By Bill Mazzola
February 22, 2019
When you look back at the long and winding history of professional wrestling littered with household names like Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Andre the Giant, it’s sort of astonishing that a true biopic has never been commissioned. What’s less surprising is that it’s the biggest superstar in our current world, the omnipresent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who finally brings one to the screen. Produced by Johnson, and written and directed by (the original) The Office vet Stephen Merchant, Fighting With My Family is the true story of the rise of WWE superstar wrestler Saraya Knight, better known to WWE fans around the world as Paige. Give Dwayne Johnson credit, he saw the possibilities in Knight’s story after watching a documentary about her and assembled a very talented group of actors. And you know what? Despite hitting all of the sports movie clichés, it’s a warm-hearted, audience rousing, crowd pleaser of a movie.
The Knight family is a true blue, dye in the wool wrestling family, who run a small wrestling organization in their lovable little hometown of Norwich, England. They are a rough and tumble family; both mom and dad are former wrestlers, who infected their kids with a love of the business. Both Saraya and her brother Zack want nothing more than to follow in their parents footsteps and become wrestlers, er, sports entertainers. And, although their dreams are a little more haughty and far reaching than their parents, they want to make it to the mecca of professional wrestling: the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
For those that have seen the documentary on which this film draws its inspiration, there are some liberties taken with the story. Certain elements have either been ratcheted up or played down, but at its core this story has an enormous amount of heart, and enough grit and inspiration to sweep you away in its wake. We are introduced to the family– beginning with Mom and Dad Knight, played hilariously by British comedy stalwart Nick Frost and Game of Thrones Lena Headey. Pursuing their sports entertainment dreams are son Zack (Jack Lowden) and the cornerstone upon which this movie rests, Saraya (the wonderful Florence Pugh). A turning point is reached when both brother and sister are invited to try out for NXT, a minor league feeder system for the WWE, where stars are brought to train, develop their wrestling persona and are either selected to continue, or not. Ultimately, that is where the drama in this film comes from. After their tryouts, Saraya is groomed for WWE stardom, while Zack is left behind. She leaves for Florida to begin training, while Zack remains at home, forced to swallow the bitter pill of failure.
The film truly comes to life as Saraya adopts the ring name Paige in Florida, and begins her tutelage under WWE trainer Hutch (a very charismatic Vince Vaughn). She must struggle with being an odd duck amongst a group of hot model-type girls, who might have her beat in looks but can’t hold a candle to her athleticism in the ring. The film is at its Rocky-inspired best when Pugh and Vaughn are playing off each other, and the two of them steal both our hearts and the film. This is not a warts-and-all look behind the wrestling curtain– it is produced by WWE studios after all. But to its credit the film pulls no punches showing us how Paige must stand out and maintain her identity in a world where almost everything is artificial. We also check in back in England, where a mopey Zack must adjust to a life in which his sister is coming ever closer to achieving her dream, while he has to figure out what to do next. Again, the film hits all the familiar sports film tropes but it hits them with heart and a nice blend of humor and grit, which is a credit to both the writing and directing of Merchant.
Florence Pugh is spot on in the title role and, if this film can manage to find an audience amidst the blockbusters, this should be a breakthrough role for her. She is able to find the truth in the film’s more emotional moments, and demands the attention of the audience in every scene. Jack Lowden turns in an admirable performance as the down-and-out brother Zack, doing his best to keep his story afloat once his dreams are shattered. Frost and Headey are fantastic, often used to inject the film with humor to balance the drama. This is not Vince Vaughn’s best acting performance ever, but it is the most likable he has been in years. And lastly– we can’t forget the hardest working man in show business!– Dwayne Johnson and his million-watt smile shows up in a minor role as himself, or rather – his former “The Rock” self – to provide Paige a north star to guide her on her journey. The wrestling scenes are staged well, and Merchant shows a fairly deft touch for action and drama, despite his comedy background.
But make no mistake, this film is about heart and, while that may seem like a concept that has been done to death, it still works when it’s done well. When Saraya/Paige finally is about to go through the curtain and make her dream come true, don’t be surprised if you find yourself fist pumping along with the rest of the audience. Wrestling may be scripted but some of the stories behind it are as real as it gets.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5