Real, completely fiction, or some sort of elaborate half-breed hoax like Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Not There, the experience of watching You Cannot Kill David Arquette is an entirely perplexing one. It’s difficult to get a read on David Darg and Price James’ feature about the titular actor’s attempts to reinvigorate his career by getting back into the World Championship Wrestling ring that he once "conquered” in 2000 as a part of a choreographed—and severely misjudged by all involved—ruse to advertise an innocuous buddy comedy with Scott Caan called Ready to Rumble.
His championship title caused consternation among fans for whom the reality of WCW seems somewhat blurred. It also just happened to ruin the acting part of his life that had once shown great promise as the star of well received independent movies, the hit Scream franchise, Never Been Kissed, and an enviable spot on magazine covers alongside the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Benicio Del Toro. He was reduced to a joke, a Hollywood punchline.
This film, which is produced by Arquette’s second wife (his first, Courteney Cox, appears throughout), sees his return to wrestling as both an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the sport’s fandom, as well as a means of potentially reviving an acting career that is on the skids (he will return in 2021’s Scream 5).
Arquette is a 47-year-old man and neither he nor the film more broadly make any attempt to disguise that, which only makes it more curious why he would go about this ridiculous charade in the first place. Dressed up in what appears to be a discarded costume from another 2000 film, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Arquette adopts a magician persona and studies under the tutelage of wrestling legends (such as they may be). David’s siblings Rosanna and Patricia as well as Cox can’t disguise their bafflement at his choices, with appearances on the likes of TMZ and Wendy Williams’ talk show revelling in the ‘where is he now’ narrative of embarrassment. He pushes his body to stuntman-like limits while enduring the humiliation of failed bouts and lonely conventions. In one sequence that made entertainment headlines, he very nearly dies from a neck wound (thankfully his friend Luke Perry was there to take him to hospital not too long before his death).
In the film’s more interesting passages, Darg and James remove some of the ambiguity around wrestling while simultaneously revelling in them. It engages with David’s desire for respect as much as it does his need to put food on the table for his family. However, these passages in particular feel particularly like they have been guided by the hand of the Arquette family to show off the lovability that made him a name in the first place and that he’s a good dad even if it means putting his body on the line to be so. And perhaps it is that tightness to the subject that means some of both Arquette’s and the wrestling worlds more interesting threads aren’t explored as deeply as they could.
Maybe it is just that wrestling is a bizarre sport (or should that be “sport”)—the unique charms of which are somewhat lost on me—but this is just an extremely odd experience to watch so many people carry on as if this brand of professional wrestling isn’t clearly one of the silliest inventions of man to date. I had enjoyed the excellent 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat and in You Cannot Kill’s more full-throated moments it shares an utterly deranged yet relentless watchability that can’t be denied. The phoniness on display with so called competitors writing scripts, choreographing routines backstage and being buddies away from the crowd is fun in its own way, but if David’s intent was to no longer be a joke, I’m not sure this is the way to do it. At least not a film that makes its audience spend half their time questioning the very reality of what they’re seeing (and the other half just being confused by how nuts it is).