Thursday, April 27, 2006

Backlash 2006

Back to wrestling for the monthly pay-per-view rundown. Backlash is a Raw-only show, and in years when the shows were better written, it usually dealt with the fallout from Wrestlemania (which, in turn, tended to have the big climax to long-running storylines). These days, the standard of long-term planning has gone down a bit. This year's show is a mixture of genuine long-term stories and... well, inexplicable weirdness.

It's also a free show in the UK - which is to say it's airing on Sky Sports 1, a subscription channel that I've already got, instead of being a proper PPV. So I'm watching it anyway. Still, let's go through the card.

1. World Heavyweight Title: John Cena -v- Triple H -v- Edge. Despite unrelenting hostility from the live crowds, John Cena remains the ostensibly heroic champion. Leaving aside Edge's three-week reign, Cena's now held the belt for over a year. They've shifted tack slightly and started to acknowledge the crowd reaction; the official line is that Cena is now "controversial." Nonetheless, that leaves us in the odd position of having a three-way match between two bad guys and a supposed hero who half the fans hate. Those fans seem to have decided, by default, that they're going to support Triple H, possibly because he bends over backwards to make himself look good, while Edge seems content to do his job and ensure that the fans hate him.

The Wrestlemania main event last month was Cena versus Triple H for the title, and it came as something of a surprise when Cena retained. We all know Triple H is getting the belt back at some point - he's the owner's son-in-law, for god's sake - and I expect it's happening on Sunday. As for Edge, he appears to be in this match simply to prevent it being the same main event two shows running. Come to think of it, they never even did a proper storyline to explain why he's in this match; it was just quietly announced one day.

(By the way, yes, I know Edge's entrance video is months out of date. don't seem to have noticed yet.)

Chances are Cena will lose on Sunday, because they need a heel champion for Rob Van Dam to fight - more on that later. Edge would be the better choice, if only because he'd have a better match with RVD. But my money's on Triple H. The match will have tons of atmosphere simply because the crowds always get violently passionate when Cena's in the ring, and chances are it'll be pretty decent on its merits so long as HHH and Edge take the lead.

2. Intercontinental Title versus Money in the Bank Title Shot: Shelton Benjamin -v- Rob Van Dam. Shelton Benjamin seems to have dropped his "momma's boy" gimmick, and gone back to playing the cocky heel champion. Unfortunately they haven't got around to changing his entrance video yet, which makes for an odd clash, since he comes out dressed up for his new character, with a big background image of a large fat woman wiping his chin. Urgent editing is required.

This is for Shelton's Intercontinental Title against the "Money in the Bank" title shot that Rob Van Dam won at Wrestlemania. The MitB shot allows Rob to challenge for the world title at any time. Conventional wisdom says Van Dam should win here to keep his title shot and win the IC belt, simply because the long-term storylines require RVD to have the title shot. Then again, Van Dam pinned Shelton clean in a six-man tag on Monday night, and in the whacky world of wrestling reverse psychology, that usually indicates he's going to lose on Sunday. If so, they're planning a swerve, and Van Dam will win the title shot back in due course.

There are worse ideas, because RVD can't use his title shot until June, and they need a good plot reason for why he hasn't cashed it in. Why can't he use it until June? Why, because that's when they're holding this year's ECW tribute pay-per-view. Now, since many of you reading this don't actually follow wrestling, a word of explanation about ECW may be required.

Back in the happy days before the WWE had a virtual monopoly over North American wrestling (which TNA is only now starting to challenge), there were three big companies. The WWF is the one survivor. WCW was the long-time rival eventually brought low by a combination of big egos and mindboggling incompetence. And ECW was the alternative offering - an overgrown indie promotion operating largely out of Philadelphia with a rabidly loyal fanbase and driven by its gifted but erratic owner Paul Heyman.

One of Heyman's great skills as a promoter is to make the best of what he has. He couldn't afford the top stars. He couldn't afford top quality production levels. So he went the other way, using a combination of rising stars, quality technical wrestling, unprecedently violent brawls, downright insane storylines, and aggressively low production values - even lower than he could actually afford - to make ECW the street-level alternative. To use one of Heyman's own comparisons (from years after the fact), if the WWF and WCW had become hair metal, ECW was wrestling's equivalent to grunge.

Unfortunately, ECW was still playing out of its financial league and ultimately got annihilated. Nonetheless, it was hugely influential, with many of its stars moving on to lucrative careers with the other two companies, and Heyman's innovative storylines becoming the template for both of its rivals in the late nineties. ECW continues to be a massive influence on modern North American wrestling, and still has an enormously loyal fanbase.

