The Sheik is a chimera: part hagiography and part cautionary tale topped off with an unwitting commentary on our culture’s fascination with celebrity. The highs and lows of wrestling have been chronicled fictionally in The Wrestler and in documentaries such as Beyond the Mat and Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, but The Sheik an undeniable ace up its sleeve: Khosrow Ali Vaziri.
His story transcends the World Wrestling Federation; Vaziri was an Olympian for his native Iran in 1968, served as a bodyguard for the Shah, and then was forced to flee the country under the cloud of an unexpected death. That this is merely the first chapter of Vaziri’s life does much to recommend The Sheik, though a disc devoid of bonus material and the questionable third act almost put the loveable heel down for the count.
After Vaziri fled his home, the rest, as they say, is history. He worked his way up from local promotions and became one of the greatest heels of Eighties wrestling. This adds another layer to an already fascinating story, as Vaziri and his colleagues lovingly reminisce about the matches, travel, and extracurricular activities that took place as wrestling moved from a regional curiosity to a national obsession. Though this material is not exactly new for fans or those who have seen other wrestling docs, director Igal Hecht takes a light touch with the material, opting not to create another cautionary tale of excess leading to downfall.
In fact, Vaziri remains refreshingly positive about what wrestling has done for him. The film is clear that Vaziri has been profoundly affected, both physically and mentally, by his career, but he is far from ruined. Though he bears many physical scars from his time in the ring, it is possible that Vaziri misses the roar of the crowd more.
The film falters mightily in the third act, which seeks to carve a triumphant arc out of the Sheik’s chasing this particular dragon via a minor resurgence on social media. It is here that producer Jian Magen begins his association with Vaziri, and the film transitions from being a kind reminiscence to a study of today’s celebrity culture.
As Vaziri becomes the flavor of the microsecond on Twitter, Sheik becomes more uncomfortable to watch. Magen clearly enjoys being fame adjacent and Vaziri is always happy to play the heel, but the result is something less than inspiring, as it is quickly apparent that the Internet is more likely laughing at Vaziri than with him.
The Sheik doesn’t do a great job indicating whether Vaziri has gotten his second wind or is merely the victim of opportunists who want to leech from any small amount of fame. Perhaps some behind the scenes footage with Magen or more extensive interviews with Vaziri’s family would have allayed this perception of exploitation. The Sheik, however, really only offers the story in the film; that in itself is compelling, but viewers will most likely feel that they are not getting the whole picture.