The real life story of American professional wrestling’s unlikely British champion makes for a pleasing but hardly challenging Rocky-off-the-top-rope biopic. It’s too safe, writes critic Craig Mathieson.
It’s a tribute to how briskly pleasing this against the odds wrestling biopic is that it works despite so many fractious issues. The director isn’t much of a filmmaker, the corporate brand maintenance is blatant, and the protagonist’s triumph is pre-ordained, but nonetheless Fighting With My Family works, never more than a body slam or a cheery putdown away from moving on. The credit for that lies with the foundation set in the working class Norwich family home of the Knight family, an environment of love and competitive bruises where reformed criminal Patrick (Nick Frost) and wife Julia (Lena Headey) have raised their now grown children Zak (Jack Lowden) and Saraya (Florence Pugh) to pull off moves and play to the crowds.
England’s provinces are a familiar setting for writer/director Stephen Merchant, who partnered with Ricky Gervais on the definitively excruciating British sitcoms The Office and Extras before branching out with Hollywood acting roles in Logan and his own comedy series Hello Ladies. But as soon as the family’s boisterous optimism is established they’re separated: before a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) show in London the obsessive Zak and supportive Saraya try out for the entertainment conglomerate, but only the latter is called up by veteran American coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughan). This is Saraya’s biopic, and it’s set mainly in the Florida training camp where she would become Paige, who would go on to become a WWE star and title holder in 2014.
The structure is so conventional and the tropes so familiar that the story presents a training montage set to “Taking Care of Business” with earnest intent. The newly minted Paige is far from home and unsettled by the demands of the WWE, where you have to ace “promo class” so you can sell your character to the stadium’s audience and millions of viewers. Florence Pugh was exceptional in the stark period drama Lady Macbeth and the recent John Le Carre television adaptation The Little Drummer Girl, but she’s mostly passive here – Lowden does the dramatic lifting as Zak sinks into depression after missing his lifelong dream. “We’re all proud of you,” her parents keep telling Paige, adding to the pressure to deliver.
The underlying message is to be yourself, but the WWE is the contemporary equivalent of vaudeville theatre, with athletes as larger than life performers. Any issues Paige has learning the ropes are presented as personal challenges, such as freezing before a howling male audience that denigrates her look, even though they’re structural failings of the WWE.
The conglomerate’s studio arm produced the film, and the organisation literally puts its best face forward, with star graduate Dwayne Johnson having an extended cameo of two scenes as his former WWE persona The Rock. He offers nothing but encouragement, and you never doubt – even without knowing Paige’s story – how the film will conclude. It’s mostly amusing, with an exceptionally over-qualified cast, but only occasionally does the setting offer genuine insight into this engorged and never-ending spectacle. “Why do you call him Sex Tape?” Paige asks The Rock, nodding to Hutch. “Because he makes people famous,” is the reply.