Hence, last year the WWE ran an ECW tribute show (having picked up the rights to the name from the bankruptcy a few years ago). It did awfully well, but Rob Van Dam - one of ECW's biggest stars - wasn't able to wrestle on the show because he had a broken leg. This year he'll be able to participate, which is fortunate, because some of the other guys have since been snapped up by TNA.

But there's more; over the last week, word leaked out that the WWE is planning to bring back ECW permanently as a third WWE brand to run alongside Raw and Smackdown. Paul Heyman is apparently going to be in charge, and the plan is to fill the new ECW with a bunch of veterans from the original together with some upcoming wrestlers from the training league OVW. (That presumably means a big role for cult indie wrestler CM Punk, who's been on the verge of a call-up for a while now.) All of this means that this year's ECW show won't simply be a tribute, but it'll be the big storyline that kicks off the all-new ECW.

Now, the general assumption among wrestling fans - as supported by some less-than-subtle on-air hints - is that Van Dam will cash in his Money in the Bank title shot at the ECW show, dragging Raw's heel champion in to be annihilated before a hostile crowd. Van Dam then presumably wins the title and possibly even carts it off with him to ECW to begin the new promotion. An alternative possibility is that Van Dam wins the title but refuses to accept it, declaring himself ECW Champion instead - a homage to the defining storyline that launched ECW back in the early nineties when they (legitimately) double-crossed the NWA in the same way during a jointly-promoted show. Perhaps a little too in-jokey for the casual viewer to understand, but I suspect that wouldn't stop them.

Anyway. Rob Van Dam might well lose on Sunday so that he can feud with Shelton Benjamin and eventually win the title shot back in time to use it at the ECW show. Sunday's match will be hit or miss; if we're lucky it'll be an entertaining trainwreck of athletic stunts, and if we're not, it'll be a rather awkward wrestling match. RVD's not as reliable as he used to be, and he still seems to be shaking off the ring rust following a very long break from action. Fingers crossed that this one lives up to potential.

3. Women's Title: Mickie James -v- Trish Stratus. Last month, as predicted, Mickie James did indeed win the Women's Title, allowing this storyline to plough on with a rematch. You'll recall that the storyline here had Mickie as an obsessed stalker and Trish as the bemused defending champion. On winning the belt, Mickie went even more insane and declared that she actually was Trish Stratus. Unfortunately they haven't bothered updating her entrance video in ages either, since cloning the opening of Trish's music was a neat touch.

Anyway, at this point the storyline goes off the rails, with Trish dressing as Mickie, and both girls doing bizarre and wildly unfunny segments impersonating one another. Nonetheless, they haven't exhausted the possibilities here yet, and Trish has no obvious challengers in line, so hopefully Mickie wins so that they can get full mileage out of the feud. Trish can afford another loss before getting her revenge. Match quality is tough to call; Mickie's general match standard has been uninspiring, but the Wrestlemania match was surprisingly good until the awful botched finish. They'll be looking to get it right this time.

4. Vince McMahon & Shane McMahon -v- Shawn Michaels & God. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

As you watch Vince's entrance video, just remember: this guy really owns the company. Would you want to work there? The storyline here is that after being soundly thumped by Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania, Vince has gone mad, and insists that Shawn only beat him because of divine intervention. Therefore, in order to make the sides even, he has booked this tag team match, where he and his son Shane will fight Shawn Michaels and God. Michaels is a genuine born-again Christian, and his views on this storyline have been the subject of some speculation.

Now, you might think that this is just an unusual way of doing a two-on-one handicap match. Then again, a couple of weeks ago we had Vince being struck by pyrotechnics, so something tells me God really will be putting in an appearance in this match. It's either going to be wacky genius or hopelessly embarrassing, and my money's on the latter. There's also the possibility of seriously offending the live audience, given that the show's being held in the south. (Lexington, Kentucky, to be precise.)

"Invisible man" gimmicks have been tried in wrestling before and they don't work. Since everything has to be done for the live crowd, there's a limit to the sort of special effects that you can safely pull off. Mind you, they've done some odd things for the Undertaker in the past, so you never know. Vince being struck by lightning is a real possibility.

Assuming we actually get some sort of match in here, it'll be fine as long as Shawn and Shane carry the workload. Given that he's a company director and the boss's son, and he's never worked a regular wrestling schedule in his life, he's actually remarkably good at wrestling, at least to the level of carrying off a convincing garbage match. (That's a brawl with plenty of weapons and minimal technical hold-and-counter-hold stuff, for those who may not know.) Vince is aged 60 and should be kept out of action as much as humanly possible. Hopefully Shawn finally wins convincingly to kill off this storyline once and for all, given that it really should have ended after Wrestlemania.

5. Kane v The Big Show. They just love their big guys at the WWE, and this match comes around periodically to plague us. It's never any good, but they, it's two giant guys in the ring punching one another. And what better way to use a giant than to put him in the ring with a man his own size so that you don't have any sense of scale?

