Given that they are both “fake” and/or “scripted”, it is strange that the worlds of professional wrestling and movie making aren’t married more often; after all, both fields demand a combination of skill, luck and work ethic with an unknowable work ethic to succeed in. What’s more, the crossover appeal of Dwayne “The Rock”Johnson and his emerging successor John Cena show that it isn’t impossible for the mainstream to warm to wrestling’s larger-than-life characters.
Despite all this, there exist only a handful of titles in the sub-genre of “wrestling films”. Mickey Rourke and Darren Aronofsky brought critical appeal from both worlds with the aptly-titled The Wrestler in 2008, but the only other film which springs to mind in the time since is 2018’s Walk Like a Panther – more of a showcase of the stereotypes of the grappling world than a celebration of it.
So, there remains only one question: does this year’s Fighting With My Family return the genre to the heights of a decade ago? Does it use writer-director Stephen Merchant’s comedic skill and name profile, or the starpower of the aforementioned Johnson, to pull out a WrestleMania-sized piece of entertainment?
In a word, no.
Now, that answer is a lot more dismissive of this film than intended. There are more than a few true laughs and bullets of dialogue just as one would expect from Ricky Gervais’s running mate, particularly in its sardonic dismissal of every potential recruit not named Paige in the early tryouts. Vince Vaughan’s recent grizzled and battle-scarred renaissance continues, with the evolution of his drill sergeant trainer into a deeply hopeful peer. Nick Frost and Lena Headey are solid, believable and altogether accurate depictions of their real-lifecounterparts, wrestling parents “Rowdy Ricky” Patrick and “Sweet Saraya” Julia Knight.
High praise must also be heaped upon the film’s star Florence Pugh. Like the young talent handpicked forWWE’s NXT brand, Pugh has been discovered as her career is just emerging from the shadows of obscurity. The hope is that her own rise to the top will be as lucrative and yet longer than the tragically-short run of Paige herself, and it is a shrewd move to pick up on such potential at an early stage. She looks and sounds the part in the truest way, with the real-world Saraya Knight saying that the similarities – down to their husky, accented voices – are noticeable and plentiful.
Legend has it that the film took root when Johnson first watched the Channel4 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, based on the life of the Knights and concluding with Paige’s inspirational rise to the rank of champion in WWE. The quintessential end-credit footage draws attention to how entire moments and quotes were carefully recreated as scenes and dialogue; surely, most involved with the film more closely watched and embodied this than the over-the-top antics of wrestling’s “big leagues”.
Unfortunately, the accuracy falters when Paige joins the WWE. The company has a reputation within its industry for depicting a revisionist history, and it is present here. Some of it is understandable; being acomedy, there simply isn’t enough time to explore every nuance of an athlete’s journey as there would be in a dramatic, two-hours-plus sports biopic. Key events from Knight’s time in NXT – such as her becoming their first-ever female champion – are forcibly left by the wayside. But to both the longtime fan who watched the events unfold so recently (2014) and to any film viewers who might now seek them out of curiosity, the“creative liberties” taken in recreating the concluding title match against an unrecognizable AJ Lee cannot be ignored. It is no secret that bad blood exists between Lee and the company, yet the fact that this crept into the depiction of an otherwise-celebratory story is regrettable.
With the popularity of their ‘Women’s Revolution’ and the rightful placement of their female superstars as marquee attractions, WWE and their expanding film studios should be applauded for centering their first wrestler biopic around one of the movement’s forerunners. Paige herself has been through so many personal and physical setbacks since the events of this film that it is truly heartwarming to see the company stand so solidly in support of her.
It is a shame that the company could not stick to their own roots so firmly.
Without question, Fighting With My Family is as advertised – a true feel-good film. However, it is not a film about wrestling, but instead a film that wrestling features in. As an attempt to create a widely-palatable crowd-pleaser, the film is a success; the wonder is just when the strange niche of wrestling cinema will once again appeal fondly and completely to the appetite of the wrestling fan.