Because I posted an old CZW show review on here (and important people read the Blog of Doom) the company behind ‘Sick’ Nick Mondo’s film The Trade sent me a review copy to have a look at, which is terribly nice of them. I watched Mondo’s earlier documentary Unscarred years ago but that was produced by people still in the mid-2000s mentality of STITCHES ARE FOR BITCHES, WEAR THE SCAR YEAHHH so let’s see what mature film-maker Matthew Burns (the man behind the sickness) can make for himself.
(Note: The subject matter is death matches, so if you’re not up for a bit of the old ultraviolence then don’t click.)
We start with a montage of Mondo’s insane bumps, familiar to long-time CZW fans as Mick Foley’s fall off the Cell to others. Because it’s all 4:3 it’s shown imposed on a TV to avoid stretching the image and the TV is one of those ancient ones with two-dials on the front to remind us 2002 was a long time ago. Burns tells us ”Wrestling does tend to pull a dark side out of me” as footage of Justice Pain and others destroy him, inter-cut with fans & wrestlers explaining how cool he was taking these crazy moves. ”I’d watch those clips over and over again” one fan admits, drawing the the opening segment to a close with the screen filling with contradictory words like THE PRAISE, THE COST, THE EROSION combining together to give us the title THE TRADE.
Burns explains his wrestling influence was The Wifebeater, the former marine turned death match wrestler and we get a hell of a montage of his back being mutilated into ground spam. Mondo asked him how he could take all that and he replied ”rough childhood, you?” Mondo wasn’t ready to explain why, answering ”guilt problems.” Their famous Tournament of Death final from 2002 is highlighted, finishing with Mondo taking a weed-wacker to the stomach (which I must have watched more times than Kevin Costner watched JFK’s head go back and to the left) before we go to Burns’ childhood and we get ”he wasn’t like the other kids” from his parents, which we probably could have figured out for ourselves. Clips of Burns’ home videos are shown with him eating newspapers, blowing up fireworks and play-wrestling. Burns reminisces happily about these times because he was understood by his friends. The documentary plays a clip of a heavy lecture about Jesus’ Crucifixion, afterwards Burns goes through an awkward adolescent period with long hair and an urge to take more dangerous moves, no longer doing it for the humour. He flat-out calls it ”self-harm” whilst enjoying being able to do whatever he wanted as long as it entertained others. It’s a remarkably honest thing to admit and leaves a guilty taste in the mouth.
More clips of absurd moves as Mondo starts wrestling for CZW, climaxing with Mondo and Zandig falling off the roof at Tournament Of Death II. Both men fell about thirty feet, barely glancing the tables that were supposed to break their fall. Mondo explains that despite the move nearly killing him, he still wanted more and because of that he realised he had to leave wrestling. After retiring in 2003, Burns went through an identity crisis and had to figure out who he was. The documentary handles this by having Burns reading dramatically (I didn’t want to type ”acting” because that sounds like I’m being dismissive, but picture Christian Bale talking as Batman) during certain parts of the voiceover but going back to talking normally when he’s Burns.
The line ”perverseness is nothing more than stubbornness refined, so you really need to watch what you say to stubborn people” is repeated through the film, first referring to Mondo’s wrestling and then to Rory Gulak becoming so influenced by Mondo as a young fan that he trained to become Little Mondo in tribute. Burns was happy with the idea until he began mimicking the ultraviolence. Clips of Rory getting fucked up with aluminium cans, barbed wire coffins and fire resulted in Burns asking Rory to stop asking him to send him clips.
Burns moved to Japan, calling it a great place to hide. Burns enjoys the sights and sounds of Japan while Rory (no longer little) Mondo goes through pointy objects in USA. The film switches from non-fiction documentary to Burns seeing himself as Mondo in the streets of Tokyo then literally digging up the body of Mondo from a grave, bringing him back to life with a drop of his blood. It’s a dramatic shift in tone, going from a very honest look at the inside of a former wrestler to the opening of Friday the 13th Part VI.
Burns didn’t want to return to CZW but he felt it was something he needed to do. We get clips of wrestlers stunned to see him return at Cage Of Death XV in 2013 (CZW’s annual biggest show of the year) during the multi-man multi-stunt main event. (side-note: this was a truly surreal moment when the photos appeared online of Mondo’s return. Imagine Bruno Sammaritano running out during a Seth Rollins match.) Mondo assisted Lucky 13 in knocking Matt Tremont off the top to win the match and afterwards confronted Rory Mondo. Mondo tells him he’s done enough to earn his respect, Rory thanks him as that’s all he wanted and subsequently retired (from that character anyway. Rory was a far better Gulak then he was a Mondo so it was for the best.)
An avalanche of people are interviewed, including Dustin Lee who explains he was inspired by Mondo to become a death match wrestler (including that one match where the aftermath looked like someone took an ice-cream scoop to his back) along with various other wrestlers, worryingly including a fourteen year old. And it goes on and on from to Joey Janela re-creating the Zandig fall at GCW last year to Thumbtack Jack’s rise and retirement, Mondo had a hell of an influence on hybrid/death-match wrestling. The praise he receives is intercut with Burns looking distressed, implying he’s not happy with encouraging this behaviour like Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way. I agreed with most of the wrestlers though, he was really fucking good at what he did and I enjoyed his wrestling, guilt be damned.
The film ends with the dramatic scene of Burns finding himself confronting himself as Mondo, who echoes the praise the other wrestlers have given him and reminding himself of the wages of sin and urging him to continue. Burns (as himself) tells himself (as Mondo) he isn’t going to be guilted into returning and is fine with moving on, talking to himself as much as the viewer. He then sends his Mondo self off a cliff to end it.
”I hope if people decide to follow me, they decide to follow my decision to leave at the right time too.”
Overall: By the opening I was prepared for the death match version of Mark Kerr’s The Smashing Machine with light-tubes instead of drugs. Or given the name, something like Cactus Jack’s anti-hardcore promos with a mirror turned to the viewer. Instead the mirror is turned around on Burns himself, as he struggles with the influence his self-harm has had on others. As a long-time fan of CZW, I can understand why Nick would be so heavy-handed with some of the acting scenes as he’s probably been asked about returning to the ring more than Steve Austin has. Some will find the scenes jarring compared to the brutalness of the violence and honesty in the other parts of the film, but I see it as Burns using this opportunity of the interest of his career to show he’s moved on and he’s not a wrestler making a film but a film-maker making a film about his wrestling. The shots of a brightly-lit Japan and the last scene are all well-filmed and edited together, even if it’s not the primary reason most viewers will be watching. My main criticism is the shortness of the film, barely an hour long when you’re left wanting more exploration of the interesting parts, such as Christian guilt being the reason for Burns’ journey through pain or the blame for influencing other wrestlers Burns’ feels. But maybe I’m getting too Armchair Director and overlooking the positive of a hardcore legend getting a film shown in festivals by way of an introspective journey.
Thanks to Lift-Off Global Network for the hook-up. You’ll be able to view The Trade in select cinemas and on DVD and VOD by the end of 2017. Soon as they have a FaceBook page they’ll let you know. And I’ll let you know.
For more CZW photos, go see Lyle C. Williams’ web-site.