Kane and the Big Show used to be the tag team champions until losing the belts a few weeks ago to the Spirit Squad. (Don't ask.) Now we're doing the obligatory team break-up angle, but with a twist! The story is that Kane goes mad every time somebody mentions the date May 19th. By a happy coincidence, May 19th is the opening date of his new movie, See No Evil, a bargain-basement horror film which is the first effort from WWE Films. We're all assuming it's going to crash and burn. In the meantime, Kane and the Big Show find themselves in a ludicrous storyline which exists principally to drum the date "May 19th" into everyone's heads.

Kane presumably wins, to maintain his momentum leading up to the release of his movie. The match will suck.

6. Carlito v Chris Masters. A rare example of long-term planning. The storyline of Carlito continually screwing over fellow-heel Chris Masters has been running for months, and finally led to their break-up a few weeks ago. Normally at this point one or other guy would explicitly turn babyface. All logic suggests it should have been Chris Masters, as the wronged party. Instead, neither guy changed personality, and the fans chose to back Carlito, presumably on the logic that he's much more entertaining and they want to cheer for him anyway. Masters is just a warm body, at the end of the day.

So Carlito finds himself making the rare and tricky anti-hero turn, where he's now fighting the bad guys, but isn't actually doing anything very heroic himself, relying purely on charisma to remain popular. He's even kept his gloriously petty entrance video, which shows him spitting in the face of the insufficiently fashionable, and destroying a small child's sandcastle.

Since he's entering into a new phase for his character, Carlito ought to win here for the momentum, although leaving room for a rematch down the road. On paper this isn't a good match - Carlito's middling and Masters needs a more talented wrestler to lead him gently by the hand. Still, Carlito has his good days, so you never know.

Regular viewers watching Masters' entrance video may note the remarkable, and no doubt entirely coincidental, change in his appearance ever since the steroid ban was announced.

7. Ric Flair v Umaga. Look, kids! Racism!

Much-loved veteran Ric Flair will presumably be lying down gracefully for the new monster villain Umaga, recently introduced into the show. It's Umaga's first PPV match and if he loses, they're insane. Umaga is, god help us, the sort of stereotypical Samoan wrestler I thought we'd seen the back of in 1978. Somewhere in the TNA studios in Florida, Samoa Joe must be watching and silently thanking god that he went with the number two company.

Meanwhile, the WWE has a barefoot savage with warpaint, whose authenticity starts and ends with two facts: (i) Umaga is indeed a real Samoan name, and (ii) the guy who plays him is indeed Samoan. You might remember him as Jamal from 3 Minute Warning. Well, he's ethnically Samoan, at least. He's actually from San Francisco. In all other respects, it's the sort of character that makes you bang your head against the wall in frustration, and probably leaves Umaga himself wondering whether he might have been better off staying in Japan, where he was getting rather good reviews.

In a curious piece of randomness, Umaga's manager is Armando Alejandro Estrada, whose gimmick is that he's Cuban. He's not, of course. Hazem Ali is actually ethnically Palestinian, and spent a while down in OVW wrestling as - ahem - "Osama." Paul Heyman defused this horrible gimmick by repackaging him as Osama Rodriguez Alejandro, the half-Palestinian half-Cuban dictator, who wanted to rule Kentucky. This made him far too silly to be offensive, and he turned out to be an unexpectedly entertaining comedian. He's reportedly an absolutely terrible wrestler, but it doesn't matter as long as he sticks to the manager role - because he's great on the mike.

Despite the awful gimmick involved, Flair is a legendary wrestler and Umaga is, reportedly, quite decent these days. This might be alright (technically, at least).

Buy? Hmm. No surefire good matches, and one guaranteed dog. But quite a few where I'm honestly curious to see what happens. It's not the strongest card on paper and I'd probably let it slide if it was a PPV over here... but there's enough of interest to make it borderline.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Green Wing

Now two episodes into its second series, Channel 4's Green Wing is still as wildly inconsistent as ever.

For those of you in America who won't have seen it, Green Wing fancies itself as being simultaneously a "surreal soap" and a "comedy drama" - their words. In practice, this means it's got an hour-long slot, much of the running time is taken up by sketch material unrelated to the plot, vast chunks of it deliberately make no sense, the editing suite is manned by monkeys on crack who insist on speeding up and slowing down the footage at random, there's a continuing soundtrack throughout, and somewhere in the middle, Tamsin Greig and Julian Rhind-Tutt are trying to appear in a romantic comedy.

