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In 2000, David Arquette, coming off “Never Been Kissed” and the third “Scream” film, co-starred in a comedy called “Ready to Rumble,” which attempted to satirize the hyperbolic freak show of professional wrestling (a doomed effort, since it’s already a satire of itself). To promote the movie, Arquette got woven into World Championship Wrestling storylines, mostly as a comic foil — after all, he wasn’t a real wrestler. But a few weeks into the film’s release, in a setup bogus enough to shame Andy Kaufman, it was arranged that Arquette would win a fight to become the WCW Heavyweight Champion. Which he did (his reign lasted all of 12 days).

This was a stunt so outlandish that wrestling fans considered it a bridge of fakery too far. Some said that Arquette’s championship had ruined the sport. So even though Arquette, a wrestling aficionado from way back, was just riding the cross-promotional PR train and doing what he’d been told, the incident body-slammed his brand. It’s as if he was a Hollywood figure who was suddenly guilty of 1) extreme slumming and 2) doing an inept job of extreme slumming. Overnight, he lost all credibility as a wrestler and an actor.

Or, at least, that’s the way “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” presents it. Directed by David Darg and Price James, the film is a documentary that follows Arquette’s attempt, in 2018, to return to the wrestling world — only this time with a kick-ass integrity that he lacked before. Eighteen years ago, at the WCW matches, he was a skinny kid playing dress-up and coming on like the badass he clearly wasn’t. Now, at 46, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a doughy torso full of tattoos, he does all that he can to show up as a trained wrestler who can hold his own with fighters like the platinum-blond wrecking machine Ken Anderson.

In the intervening years, Arquette had suffered a heart attack (he now has two stents) and had gotten sober. He’d been married to Courtney Cox (in the documentary, she describes their relationship as follows: “We met on ‘Scream’ 1, we hated each other on ‘Scream 2,’ we got married ‘Scream 3,’ we got divorced ‘Scream 4′”), and he’s now remarried with three children. In 1996, he was on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue (along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, and Benicio Del Toro), but he never quite broke into stardom, in part because he got stuck in a doofus persona (he was actually more interesting in serious roles), or maybe because he failed to find his destiny by striking sitcom lightning. As “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” opens, his career is in tatters, yet the film presents his return to wrestling as less a calculated maneuver than a personal obsession that emerged from his slide down the ladder of showbiz.

Arquette is certainly game to claw his way back into the limelight. Yet the dude is such a lightweight — genial and hard to dislike, though with a touch of smarm, a wannabe who’s a little too old to be acting like such a kid at heart — that you can’t be overly annoyed by the innocence of his opportunism. We see him get seriously banged up on the indie circuit — torn and bonked and, at one point, in a deathmatch with Nick Gage, he’s slashed in the neck, an injury that gave him a moment of tabloid infamy. (He’s taken to a hospital and operated on.) We also see him master a few high-flying drop-kick maneuvers he learns while training with masked wrestlers in Tijuana. But as his wife, Christina McLarty Arquette (one of the film’s producers), asks late in the movie, “What the fuck is going on? What is the point of all of this?” That’s a good summation of how you may feel watching “You Cannot Kill David Arquette.” The point seems to be to give Arquette something to return him to the center of the action, something to revive the last moment he felt like his name meant something.

Yet beyond the obvious lunge at reigniting his celebrity, the real point seems to be a kind of penance. If “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” has a theme, it’s the cleansing quality of pain — a reality-show masochism that feels like Arquette’s way of punishing himself for the degradation he committed on the wrestling world back in 2000. He’s now going to get pummeled for his sins. And he does. But the documentary also wants to be a narrative of triumph, and to that end it’s willing to go right where wrestling does: to a place where reality and fakery merge until you can’t tell the difference.

What, in its over-the-top heart, is professional wrestling? It’s a sport, but it’s also a charade on steroids. You might say that the key virus of our time (apart from Covid, of course) is the addiction to looking-glass conspiracy theories like QAnon, which is now spreading like wildfire among the disaffected, mostly on the right. These rabbit holes of paranoia overlap, in form, with a great deal of fantasy culture (the level-by-level immersion of video games, the multiverse nature of comic-book cinema). And when history looks back on what it was that first inspired so many “ordinary” Americans to suspend their belief in, you know, reality, one of the key influences on that phenomenon may turn out to be wrestling. Because that’s the form of entertainment that made knowing fakery into its own reality. For decades, wrestling has said to its audience: “You love this because you pretend it’s all real! Yet the truth is that most of it is fake! And we let you know it’s fake! But by being so upfront about the fakery, we turn it into its own reality! So it’s not fake after all! It you believe in it enough!”

Wrestling, in other words, is a gladiator comic book crossed with Tinkerbell; it’s a postmodern prank that hinges on its fans embracing the illusion of its grand sham. Sort of like QAnon with elbow smashes. At the end of “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” we’re drawn into a wrestling narrative that the documentary wants you to believe, even as it stands on the outside looking in. Is Arquette a has-been actor trumping up his biggest failure so that he can exploit it? Or is he a lionhearted wrestler who finds triumph by going the distance? The weird thing is that there’s no difference.

‘You Cannot Kill David Arquette’ Review: Documenting an Actor’s Obsession with Professional Wrestling

Reviewed online, Aug. 24, 2020. (In SXSW, Fantasia film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 90 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Super LTD release of an XTR, One Last Run production. Producers: Christina McLarty Arquette, Bryan Mooser, David Darg, Ross Levine, Stacey Souther. Executive producers: Franklin and Gabby McLarty, David Arquette, Kathryn Everett, Justin Lacob.  
  • Crew: Directors: Price James, David Darg. Camera: David Darg, Price James. Editor: Paul Rogers. Music: Matt Glass, Dimiter Yordanov.
  • With: David Arquette, Christina McLarty Arquette, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Arquette, Richmond Arquette, Courtney Cox, Diamond Dallas Page, Ric Flair, Vince Russo, Jack “Jungle Boy” Perry, Jerry Kubik.
  • Music By: