Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson may never win any Oscars for his acting ability, but one thing’s for sure, he certainly knows how to spot a gap in the entertainment market in order to appeal to a mass audience. Whilst stuck in a London hotel during the production of the sixth Fast and Furious film a few years ago, the wrestler-turned movie star found himself becoming engrossed in a Channel 4 documentary, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family by director Max Fisher, depicting the not-so-everyday lives of the Bevis family.
A close knit family unit consisting of an ex-con father, who turned his life around thanks to the sport, his fellow wrestling enthusiast wife Julia and their two children, Zak and Saraya, who fights initially under the name ‘Brittani’ and would later go on to gain worldwide fame in the WWE under the moniker of ‘Paige’.
With his considerable clout now firmly established in the film industry, Johnson made a quick phone call to his friend, Ricky Gervais’ writing partner Stephen Merchant and got the project moving, developing the story into the biographical movie that has now hit cinema screens.
I’ll lay my cards firmly on the table here, until the last few years I’d held professional wrestling in low regard, but a couple of years ago, with my son’s newfound enthusiasm for it, I found myself watching a Wrestle Mania event and by about halfway through it I found myself enjoying the spectacle of it all. Eventually, much to my initial reluctance, I even ended up taking him to a local wrestling show, featuring what I believed would be a bunch of pot-bellied wannabes with no real athleticism. Much to my surprise these (presumably) part-time wrestlers displayed not only the commitment and, dare I say it, high flying skill of their American counterparts, but also the determination to put on the greatest show possible for the crowds of adoring youngsters who gazed on at them in amazement as if they were newly discovered superheroes. This is where this film essentially picks up the baton, with the family performing in local working men’s clubs, putting everything they can into their performance, hoping that one day it will lead to a shot at the big time for the younger members of the family by getting on the WWE roster of Superstar Wrestlers.
When both Zak and Saraya finally get the chance to audition for the WWE, the family thinks they’ve hit the jackpot but unfortunately only Saraya makes the cut, gaining the chance to travel to the States to take part in the WWE’s boot camp, leaving behind a despondent older brother and parents full of pride and expectations.
Whilst those familiar with the story of Paige’s (Saraya’s) rise to fame may have more of an interest in the film initially than non-fans of the sport, I’d urge you not to let this dampen your enthusiasm as what we’re given here is a touching and heartfelt story of one family’s love and collective ambition to achieve on the highest platform imaginable within their world.
Merchant not only impresses with his directorial prowess but also provides a script that successfully walks the tightrope of presenting a story of one family’s unique bond and love for each other without ever falling into schmaltz territory and at the same time produces genuine laugh out loud moments that feel perfectly organic. It has richly formed characters along with a script that’s both funny and full of pathos.
Where it would perhaps be easy for Merchant to bring mockery to the sporting spectacle of professional wrestling, instead he wisely chooses to embrace the loveable and colourful characters and treats the whole thing with a sense of respect and affection.
The two standout performances are Nick Frost’s overly ambitious father Ricky Knight and Florence Pugh’s central role as Saraya/Paige, who turns in a performance that’s both fiercely determined and yet perfectly counterbalanced with the insecurities that envelop her fish out of water story. Able support comes in the form of Jack Lowden as the left behind brother Zak and an almost unrecognisable Lena Headly as family matriarch Julia. It’s nigh-on impossible not to fall in love with this rough and ready family as their world flips upside down and they struggle to keep hold of their firm loving bond.
Able assistance is also on show in the form of boot camp drill master Hutch, (Vince Vaughn) who seems to channel his Dodgeball character Peter La Fleur’s love for the underdog, coupled with a few brief appearances from Mr Johnson who appears as himself and genuinely seems to relish in once again bringing out his wrestling persona, clearly evident in his love for the sport that’s brought him so much fame.
A surprisingly touching tale of a rise to glory and a family’s ultimate redemption, Fighting with My Family provides an enjoyable and entertaining story well worthy of a trip to the cinema and proves that Dwayne Johnson’s brow-raised eye for a worthwhile project is as savvy as ever.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 7/10
Fighting with My Family is on general theatrical release now.