The first series was a big critical hit, through a combination of being quite funny and being self-consciously different. Critics in every medium like shows that are very obviously different because (a) innovation is to be encouraged, and (b) they're very, very easy to write about. Actually, the things that critics normally seize on - the dreamlike quality created by the soundtrack and irrational editing - isn't all that innovative. The basic idea was pioneered by Chris Morris several years ago in his sketch series Jam, and in particular the late-night remix version Jaaaaaam.

Now there's nothing wrong with this; it's an editing technique well worth exploring. And Green Wing is using it in a different way. Bluntly, they've toned it down for mass consumption. Where Jam was just plain disturbing at times, Green Wing is simply zany. It also tries to marry this technique to a proper storyline, which Jam never attempted.

And that, I think, is where they fall down. The problem with this show is that it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. It thinks it's a synthesis of lots of different elements, but it's not. It's a whole load of different elements on screen simultaneously, battling for space. Sometimes they get away with it. But sometimes they botch it spectacularly.

The thing is, the characters are on a very wide spectrum of surrealism. Tasmin Greig and Julian Rhind-Tutt, as Caroline and Mac, are playing it more or less straight. Most of the others are varying degrees of eccentric. And then, off at the far end, there's Michelle Gomez playing staff liaison officer Sue White as an outright lunatic, who shows up to work dressed as a squirrel and wanders around gratuitously annoying all the other characters.

All of this works up to a point, but falters when they try to actually do a story. In theory, the main plot is that Caroline is trying to get together with Mac, but Sue White is obsessed with Mac and wants him for herself. (This being a show created by a woman, Mac is a "quirky yet sensitive" ideal man figure, exactly mirroring the sort of "quirky yet sensitive" underwritten love interests that actresses have to try and breathe life into all the time.) Now, the problem here is twofold.

First, Sue White is a sketch character. She's plainly mental, doesn't behave in a remotely rational way, and essentially belongs in an episode of Little Britain. She simply doesn't work as a blocking character for a romantic comedy, because she isn't a character. She's very funny when she's used in sketches, but she simply doesn't belong in a proper story.

Second, it means Mac and Caroline have to interact with Sue White. And they simply can't, because the only thing their characters could sensibly do in response to Sue White is to flee, to file an official complaint, or possibly to section her under the Mental Health Act. So whenever they share a screen, it's like you're watching two halves of the same scene playing out in parallel universes at the same time. It's just horribly, horribly wrong.

Season two doesn't exactly inspire confidence that they're going to pull the "comedy drama" side together. By its nature, Green Wing doesn't need complicated plots - they're ultimately a framework for sketch material - and it can get away with simple ideas. But there's "simple" and then there's "cliche." Season one ended with Mac and Caroline getting together in the final episode; season two has nothing else to do with them, so it resorts to giving Mac amnesia so that we can go through the whole rigmarole again. It's almost challenging the audience to laugh with them for being so audaciously lazy, but I'm not buying. Last week's episode featured the old "oh no, I must stop my girlfriend from picking up the embarrassing voicemail message" plot, which must surely be pensionable by now.

But in a way they've written themselves into a corner by trying to do any sort of comedy-drama elements with a cast of characters largely built for sketch comedy. Paul Whitehouse, creator of The Fast Show, once wisely observed that he didn't want anything to do with character arcs or character development. His characters don't go anywhere; he just uses each sketch to look at them from a new angle, or in a new context, and once he's finished with the gag, he dispenses with them. He can do that because he's not using them in stories.

Green Wing is trying to do the opposite - to write stories with essentially static characters who just don't function the way they need to. Except for Mac and Caroline, who were created to bear the weight of season 1, but only have the one story because they've got nobody else to talk to.

Now... none of this detracts from the fact that Green Wing is often very funny. Mark Heap's performance as Alan Statham is fantastic stuff, beautifully timed, and breathes life into a character who by rights should be a dreadful cliche. Set pieces such as the admin girls dodging an invisible limbo pole in their office and forcing everyone else to play along are funny. The show is good at this kind of thing. But it wants to be a drama as well, and it just doesn't have the tools.

The Armwrestler From Solitude

It's been a while since I've covered any foreign language documentaries here, but let's change that. The Filmhouse is currently running the touring programme from the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and as I'm off work for a few days, I thought I'd randomly pick one.

The Armwrestler From Solitude - or, if you prefer, Armbryterskan fran Ensamheten - is a profile of the five-time women's world armwrestling champion Heidi Andersson. Heidi comes from Ensamheten in Lapland (population 16, all of them related - it's really more of an extended family home than a town). Ensamheten can be translated either as "the Loneliness" or "the Solitude", hence the name. Given that we're talking about an area of Lapland which has a population of 1 per square km to start with, you can only wonder how remote this place must be.

