Movie Review: Fighting with My Family
Dwayne Johnson presides over a sweet, funny and pretty much true pro-wrestling tale.
Is pro wrestling fake? Does anyone actually ask that question anymore? According to "Rowdy" Ricky Knight, it's not important. Sure the sport's endlessly overacted fight scenarios are pre-determined. What counts, according to Ricky, is that "fans will know if you're not being real." There's a difference, he says.
Ricky is the rotund paterfamilias of a scrappy clan of bottom-rung English wrestlers who were the subject of a 2012 British documentary that has now been refashioned as a feature film by director Stephen Merchant, a creator of the original BBC version of The Office. The virtues of Fighting with My Family are unexpectedly gratifying, given its provenance. The picture was produced in part by WWE Studios, which not long ago gave us a film with the phrase "Robo-WrestleMania" in its title. It also numbers among its producers Mr. Dwayne Johnson, himself a wrestler of some renown before falling on hard times and being forced to take a day job (which includes a recurring cameo role here).
So this is not an exposé of a grim and tatty sporting subculture—it's not The Wrestler. Okay, it is a little grim/tatty in its early innings, which are set in Knight's home town of Norwich, England. There, Ricky (a double-XL Nick Frost) and his wrestler wife Julia (Lena Headey with cheap tats and wrecked red hair), are assisted by their kids Saraya (Florence Pugh of AMC's The Little Drummer Girl, still star-bound) and Zak (Jack Lowden) in running a smalltime training gym for aspiring young wrestlers, whom they cart hither and thither in their "World Association of Wrestling" van to mount exhibition matches for dwindling crowds. We quickly see that Ricky and Julia, who never achieved their own dreams of making the big time, are beginning to realize that Saraya, who's been slamming bodies since she was 13, has what it takes to go all the way.
Meaning all the way to America, of course. After Saraya and Zak get invited to a wrestling audition at London's O2 Arena by a WWE talent-spotter called Hutch (Vince Vaughn, back in deadpan-genius mode), and Saraya makes the cut but Zak doesn't, we follow our gal, with her goth-chick lip ring and black-leather biker jacket, to Orlando, site of a WWE wrestling boot camp. There, among the palm trees and sunny beaches, she fails to fit in with a trio of bikini-babe trainees who could easily pass for fashion models (one of them actually is that very thing). Saraya can't crack the stateside social code. At one point, after she dies her black hair blonde in an effort to fit in, one of the girls asks, "Did someone break up with you?"
Saraya is serious about pro wrestling, no matter that pro wrestling isn't serious about itself, and she writes off these three young women as T&A clutter. It's a measure of the movie's warm heart and endless good nature that Saraya is wrong about this: that the bikini girls are in fact sweet and supportive, and that it's Saraya—now going by the newly bestowed ring name of Paige—whose provincial worldview needs adjusting.
There are no surprises in this movie, I'm happy to report. In a moment of despair, Paige naturally announces a determination to quit her wrestling quest; but we know that's not going to happen. And while brother Zak seems to be headed down a dark road as his dreams of wrestling fame and fortune melt away, we know he's going to be okay, too. Will Paige win her first big match? Fans will already know that the real Paige did, in 2014. (They'll also know, less happily, that her championship reign ended last year, when her career came crashing down in a welter of WWE drug accusations, sex tapes, and a serious neck injury.)
This is the rare movie about working-class characters that allows them a generous amount of patient respect and waits for laughs to arise naturally out of their situations. (Or out of the documentary: Asked what caused him to spend eight years of his youth in prison, Nick Frost repeats the real Ricky's answer: "Mainly violence.") There's lots of ring action—clotheslines, piledrivers, all the usual mayhem. And much trash gets talked, too, most uproariously by this Dwayne Johnson fellow. He rocks.