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American Wrestler: The Wizard

Other // PG-13 // May 23, 2017
List Price: $18.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted July 10, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

There have been a few films that include a metaphoric fish thrown into new, sometimes hostile waters, and on the heels of HBO's fascinating miniseries The Night Of, we now get American Wrestler: The Wizard, a similar story in its broadest strokes, based on true events.

Written by Brian Rudnick and directed by Alex Ranarivero, American Wrestler tells the story of Ali Jahani (George Kosturos), an immigrant who left Iran during the Khomeni overthrow to live in California with his uncle Hafez. Hafez is played by Ali Afshar, producer of the film and the subject on whom the movie is based. Ali grows up dealing with bullies at school and is ostracized due to the events of the day, but he decides to take up wrestling. The coach (William Fichtner, Elysium) is reluctant but gives him a shot on the team, despite some bristling by the school principal (Jon Voight, Transformers). But Ali excels at it, and with the help of Hafez, who was distrustful of the Americans but was a star wrestler in his own right in Iran, he also warms to the townspeople.

By and large American Wrestler is something that's been seen a bunch of times before in various circumstances, when a protagonist wins people over with conviction in principal or some other intangible, maybe because he's super smart and helps the school do something awesome. Jahani's transformation from scared new kid who gets hassled by the jocks to winning them over with his physical prowess or his intellect; he tutors a popular girl, played by Lia Marie Johnson, and the two develop a relationship. Throughout Ali's journey, Kosturos communicates the character with innocence and awkwardness that convinces and wins you over. He wants to try and find his place in high school and his quest is one to watch, even as you have seen it elsewhere before.

It really is a telegraphed story where Ali finds his calling as a wrestler, stumbles into improvement with training from Hafez (played just as well by Afshar, who is a mild doppleganger for Fisher Stevens). Fichtner and Voight make enough appearances for you to remember they were there, with the former pitching it a nice turn as the coach. Ali has to overcome bigotry in the community and the immense formidable that even he isn't sure how to beat. All of the mile markers you can see coming and there are moments where the story gets a little lost and you want those markers to come, but they are done about as well as you could expect. I think if anything else, the awkwardness and lack of confidence Ali displays through most of these tasks are why the journey is so engaging.

The story also suffers some in terms of storytelling where Ali's past may not be as fleshed out as one would expect and thus you then look to what the ensemble brings. And you get how everyone plays their roles because of how you've seen them before, so then you watch how the cast works and as it turns out they generally deliver on this told and re-told stories. American Wrestler won't dazzle or drop your jaw. But it will make you smile in the perseverance of its main character, and I left liking Ali's story and how he got to that point, which is probably what Afshar hoped to accomplish.

The Disc:
The Video:

In 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film looks pretty good for the most part. The film has a slightly gritty look a la Argo but does most of its worth via handheld camera in the vein of Friday Night Lights. A late night pool jaunt provides solid moments of black levels contrasted against the blue greens of the water, and the reds and yellows of the school interiors look natural without oversaturation. It looks pretty good for a standard definition disc, to be sure.

The Sound:

Dolby Digital 5.1 surround which for this production is somewhat standard. The film has some pseudo-rock played by faux Cheap Trick and other bands and it sounds clear without a lot of dynamic range. Dialogue is consistent for most of the film and the soundtrack doesn't get too stretch its legs so much, save for a third act car wreck or bodies hitting the wrestling mats maybe. Sounds clear and convincing, but doesn't do much past that.


Things start with "American Dream" (5:29), which includes thoughts on the story from cast and crew, and impressions of working with one another and of Afshar. "Revisiting the Past" (7:18) examines the Petaluma-centric shoot, while "Script to Screen" (6:49) isn't a comparison piece per se, it talks about character inspirations and how the film got made. A behind the scenes look at the film (15:31) shows how the source material was adapted and approach. The cast share their obligatory thoughts on one another and of Afshar, the visual look of the film is discussed along with shooting on a modest budget. A music video for a song named "Rise" (4:08) closes out the supplements.

Final Thoughts:

You could easily file American Wrestler into that folder with Miracle, or Rudy or countless other feel good sports films with a figure or group overcoming incredible odds to succeed. And it covers much of that same ground, but does so with genuine performances by its leads and its veteran supporting actors, and is comfortable telling the story. It felt like a new movie when watching it at times, and it deserves to be seen for those seeking a change of pace in their movie viewing.

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