Heidi may be the ideal ambassador for the ultraminority sport of women's armwrestling. She's passionate, she's enthusiastic, she's friendly, and she doesn't look like a bodybuilder. No, she looks like this. (She's also got her own website here, but a lot of it's only in Swedish, and there doesn't seem to be a gallery.) She's a wholesome Nordic farm girl who just happens to be able to squash you like a bug.

You'd think this documentary ought to make itself. We've got a world champion in a sport so obscure that the women's division doesn't even have prize money. We've got a strange little community where she lives in the middle of nowhere with fifteen of her close family, nine of whom are also armwrestlers. We've got the 2003 World Championships in Ottawa to provide a story. And we've got the obvious interest in what attracts women to a sport that seems as hypermasculine as armwrestling.

So where did it go wrong? A combination of weak structure and hagiography, basically. Directors Lisa Munthe and Helen Ahlsson clearly adore Heidi and her family, and think that they can fill long stretches of screen time on charisma alone. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out like that. We start off with the impression of a family of nice people living in a pastoral arctic utopia... and that's exactly how it stays for over an hour. The family armwrestle one another. Heidi trains. The family armwrestle one another some more. Heidi writes a column for the local paper. The family do a bit more armwrestling. Everyone is happy. Everyone is overjoyed to be living in Solitude, and armwrestling so very much.

And they do indeed seem like wonderful people living a wonderful life, but that doesn't make for a terribly compelling film. I'm not looking for a "dark side of Solitude" angle, but we never get beneath the surface here. At one point her father talks about how he lost his job as a lumberjack, but it's never followed up. Nor do we get into Heidi's feelings about Solitude in any real detail (you'll learn more about it on her website). Or the effort of raising money to fund her trip to Ottawa - despite the gift of Heidi doing public appearances in what seems to be the local branch of B&Q, taking on all-comers and cheerfully thrashing them all. We're told that Heidi won some sort of sportsperson of the year award, but that never goes anywhere either. There's so much more that could have been done with this subject matter, and yet we end up watching endless footage of the family acting exactly like any other family. Her website suggests a keen interest in the environment, which doesn't even put in an appearance in the film. To be honest, I'm still not entirely clear what she actually does other than armwrestling.

The competition gives it a bit of direction towards the end, but even there the narration is shaky. Is it really that hard to flag up that the match we're watching is the final? Or that the rules are best of three? Heidi obligingly wins 2-1 after dropping the first point, which is classic story material, but they still don't really make anything of it.

It's an incredibly frustrating film. Heidi seems a very nice person but the film never gets to grips with her - and even if they wanted to be superficial, they could have made a far stronger story with the material they have. I'm half tempted to send the directors back to do it again properly, because a well-made documentary about Heidi Andersson ought to be fascinating.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Okay... hopefully, this ought to work and we should have the whole archives back. *crosses fingers*

Wrestlemania 22

(Originally posted Thursday 30 March.)

Right, let's get things back on track.

Wrestlemania 22 is on Sunday, so it's time to run down the card for that. Wrestlemania is one of those titles which no doubt seemed very catchy in 1984, but continues to exist because the WWE have successfully pushed it as the single biggest show of their year. In theory, this is the most important pay-per-view, and everything comes to a peak here. The WWE doesn't have seasons in the same way as other television, but this is their equivalent of the season finale. They like to compare it to the Superbowl, which is hubris, but somewhat valid within the wrestling context.

This is not a particularly good year on paper. As we'll see, there are some bizarre booking decisions on this card, in large part due to the increasing tendency to treat the whole company as a vanity promotion built around the McMahon family (who genuinely own it). To be fair, this happens in wrestling all the time, but they really do seem to be blinding themselves to the bigger picture.

There are also some notable omissions from this show. The Intercontinental Title isn't being defended, although the champion, Shelton Benjamin, is wrestling in another match. The Smackdown Tag Titles aren't being defended, and the champions, MNM, aren't on the show at all. No Cruiserweight Title match either, although they've got the excuse that Gregory Helms is off having his broken nose fixed. (A job which would have been much easier if they hadn't shoved him into a match with Chris Benoit before he took time off. Benoit's finishing move involves pressing down hard on the nose. Well done, WWE.)

Nor do we have the Hulk Hogan/Steve Austin match which was being planned at one point, although I can't say I'm shedding any tears about that. Austin never agreed to this one in the first place, and any prospect of him agreeing it went out the window when they asked him to lose a match to Jonathan Coachman. Not surprisingly, Austin was not up for losing to an announcer, and went home instead. The WWE held out for this result as part of a storyline designed to get rid of lead commentator Jim Ross at all costs; they've now realised that they don't have any replacements in the same league, and so Ross will be doing the commentary at Wrestlemania anyway. It's real playground-level politics. Which is good, in a way, because it means wrestling is always entertaining, even when the shows aren't.

