level of gravitas and emotive power it otherwie doesn’t have any business possessing.
For all its questionable understanding of how humans speak to one another and the disturbing proliferation of faux-Creed songs on the soundtrack, there’s something legitimately sweet at The Masked Saint’s core that makes it hard to guiltlessly mock. Sure, it’s corny as hell and not the sharpest story ever told, but it’s presented with a sincerity and enthusiasm that’s considerably less cloying than your average Christian-minded Hallmark-style movie.