The global fanfare for the recent unveiling of the trailer for Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw highlighted just what a big deal, in the cinematic world, Dwayne Johnson has become. But he has left the exploding cars and special effects behind for his latest venture, as he returns to his roots of professional wrestling in Fighting with My Family.
Before you get too excited, this is not a vehicle for Johnson to show off his in-ring talents from his days as The Rock, which made him one of the biggest superstars to come from World Wrestling Entertainment. Instead, he is an executive producer on the film and has a couple of very well-worked cameos playing himself in this comedy/drama, which is written and directed by Stephen Merchant.
The film is based on the true story of English wrestler Saraya "Paige" Bevis (Florence Pugh) and her journey from growing up in a family of wrestlers in Norwich, to trying to be signed by the WWE, the biggest professional wrestling company in the world, after impressing at a try-out.
That is the origin for the 108 minutes of action here, although a lot of creative licence has been used for the various twists and turns of Bevis's journey. When we first meet Bevis, she is working in wrestling shows with her family. Parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) run the business, with Saraya and older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) starring in the ring in front of small crowds. Bevis and her brother are invited to a try-out with the WWE in London, where their talents are assessed by the company's head trainer Hutch (Vince Vaughn).
Problems arise when Saraya is selected to go to Florida to join WWE's training academy for potential new stars, but Zak is turned down. He cannot hide his devastation at missing out on his big chance and struggles to handle his jealousy as his sister lives his dream.
But it is no fantasy for Saraya either, as she struggles to fit in with other wrestling talent over in the United States, deals with homesickness and is told to find a new wrestling identity by Hutch if she wants to make it to WWE's main roster, leading her deciding to use the in-ring name Paige.
There should be a lot of reasons not to like this. It is predictable – even if you are not a WWE aficionado you will know where this is going well before the final act materialises – and there are very little genuine jeopardy moments. And yet Fighting with My Family works and is a genuine, feel-good feature. Merchant does a good job of moving the action along and the plot never feels like it drags, while there are some good comedy moments and some great one-liners.
One particularly smart act of the film comes early in proceedings when Zak’s girlfriend and her parents visit the family for dinner and accidentally cause offence by calling wrestling “fake”. Ricky’s defense of the business proves entertaining and works not only as an amusing scene, but as a subtle wrestling explainer to those watching in the audience who are not so familiar with it.
The wrestling scenes, of which there are many, are well-shot and the decision to use real WWE superstars as doubles for some of the key moments is a good one, as the pain and impact of the staged moves come across well.
Pugh also continues to expand her burgeoning reputation. This is very different to her breakout roles in Lady Macbeth and in the BBC TV drama The Little Drummer Girl. But she carries the film with an enthusiastic turn and sells the highs and lows of trying to make it in the challenging world of WWE, while trying to come to terms with her own identity.
Merchant is careful, though, to make sure he is never poking fun, or looking down, at the family at the heart of the story. The film is about celebrating one family’s passion, in this case wrestling, and how it keeps them together and provides not only them, but other members of the community with happiness. Merchant’s smart direction, the charisma of Pugh, and the well-judged cameos of the film’s executive producer ensure this is a lot of fun and well worth a watch, even if you are indifferent to your submission holds.
Fighting with My Family is in cinemas now