So... what do we have on this four-hour show?

1. WWE Title: John Cena -v- Triple H. Ah, absurdity straight off the bat. Crowds have been turning on Cena for months, despite the fact that he's meant to be the crowd-pleasing hero. It's been slightly better in recent weeks, but not by much. Basically, the hardcore fanbase see Cena as somebody who simply isn't good enough at the technical side of things to merit a year-long run as champion. The problem is that the casual audience, especially the kids, love him. He's one of their big merchandise sellers, so they're very reluctant to give up on him. And yet live crowds keep booing him out of the building. If anything, Wrestlemania is likely to draw a more devoted live crowd than usual, so there's a big prospect of this going horribly wrong.

Back at the start of the year, things seemed to be getting on track again. Edge, who won his "Money in the Bank" title shot back at last year's Wrestlemania, cashed it in at the end of a PPV, and beat Cena for the title. Edge's elevation from the midcard actually sent ratings up, and audiences finally started to cheer the unjustly defeated Cena. More by accident than design, they'd stumbled onto a match people actually wanted to see.

But the plan, all along, was for Cena to lose the title to Triple H at Wrestlemania. And Triple H is the owner's son-in-law, so we're getting that match whether we like it or not. Edge lost the title back to Cena within a month, and normal service was promptly resumed.

Triple H is almost certainly winning here, because that's just the way things are. The build-up to this match has been fairly lacklustre, and has mainly involved Triple H completely misreading the audience by making exactly the criticisms of Cena that the crowd already agree with. Poor Cena is then scripted to respond by explaining that, sure, he's not very good at wrestling - but boy, he's got heart. It's gloriously inept, and you can sometimes see Cena suppressing a smirk during these segments. Even he can't quite believe it.

The match quality is likely to be shaky. Cena isn't that good, and his best matches are gimmicky and short. But there's a lot of gimmick matches on the show already, so the pressure will be on to deliver a quality straight wrestling match. And, if HHH is in his normal mood, he'll want it to be long, just to prove that he can have a good long match with Cena. He probably can't. At worst the match will be average, but it would be a real surprise if this was a seriously good match. A massive crowd backlash might elevate it into compelling trainwreck TV, if we're lucky.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Kurt Angle -v- Randy Orton -v- Rey Mysterio. Over on Smackdown, the writers have kind of lost interest in the whole thing. The original plan here was for Randy Orton to win the title from Batista. Then Batista got injured and Kurt Angle was drafted in to replace him as champion. Unusually, Angle isn't playing face or heel; he gets cheered or booed depending on who he's fighting at the time. In this match, that makes him the tweener, with Rey as the hero and Orton as the villain. Angle has long-running health problems and it's virtually certain that he'll be dropping the title here.

Rey Mysterio ended up in this match by a bizarre route. The first plan was to cynically exploit the death of Eddie Guerrero. Mysterio would dedicate his career to his late friend, win a title shot at January's Royal Rumble show, and then lose it to Randy Orton in February. This, in theory, was meant to make Orton a bigger villain. In practice, there has been a change of heart somewhere along the line. References to Eddie have been drastically toned down in the last month or so, and they did a screwjob finish in February to justify allowing both men into a three-way title defence.

Since that point, the writers seem to have become very confused about what story they're trying to tell here, and the plot has just sort of drifted over the last month. Consequently, there's not nearly as much momentum behind this match as there ought to be. On the other hand, on paper this is the best technical wrestling match on the card, and these three guys should be capable of putting on something genuinely memorable.

If they had any sense they'd put the belt on Mysterio and take advantage of his popularity - Orton really isn't ready for this role yet, despite their best efforts to groom him. Plus, they've probably got HHH winning the other world title, so a Mysterio win would send the fans home happy. But the WWE never has any confidence in smaller wrestlers, no matter how popular they are, and Orton has been the planned champion for ages. So he's probably getting the win even though it's completely the wrong decision.

Oh, and for some bizarre reason, Rey Mysterio's theme music will be played live by POD. Since POD didn't have anything to do with his theme music - a cod-reggaeton effort which rejoices in the name "Booyaka 619" - this should be a cover version from hell.

3. United States Title: Chris Benoit -v- JBL. I'll say one thing for the booking of Smackdown's #2 title - with Benoit, JBL, Booker T and Randy Orton all fighting over it in recent months, at least they've made it look like a title the top guys care about. We're got two former world champions here fighting over the B-title, which is unusual. And it's worth doing a run like this from time to time, so that it looks meaningful when a rising star gets the title instead.

There's no real story to this match; they've tried to build something around JBL's legitimate broken hand, but really there's only so much that can be done when one of the wrestlers is out of action until a couple of weeks before the match. Besides, this is really just a filler programme for both Benoit and JBL, designed to get them both on the show rather than achieving anything more. Benoit is almost guaranteed to retain; I can't see any possible purpose in a JBL win.

