Sportsflicks: "Russell Madness," Or The Match Is Fixed

Even in the proud canon of films in which a Jack Russell terrier wins a pro wrestling title, "Russell Madness" stands out.
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Sometimes the death of physical media is a godsend, at least in the sense that I can consistently go into Best Buy and see that a brand-new direct-to-DVD movie is priced to move. A few weeks back, after buying some sweet USB cords, I had three extra dollars, and while the choice was harder than I thought, I picked Russell Madness over Fargo. The pathological lying of Mike Yanagita has to go to the back of the line when the competition has both dog wrestling and talking monkeys.

Russell Madness is Air Bud but without the Disney branding, or The Wrestler without the explicit Christ allegory. It’s rated PG for “mild rudeness and sports action,” which just means the dog—the film’s hero, who is indeed named Russell—pees on people from time to time. It is a virtual certainty that this movie was originally called Russell Mania, then probably changed to Russell Maniac halfway, before finally opting for its final title for fear of being sued by WWE for trademark infringement.

We first meet Russell at Pet Utopia, a pet shop whose mom and pop facade belies a big box soul; the store’s name is clearly ironic, if not sarcastic. Russell is a Jack Russell terrier, a feat of creative naming akin to calling your pitbull “Mr. Worldwide.” Our hero has a problem, which is that he pees on anyone who tries to buy him. As soon as Russell turns one, he is about to be sent to “the pound,” though they could’ve just said “ill-kay elter-shay” and gotten the same reaction. Just as the one good Pet Utopia employee adopts Russell, he runs away—the dog, I mean—and is on the run before being saved by a talking monkey with problems of his own.

Hunk The Monkey has seen things, man; things not even the voice of Will Sasso can fully convey. His former owner, Max Ferraro, ran this wrestling arena in “Portland,” which went out of business after sleazy promoter Mick Vaughn kills the territory. It does not help, really, that this Vince McMahon figure is played by John Ratzenberger, evidently still upset over the three people who have never been in his kitchen. The arena is now bequeathed to Max’s grandson, Nate, who is goaded by his wife, son and daughter into making another go of it. For some reason, Russell gets into the ring against hardened criminal Vic Vice, peeing on this jobber and choking the mattress tag remover into submission. The mat action is about 10% dog jumping and 90% really poor CGI; Ric Flair has done better with worse. Things escalate quickly, in this age of The You Tube, and Russell becomes the most popular canine wrestler since Spaniel Bryan.

Ferraro Wrestling eventually becomes a victim of its own success, and Nate is forced to join up with Vaughn’s WUF (you get it) in order to get the arena back up to code. Having seen Slam Dunk Ernest, I would’ve thought the lady building inspector was going to be a plant set by Vaughn in order to seduce Nate and steal his money through investment in infrastructure, but direct-to-video sports movies shot in Vancouver have come a long way in twenty years. Russell becomes a main attraction, but the family (and monkey) that matter most are set aside in the name of fame and fortune. It’s a story as old as… well, it’s a story about a Jack Russell terrier that wrestles professionally, so maybe that’s sufficient.

Eventually Russell is set to face Felix “The Hammer” Munroe (John Hennigan) for the heavyweight title, at which point Hunk realizes that (gasp/spoiler) pro wrestling outcomes are predetermined. In what is by far the greatest part of Russell Madness, The Hammer uses an actual dog whistle to defeat Russell. It is easily the greatest use of a dog whistle in wrestling since Rusev shouted “IF YOU OUTLAW GUNS, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS” to Jack Swagger at Extreme Rules last year.

Russell is briefly taken by Cliff Clavin until his real owner shows up and gives him to the Ferraros, setting up the inevitable rematch and (spoiler alert) victory. Lessons are learned/bashed home with steel chair vigor, and plot holes are tossed aside like many a good idea pitched to Vince McMahon. The motto of Ferraro Wrestling (and of course Russell Madness) is “The Strongest Tag Team Is Family.” While I’ve never seen a family enter a bench-pressing contest against the Road Warriors, I’ll take this movie’s word for it.

There are a delightful and implausible four credited screenwriters for Russell Madness; I’m pretty sure one of them was in charge of monkey and banana jokes, and another was hired to pepper the script with the words “YouTube,” “Instagram,” and “Twitter.” Additional fanservice to the older millennials forced to watch this include an actual British bulldog, voiced by Chris Coppola for some reason, that claims low blood sugar causes him to get “hangry.”

John Ratzenberger strikes the right balance between having fun and phoning it in. There is a cardboard cutout of him made out to look vaguely like 80’s wrestler Magnum T.A. which has to be seen to be believed. Fred Willard is on hand to call some of the action, but is hampered by having to actually follow the script; he is joined by Mac from "Night Court", adding to the overall “fourth leads of 1980’s NBC sitcoms” vibe of the proceedings. Hennigan, the former WWE Intercontinental Champion under the name “John Morrison,” does what he can to earn a check before heading back to Lucha Underground, which you should probably watch instead of this if you actually like pro wrestling. But the best performance here is by Crystal, the capuchin monkey who plays Hunk, and who previously ruined your 2012 Olympics by starring in those incessant ads for “Animal Practice.”

Russell Madness has its moments both good and bad, and is probably a decent introduction to pro wrestling for kids, especially if you want to teach them how dickish its promoters can be. Wrestling is primed for another boom, as the kids who grew up during the Rock And Wrestling and Attitude eras have children of their own. Soon enough, responsible parents can teach them the truth about sports entertainment—that not only is it pre-determined, but that half the fun is in guessing the outcome, and the other half in complaining about it when it doesn’t go as planned. That was half the fun of watching Russell Madness, but the other half wasn’t so bad, either.

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