It's not uncommon for pastors of small churches in small towns to moonlight at another job to make ends meet. Usually, though, that other job isn't as a professional wrestler. Or as a masked vigilante taking it right to the crooks.
But that is exactly Chris Samuels' life.
Chris suffered at the hands of bullies as a boy, and he suffered when his father abandoned his family. So little Chris sought solace in the bigger-than-life world of televised professional wrestling. He's so enamored that he grows up to be a professional wrestler known as the Saint. But while pro wrestling is often accused of being a highly scripted and choreographed gimmick, Chris' faith certainly isn't. So much so that he's willing to walk away from all the masked mayhem in the ring to tackle some mainline mayhem in the pulpit of a small church, Westside Baptist, in economically downtrodden, crime-ridden Rolling Spring, Mich.
Chris, along with his wife, Michelle, and their precocious grade-schooler, Carrie, are convinced they can turn around a church that's forced out two previous pastors in quick succession. But a host of travails—from maintenance problems to Chris' lackluster preaching style to a manipulative church member—soon erode the weary wrestler's confidence and leadership.
Amid those struggles, two other things happen. Church matriarch Miss Edna takes Chris to a professional wrestling match in town where Chris impulsively finds himself donning his Saint mask to help another grappler being pummeled by the Saint's meanspirited former nemesis, the Reaper. And after the spontaneous two-on-one bout, Chris also comes to the aid of a prostitute being beaten by her pimp on the street, giving her abuser a savage lashing.
Chris' unexpected return to fighting—in the ring and on the streets as he battles crime as a vigilante do-gooder—energizes his sense of calling at church. But the wrestler/pastor/crime-fighter makes enemies along the way that have to be dealt with … as does the fact that this seemingly mild-mannered preacher is now cloaking some big secrets from his family and congregation.
Chris' life preaches this singular message: Drum up the courage to do the right thing, even when it's hard.
Miss Edna intuitively understands that Chris has some deep wounds from his childhood that need to be dealt with. She tells him (after he heals from an injury suffered in what's supposedly his last professional bout before he becomes a pastor), "You've healed your leg, but I want you to remember that the heart can be healed, too." Other wisdom from Miss Edna includes her reminder, “The world can only be changed by our actions.”
Chris calls out his next-door neighbor for abusing his wife, and a pretty tense confrontation between the two men results in a change in the offender's heart. Chris and his new flock work together to raise the necessary money to keep things going at the church.
Over and over again, Chris, his wife and others have to decide whether to keep on believing in the face of adversity. And ultimately they hold on to their faith. Miss Edna says, “The Lord loves anyone who fights for what he knows is right.”
Chris' tentatively delivered sermons deal broadly with faith themes. We repeatedly hear a paraphrased version of 1 Corinthians 10:13. Michelle frequently encourages Chris by quoting Scripture or biblical ideas. She says, "Ask and you shall receive" (Matthew 7:7), and warns, "You don't repay evil with more evil" (1 Peter 3:9). She also reminds him, “The Lord always provides.”
The prostitute being attacked by her pimp tells Chris that his arrival was an answer to prayer. “I was praying to God for help, and then suddenly you were there.” When the woman, Valerie, shows up at church, congregants are visibly aghast and judgmental, giving her mean looks and even physically moving away from her. Chris immediately confronts their Pharisaical attitudes and challenges them to love and accept her—which they quickly do. Valerie in turn recruits her struggling peers on the street to come to church (so much so that their pimp eventually says that Chris has destroyed his entire ill-gotten livelihood).
Ensconced in his new success, Chris briefly swells with unhealthy pride—which, of course, goes before another humbling and resetting fall for him. It’s a character flaw that Miss Edna bravely points out. Edna also gives him her spiritual journal, which brims with life lessons and nuggets of wisdom (“The greatest sermons are the lives we live") and exhortation (“God has given you a gift, even if you don’t know it yet. Everyone has to find that out for themselves"). But even when God gives us a gift, Edna’s journal later adds, “You have to keep mastering it every single day.”
Chris tells his congregation that prayer must be paired with action if we want to see real change in our lives and in our communities. Near the end, he vows, “I’m going to fight for each of you—the faithless and the faithful. … That’s why I’m here. I’m your own personal fighter. Your fighter for salvation.”
We briefly glimpse gaudily clad prostitutes. We see one woman "flirting" with someone in a car. Shirtless male wrestlers wear skin-tight leggings. There's a mild joke about preachers not being allowed to get their wives pregnant.
We see Chris being pushed and hit by a big bully when he's 7 years old. After watching wrestling on TV, Chris later puts an effective "submission" move on the young thug, turning the tables on him.
Multiple wrestling bouts involve ferocious hits, kicks, punches, body slams, "back-breaker" moves, heads being rammed into turnbuckles and intense submission maneuvers. Chris' main professional antagonist, the Reaper, is a devilish, Goliath-like opponent who doesn't play fair and doesn't pull his punches as is supposed to happen in their scripted "sport." The Reaper puts a twisting submission move on one of Chris' legs, resulting in a crunching, rending injury that leaves the Saint writhing in agony. In a rematch, Chris puts a similar move on one of the Reaper's arms. The big man doesn't submit until Chris' move is on the verge of doing similarly serious damage.
Chris hits a pimp multiple times, sometimes with a tire iron, which lands the criminal in the hospital. Later there’s another confrontation between the two that involves a gun and someone clocking the thug on the back of the head. Still another run-in with criminals involves Chris foiling a restaurant robbery by beating several armed assailants nearly unconscious. Angry and frustrated, he wrestles a church member to the floor during a basketball game, putting the guy in a headlock.
It's implied by bruises on a woman's arm that her husband is physically abusive.
Drug and Alcohol Content
We see a man (who, it's implied, is often drunk) holding a beer bottle. A drug dealer complains that every “call girl and crackhead” in the county now attends Chris’ church.
The idea of a professional wrestler becoming a pastor might seem, well, preposterous. But that's the part of The Masked Saint that's actually "inspired by true events," as we're told at the outset.
From 1978 to 1988, Chris Whaley wrestled professionally in Florida and the Southeast before going on to seminary and becoming a pastor. In 2009 he wrote The Masked Saint, a pseudo-biographical fictional story that adds the vigilante-superhero-esque storyline into the mix of what he'd actually experienced.
Seven years later, Whaley's story gets tagged for a title fight on the big screen. The Masked Saint is a surprisingly intense Christian movie that explores a wrestling pastor's attempt to do the right thing the wrong way—taking matters violently into his own hands to deal with the injustices he sees.
At first the film seems to want to critique Chris' furtive forays into vigilante justice. Det. Harper pursues him doggedly, but never has quite enough evidence to bring charges. But we're emotionally led toward not wanting that to happen—because Chris is a good guy going after some really bad guys. And so it's not a huge surprise, really, that when the detective finally does close in for the kill, he seriously pulls his punch at the last minute.
The result is a faith-oriented movie that feels a bit disoriented at times as it tries to reconcile some decidedly mixed messages. The Masked Saint absolutely invites us to root for this pseudo-superhero in spandex—while throwing in a few thoughts about him operating outside the law. And a few more thoughts about how such a violent sideline occupation may or may not fit with the bigger narrative of a man trying to find his true calling as a pastor.