The match should be pretty good - JBL's capable of having quality matches with the right opponent, and Benoit tends to get good matches out of almost everyone. It's also a much-needed straight wrestling match on the undercard.

4. World Tag Team Titles: Big Show & Kane -v- Carlito & Chris Masters. These are the Raw tag titles; the Smackdown ones aren't on the show at all. Big Show and Kane won the titles in January, and the giants have been destroying everyone else ever since. Frankly, Raw doesn't have much of a tag division to speak of, and there aren't any credible opponents for them. So here are Carlito and Chris Masters, who have a longrunning storyline based on the idea that they keep teaming up, and Carlito keeps screwing Chris over. Of course, as Carlito points out, he's hardly going to do that when they're both on the same team, is he?

The bad guys have been portrayed as totally ineffective over the last few weeks, which is often an indicator that they're going to have a surprise win. Personally, I'm thoroughly bored of Kane and Big Show squashing any remotely credible opponent, and I'm rooting for the bad guys. The match is likely to be pretty poor.

5. WWE Women's Title: Trish Stratus -v- Mickie James. This is the latest step in the long-running storyline where the psychotic and obsessive Mickie James stalks champion Trish Stratus. Mickie turned on Trish altogether earlier this month after the penny finally dropped that Trish just wasn't interested. Strangely, despite being a women's match (normally booked as an afterthought), it's actually the only match on this card to have a real, long-term plan behind it. Since Mickie's only just become a full-blown heel, it's way too early for the storyline to end; therefore, logic says Mickie is winning here, to set up rematches down the line.

Unfortunately, although the storyline works well enough, most of the wrestling in this feud has been wretched. That's partly because the storyline has placed Trish and Mickie on the same side until relatively recently, and there's almost nobody else on the women's roster who can actually wrestle (except Victoria, who seems to be out of favour for some reason, given how infrequently she's being used). The one time we saw Trish and Mickie wrestle before, it wasn't much good, and the general consensus is that Mickie has seriously underperformed since joining the main roster. She's had much better matches on the indie scene.

There's a possibility that we'll see something better tomorrow night, but I'm not holding my breath.

Right, on to the non-title matches.

6. No holds barred: Vince McMahon -v- Shawn Michaels. For fuck's sake. This is really silly even by wrestling standards - Shawn Michaels, still more or less at his peak, will be fighting the WWE's real-life chairman and majority owner, Vince McMahon. Vince is sixty. He's also a bodybuilder who should thank god he's not technically a contracted performer, and therefore he's exempt from the WWE's new steroid testing policy. Vince has wrestled occasionally in the past, and while he's a lot better than a 60-year-old non-wrestler ought to be, he's not so good that he ought to be wrestling main eventers on the biggest show of the year. But it's his company, so.....

The storyline here has Vince tormenting Shawn for reasons that have never been entirely clear. Loosely, there seems to have been some plan to bring in Bret Hart here, and play off the infamous Montreal screwjob. The Montreal screwjob was in 1997, but Vince hasn't shut up about it yet. Bret Hart has made it clear for years that he has no interest in doing any sort of storyline based around it (besides which, he's long since retired from wrestling due to a series of concussions). But they started a storyline around it anyway, and now there's no Bret to pay it off. Presumably, Shawn will finally defeat Vince to end the storyline, and about time too.

The "No holds barred" stipulation is there to let them do a load of brawling and disguise Vince's lack of actual wrestling ability. They'll need it. Shawn can probably get a decent match out of Vince - he almost got a decent one out of Hulk Hogan last year, and Hogan is virtually immobile these days. And I mean that literally. This should probably be above average.

7. Money in the Bank Ladder Match: Shelton Benjamin -v- Ric Flair -v- Rob Van Dam -v- Bobby Lashley -v- Matt Hardy -v- Fit Finlay. This is the second annual MitB Ladder Match. The idea is that the winner gets a contract which gives them a title shot at any time they want during the next year. Last year they did it right - Edge won the title shot and sat on it for nine months until he could attack the champion when he was vulnerable. Since Edge actually won the title that way, the stipulation has some automatic credibility to it this year; in 2005, it was seen as a device to get some guys without storylines onto the show.

The selection of wrestlers is, to put it mildly, a bit random. It's the only "interpromotional" match on the show, with three guys from Raw and three from Smackdown. The presence of veterans Ric Flair and Fit Finlay in a six-man ladder match is downright weird, although Flair had an unexpectedly good ladder match against Edge back in January. Basically, Flair and Finlay are there to hold the match together; Van Dam and Hardy have the experience of doing demented stunt matches; Shelton Benjamin doesn't have anything better to do, even though he's the Intercontinental Champion, and he was really good in last year's match; and Bobby Lashley is there to look impressive and smash things. I have high hopes for this one.

