The best villains are always the ones that you kind of root for no matter how dastardly they are, as they’re just too charismatic and/or funny to be ignored. The Iron Sheik is one such character. A perfect mixture of timing and personality made one man a household name, just not as Khosrow Vaziri.
The life of The Sheik is an interesting one, with many highs and painful lows, but naturally, he’s still more the sum of a simple character (or is that caricature) that he played in the wrestling ring. But does The Sheik sell us on that idea, and does it give us a reason to care beyond the mere celebrity of the man?
Fans of the golden age of the World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment, will surely be drawn to this film, and understandably so. A number of big name wrestlers including Hulk Hogan, Jake Roberts, Brett Hart and Dwayne Johnson all pop in to offer accolades for The Sheik, the best heel in the business. For non-fans, those unsure of the meaning of the term “heel” in wrestling nomenclature, there’s the mostly fascinating story about a man with a difficult past who came to America, worked hard, became a success, and found the dark side of celebrity before enjoying a bit of redemption. Yes, I suppose it is an E! True Hollywood Story.
Of course, The Sheik wasn’t always looking for fame and fortune. A simple man, Khosrow Vaziri made a name for himself in Iran as an Olympic wrestler and bodyguard for the Shah, but the political upheaval there in the 70s brought him to America, where he wrestled on weekends and drove trucks through the week to support himself. He fell in love, got married and fathered three daughters, and then came the fame. As the WWF took off, it was on the back of Hulkamania, and there would be no Hulkamania without the Iron Shiek. Why? Vaziri took the belt from Bob Buckland, who refused to take a dive against Hogan, but against the Sheik he would, because he respected the athleticism.
Little details like that make The Sheik so appealing. One might call it the politics of professional wrestling, but there were other types of politics afoot. There’s something funny about the idea of American geo-politics playing out in the professional wrestling ring, but The Sheik submits that Viziri was able to tap into what we now call Islamophobia to make his character extra sinister. Apparently, there was even some concern about The Sheik’s safety and people lashing out against him because he was the cartoonish symbol of real-life Iranian aggression.
After meticulously going through The Sheik’s origins, we hit the dark side of fame portion of the story. Some drunk driving with a WWF arch-nemesis costs him the spotlight and then, after returning to the amateur circuit and selling his autograph to anyone who will buy, he starts to go deeper into drug and alcohol abuse. The tipping point is the murder of one of his daughters, and Vazini sinks even further into drugs and depression, much to the chagrin of his wife, who even separates from him for a time. Eventually, he gets over it all and becames a social media star.
This is where the movie loses me, because in most biographical documentaries, this is the meaty stuff, this is where the hero faces his darkest moment, or worst trial, the thing that makes him realize he can persevere and find new life. But we skip all that because now The Sheik says funny things on Twitter, and makes funny YouTube videos, and pops up on Howard Stern’s show a lot. Frankly, it’s like a whole portion of the movie is cut out.
Why though? Why isn’t his recovery addressed? Why doesn’t he talk about his daughter? He’s asked the question directly, but The Sheik responds with, “Do I have to?” His manager tries to get him to talk about his drug abuse, and The Sheik screams, “Never talk to me about this again!” And it’s like someone just said, “Okay,” and that’s that. It’s understandable if stuff is too painful to talk about, but if you’re making a documentary about your life, do you not at least consider the possibility that you might have to talk about some of your darker moments?
As the film gets into it’s final third, you can’t help but to wonder what the the movie is really about. Personally, I think the real point of The Sheik is to further promote the online legend that is The Iron Sheik. In fact, all that’s missing are tags at the end of the credits telling the audience where to find him on social media.
The Sheik is two parts engaging documentary about an influential and misunderstood pop culture icon, and one part informercial for the social media phenomenon he’s been forced to become.