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Dwayne Johnson
Dwayne Johnson
 108 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh; Jack Lowden   
Fighting with My Family

Go on the Internet, and you’ll see every sort of “5 Best” and “10 Best” list imaginable, including probably somewhere, “The 10 Best 10 Best Lists of All Time.” But one thing you’ll be hard pressed to find is a “Top Five” or “Top Ten” list devoted exclusively to non-documentary films about professional wrestling. The reason is quite simple: for many years professional wrestling organizations tried to maintain the charade that the sport was legitimate, while almost everyone who was in a position to make a movie that might actually make a “10 Best” list knew it was staged. As a result, wrestling movies tended to be either poorly made amateurish productions that treated the sport seriously or overly haughty films that treated the sport as a third-rate sideshow fit only for low-class riffraff.


All that began to change when Vince McMahon, president of what is now the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) essentially fessed up that his “sport” was staged, while, at the same time, wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and, later, Dwayne Johnson, crossed over into mainstream films playing a wider variety of roles. And when Mickey Rourke garnered an Oscar nomination for playing an aging grappler in the 2008 film, The Wrestler, the sport assumed a certain dignity for what it was. Unfortunately, the years after 2008 weren’t kind to either Rourke or wrestling movies. All that may be about to change, however, with Fighting with My Family, easily the second-best pro wrestling movie ever.


Fighting with My Family is a production of WWE Studios, an organization that cranks out mostly low-budget, often direct-to-video films designed to showcase wrestler/actors like John Cena and Steve Austin. This time out, however, WWE Studios has stepped up its game considerably, thanks in large part to the WWE’s best asset, Dwayne Johnson. In a case of art imitating life, The Rock was influential in bringing a young British woman from a wrestling family over to the United States, where she eventually became the WWE Divas Champion, fighting under the name of Paige. He then followed up by turning the story of Paige and her family into Fighting with My Family, a film that adheres to both sports movie and professional wrestling conventions.


Somewhat surprisingly, Fighting with My Family was written and directed by British comic Stephen Merchant, who, along with Ricky Gervais, created the original British version of The Office. The story of the real-life Bevis family (renamed Knight for the film) gives Merchant a lot of material for the movie, and the film sticks fairly close to the facts. Dad “Rowdy Ricky” (Nick Frost) and Mom “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey) run (and occasionally wrestle in) a minor-league wrestling operation in the industrial town of Norwich, England. Their star attractions are son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya (Pugh). The children eventually catch the eye of Dwayne Johnson, who gets them an invitation to a tryout with coach/promoter Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). After the audition, Saraya (who changes her wrestling name to Paige) gets selected to go to Florida to train for the WWE developmental organization, while a heartbroken Zak goes back home.


The two children’s lives then move on in predictable manners. Zak becomes moody and depressed and quits acting as coach and mentor for the local children he trained. Meanwhile, Paige can’t keep up with, on the one hand, the physical demands of the training, and, on the other, having to compete with other female wrestlers who are former models and actresses. When Paige finally returns home for Christmas break, neither she nor Zak is in a very good mood. She eventually has to decide whether to continue training with WWE or go back to England for good.


At first glance, Stephen Merchant might not appear to be much of a fit for a wrestling movie (although he does have a funny supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend). But he understands the world of professional wrestling and, more important, doesn’t look down on it. Fighting with My Family doesn’t attempt to maintain the charade that wrestling isn’t staged, but, instead, shows what some detractors don’t take into consideration. Namely, staged or not, it’s a highly dangerous and strenuous physical activity that also requires that its participants be skilled actors, capable of selling a stage personality in a matter of moments that will have the audience love or hate them.


So, the obligatory training montages in Fighting with My Family have a dual purpose. Merchant shows Paige running the obstacle course and lifting weights, but he also includes sequences that demonstrate the choreography of the various throws and falls and, more important, how people get hurt when they go wrong. And he adds other little touches as well, such as a shot of Zak painfully removing thumbtacks from his back after a match that results in his being thrown onto a bed of them. The big dramatic moment in the film is a wrestling version of the familiar fatherly speech from the coach. Hutch relates his own story as a jobber (a preliminary event wrestler who loses matches to make headliners look good), ending by describing the time he jumped 30 feet off a ladder and was injured severely when the stunt misfired.


While Merchant (with a considerable assist from Dwayne Johnson, who effortlessly bridges the divide between wrestling and movie acting) manages to sell both the danger and allure of wrestling, what makes Fighting with My Family really work is the cast. Instead of having actual wrestlers (other than Johnson) in the principal roles, the film shrewdly casts solid performers like Nick Frost and Lena Headey. The best catch though is Florence Pugh as Paige. She’s not model-beautiful, which is one of the plot points in the film. But she also makes the film more about Paige’s personal journey in overcoming her own fears and insecurities, than about the mere physical challenges she faces.


Fighting with My Family can’t overcome all the demons that plague sports movies or the world of professional wrestling. The script inserts the character of another Knight brother, a wrestler gone bad who became a criminal, in a poorly executed, overly melodramatic attempt to show how close Zak and the family could come to disaster. In fact, Zak’s entire storyline is too similar to that of every movie about lower-class youth being one step away from a career as a drug-dealing gangster. But the core Knight family dynamic does work, especially the chemistry they show together. Also, Merchant is able to mine humor from their most unusual business methods and the unconventional way they show affection to each other.


Admittedly, Fighting with My Family didn’t have a high bar to meet to become one of the best professional wrestling movies of all time. But it’s also a highly entertaining film in its own right that mixes comedy and drama in a way few this year will attempt. The combination of family dynamic, professional wrestling, and the unusual approach Stephen Merchant takes to the material make Fighting with My Family one of the better movies of the year, period. This isn’t world championship material, but it’s definitely ready for the main event.

In this clip, Dwayne Johnson meets Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden.

Read other reviews of Fighting with My Family: 

Fighting with My Family (2019) on IMDb