As for the winner, my money's on RVD. He hasn't fought Triple H before, fans have always wanted to see him pushed at a higher level, and there's an obvious storyline to be done with him cashing in the title shot at this year's ECW memorial show. (Yes, they're doing another one. No, it isn't a good idea.) The downside is that RVD hasn't been anywhere near his best since he came back from injury, but that's never stopped them before.

For the others... it's way too soon for Lashley to be in the title hunt. Shelton Benjamin is the IC champion already and doesn't need the win. Ric Flair winning a ladder match at his age would be silly. Matt Hardy is not going to be headlining shows any time soon. Finlay is a possibility, mind you, because he's been getting unexpectedly good reactions on Smackdown. The WWE might wish to reflect that this is because he's a very, very good veteran wrestler, and not because he's got a fucking leprechaun in his entrance video.

8. Casket match: The Undertaker v Mark Henry. This year's annual win for the Undertaker, who hasn't been beaten at Wrestlemania since he first appeared on the show in 1991. Okay, so if you want to nitpick, he wasn't actually on the show in 1994. Or in 2000. And because they hadn't worked out yet that his winning streak was going to be a big deal, the 1993 match was actually a DQ win. But still. Undefeated at Wrestlemania. They've realised over the last few years that this is a big deal and they've built it up appropriately. At some point, some rising star will beat the Undertaker at Wrestlemania and it will do wonders for his career, instantly cementing him as an A-list wrestler.

It won't be Mark Henry, who's nearing the end of his contract with the WWE, and is presumably here to use up the remains of the credibility he acquired during his brief feud with Kurt Angle earlier this year. The World's Strongest Man (a title which he actually has some legitimate claim to) is undoubtedly powerful, and he's not bad on the mike, but he's a thoroughly underwhelming wrestler. Oh, and it's Undertaker's gimmick match - winner is whoever puts his opponent in a coffin. So Undertaker will win, and the match will be dull and too long.

9. Hardcore match: Edge v Mick Foley. After losing the title, Edge has drifted into this slightly underwritten feud with Mick Foley. The idea, in theory, is that Edge is bitter because the retired Foley was the referee in the match where he lost the title. Except Foley didn't actually do anything to cost him the title, so it doesn't really make sense. They've also realised that years of being a cuddly comedy figure have finally eroded most of the credibility Foley acquired over his career as an insanely violent risktaker. Quite rightly, they've confronted that head-on over the last few weeks, and done a reasonably good job of re-building the feud around the more interesting question: does Foley still have the old fire?

Foley's last televised match, against Carlito, was thoroughly disappointing and you could tell his heart wasn't in it. This time he seems to be up for it, and for once the Hardcore Rules stipulation plays into the storyline rather than just being a device to cover up the wrestlers' limitations. Hopefully Foley isn't going to do anything too silly, because he's been known to push his luck in the past, and he's got enough talent as a in-ring storyteller that he really doesn't need to take repeated unprotected chairshots to the head. Not that this has ever stopped him in the past. Edge has rather more regard for his own safety, fortunately.

Foley's recent matches have been erratic, but he's usually good value when he's motivated, and I expect this to be good. By the way, if you're wondering what the difference is between a Hardcore match and a No Holds Barred match, a NHB match still has to end in the ring.

10. The Boogeyman -v- Booker T & His Wife Sharmell. The demented Boogeyman gimmick is actually getting over, despite his total inability to wrestle. They've disguised this carefully for months by focussing on the gimmickry and keeping matches very, very short. And that's what'll happen here. They'll do a load of comedy spots, and then Booker will get pinned. It's a breather between real matches. Reportedly the Boogeyman injured his bicep at a house show in the last couple of days, but he should be okay for this "match", because he won't actually have to do any significant wrestling. It's a Boogeyman segment, we all know the deal by now.

11. Pillow fight: Torrie Wilson v Candice Michelle. Yes, well. The loose justification here is that Candice is on the cover of Playboy this month, and so was Torrie once upon a time. So they're going to hit one another with pillows. Again, it's a filler segment. For what it's worth, Candice will almost certainly win, because Torrie is, shall we say, nearing the end of her useful lifespan in her present role.

Worth buying? It's almost academic, really, because this is the big show of the year and wrestling fans buy it anyway. There's a number of promising matches on here, most of the bad ones will be short, and when Mark Henry comes on, there's always the fast forward button. Despite the poor build-up, Angle/Orton/Mysterio should be good, the ladder match ought to work, Benoit is always reliable, and Edge/Foley is promising. And HHH/Cena could be a wonderful trainwreck. I'm buying.