A few years ago, the man born Aurelian Smith Jr. didn’t seem to have much life left in him. Tight in the grips of addiction, estranged from loved ones, and so out-of-shape he struggled getting out of chairs, he had been at the bottom for so long that he couldn’t see up. Things were once vastly different for Smith, who is better known to the world as Jake “The Snake” Roberts, one of the most popular wrestlers during the golden era of the WWF (now WWE) in the 1980s and ’90s.
Though not the musclebound type WWE promoter Vince McMahon typically favors, Roberts developed a large following—even times when he wrestled as a bad guy, aka “heel.” He stood out for a number of things, like whispering menacingly rather than shouting during interviews. (“If a man has enough power, he can speak softly, and people will listen,” Jake says.) Then there was the DDT, the now ubiquitous finishing move he invented.
Perhaps most all, there were his snakes. Usually pythons (but also at least one king cobra), Jake unleashed them on his opponents to the delight of fans. Unlike wholesome heroes like Hulk Hogan—before his 1990s heel turn and, well, certain leaked videos—Roberts had a dark side that appealed to kids who loved Batman and Boba Fett. Then his dark side overtook him, and not in an Undertaker storyline (although, that once happened too).
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake opens with friend and fellow former wrestler Diamond Dallas Page driving to Jake’s home in 2012 in an attempt to help him. Living in squalor in a small house, the broken-down wrestler seen in the opening somewhat resembles the former star. The handlebar mustache is still there, so is the long hair, though it’s thinner and grey. Hard-living took a noticeable toll on Roberts as evidenced by his 300-pound frame, glassy eyes, and a voice that sounds like a toad gargling gravel. He takes up an offer to move into Page’s home to sober up and get in shape with Page’s patented yoga routine. (At times, the film feels a little like an advertisement for “DDP Yoga,” which Page sales videos of online.) Although Jake seems committed to what he calls his last chance at life, these early glimpses of Roberts make it clear DDP has his work cut out for him.
Not much is seen from the lost years between the highs and this obvious low. There is some footage of Jake at an independent wrestling event in 2008. The 700 people in attendance likely weren’t expecting the mess he’d become, spending most of his “match” drunkenly falling down. More of his depraved state was chronicled in Beyond the Mat, a 1999 behind-the-scenes documentary that follows him and other grapplers around. The film shows Jake demanding drugs before taking to the ring, along with clips of embarrassingly intoxicated performances. One particularly devastating scene alleges he smoked crack in a hotel room after an awkward meeting with his daughter. (Roberts has repeatedly called the film’s portrayal fraudulent.)
Instead of spending too much time on his downfall, Resurrection focuses on his recovery. In doing so, it delves into the roots of his destructive nature. Roberts traces his pain to the very beginning. He says he was conceived when his father raped the 12-year-old daughter of his girlfriend. His father, also a wrestler known as Grizzly Smith, married Jake’s young mother, though the union (unsurprisingly) didn’t last. (Roberts first recounted all this in Beyond the Mat, which also showed an incredibly strained scene between an adult Jake and the now-deceased Grizzly.) Roberts also alleges physical and sexual abuse in his youth. (In regards to the sexual claim: He recently said on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s podcast that his stepmother would make him “perform” for her and her friends.) Later, his sister was murdered by her husband’s ex-wife. But Jake almost seems most pained by his father telling him he’d never amount to anything.
The interview scenes of Roberts discussing his past are often the film’s most grueling, especially with his pained voice and ravaged face in close-up fighting back tears. Director Steve Yu, who occasionally appears onscreen—even driving Jake for drug tests a couple of times—uses a barebones approach to the camerawork and structure. This lack of flashy technique suits the subject, emphasizing the rawness and tension throughout.
It’s not really a spoiler, given the movie’s title, that Jake starts getting better. It’s a slow process, though. After some relapses, he gradually manages to stay clean and dry. Yoga keeps him focused, and he sheds off weight. As Jake mends, another wrestler in a downward spiral comes into the house: Scott Hall, also known as Razor Ramon. When Page picks up Hall at the airport, the still hulking man’s face is a pale, balloon-like mask of bloat from incessant drinking. He’s in a wheelchair. Only in his mid-50s, he also has a defibrillator and a pacemaker.
Seeing people you idolized during your childhood in bad health and aging can be jarring, but when said heroes are this messed up and barely functional, it leaves even more of an impact. Stripped of their strength—the one thing they could always rely on when the demons came—these tough guys often seem utterly at loss at dealing with weakness. Thus, when their faces gradually come flush with life again, it makes for a particularly satisfying payoff, even if their bodies remain somewhat physically diminished.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ resurrection arrives in January of 2014, when he triumphantly returns for a cameo on Monday Night Raw at the age of 58. A few months later, Roberts and Scott Hall are inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame. He is inducted by Page, who cries when inducting Jake. It’s a fitting moment between the two, because as much as anything, this is a film about male friendship. Early in the film, Jake states, “my history is not going to be my destiny.” In the end, he’s living true to his words.