Ever since its inception in 2002, WWE Studios hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to a theatrical output. But with WWE alumni Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson onboard to produce Fighting With My Family, a film from writer-director Stephen Merchant about the life of Paige, one of the promotion’s own professional wrestlers, the company finally takes a step in an upward direction in quality thanks to a strong script with funny banter, likable characters and strong performances from everyone involved.
Based on the true story of professional wrestler Paige, the movie chronicles her rise from her upbringing in a working-class family of wrestlers to her debut in World Wrestling Entertainment, and the trials and tribulations she encounters along the way.
In the last several decades, the art forms of cinema and professional wrestling have seldom crossed over in the mainstream spotlight, but began to sporadically in the early 80s when Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea had starring roles in B-movies such as No Holds Barred and Mr. Nanny, while Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s rise to Hollywood stardom began in 2001 when he took a hiatus from wrestling for World Wrestling Entertainment to play The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. Soon after, the prolific wrestling company tried to capitalize on this by launching WWE Studios in an effort to expand the entertainment aspect of ‘sports entertainment’ (ie. how WWE chairman Vince McMahon defines his style of professional wrestling).
Following their assistance in the production of The Rock’s next film, Mummy-spinoff The Scorpion King, WWE Studios’ next theatrical features were the horror film See No Evil, the John Cena action vehicle The Marine, and The Condemned starring ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Since those releases were respectively met in 2006 and 2007 to less-than-stellar box office returns and poor critical reception, the majority of their output has mostly been relegated straight-to-DVD, save for a few successful theatrical releases in the Halle Berry thriller The Call, and collaborations with Blumhouse founder Jason Blum (Oculus, Sleight).
This year, WWE Studios has partnered with Film4 and the iconic studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to produce Fighting With My Family, a sports-family comedy about the life of one of their own wrestlers, that being professional wrestler Saraya Knight (to be referred from here as Paige, her ring name). The film details Paige’s rise from her upbringing in an eccentric family of wrestlers in England to one of the best personalities in WWE today. In his solo directorial debut of a theatrical release, comedian Stephen Merchant succeeds in crafting a very funny film with a charming, feel-good message about the powerful bonds of family thanks to strong performances from the ensemble cast, hilarious dialogue and an authentic portrayal of both sides of the wrestling class that will leave audiences feeling good well past the end.
Fighting With My Family begins in Norwich, England, where Paige (Florence Pugh) lives with her family of professional wrestlers in the independent scene; her ex-wrestler father Ricky (Nick Frost) and mother Julia (Lena Headey) run a wrestling school, while brother Zak (Jack Lowden) teaches his peers and younger children about the art of the sport. Following a wrestling show put on by the school, Ricky sends the recruitment offices of WWE audition tapes of Paige and Zak, and just a short time later, gets a call from Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), a talent scout who invites the two siblings to tryout for the iconic promotion in London.
Paige and Zak then audition for WWE with unexpected results: only Paige is offered a developmental contract, to much resentment from her brother. From there, Paige travels to Florida to join the developmental roster and live her dream of being a professional wrestler, while Zak returns to Norwich with uncertainty of how to move forward with his life.
Merchant previously co-directed Cemetery Junction with Ricky Gervais and directed Hello Ladies: The Movie to air for HBO, but in helming his first solo theatrical feature, it’s more than evident that comedy is his strong suit as a director, because his ensemble delivers the banter of his screenplay with great timing and the right amount of deadpan delivery to ensure maximum laughter, like early on at a dinner party when the parents of Zak’s girlfriend call wrestling fake to much ire from Ricky and Julia, or when passers-by talk down to Paige about wrestling and her parents, prompting her to respond with a dry, but savage verbal jab.
The ensemble also does their part to make the misfits of the Knight family endearing and likable; Ricky and Julia are jokers themselves, and Zak and Paige give each other a hard time, but it’s always in good fun, and it’s easy to be endeared by their strong bond: this is a family formed and brought together by wrestling, and the support they give each other in their endeavors within the sport keeps them together, no matter how far Paige has to travel. It’s also worth noting that the film succeeds in showcasing the parallels and contrasts between the high production values of the developmental shows WWE puts on, and the shabby circumstances of Ricky’s wrestling school. The Knight family goes to incredible lengths just to get merchandise made of their daughter, let alone keeping the school running month-to-month, while Paige and Zak stand flummoxed in awe of the bright lights and vastness of the Smackdown Live stage before their tryouts.
While Fighting With My Family gets the struggles of running a very indie promotion right, it has struggles of its own in hitting the emotional punches as hard as they should, especially in how it tamely conveys the hardships of select characters. While the training regiment Paige goes through under the tutelage of Hutch feels challenging just looking at it, Zak’s struggles to make ends meet while raising a child with his girlfriend are only covered every so often, and through expository dialogue. The movie also plays it safe in terms of story structure, and doesn’t stray far from the path of familiarity other sports movies have laid before it; it’s easy to see where Paige’s time in the NXT developmental brand takes her as the film goes along.
That being said, Fighting With My Family is aimed for a wide audience, and people of all ages will be engaged to watch Paige’s life story play out because the story is relatable, the cast has great chemistry, and the dialogue is fun and full of wit, and the results from those elements is a charming watch from beginning to end. Die-hard wrestling fans will recognize the wrestlers that background actors are standing in for, as well as the indie wrestling merchandise Paige wears from scene to scene, and even enjoy cameos from their favorite wrestlers (the most notable one being the film’s producer, Dwayne Johnson). Meanwhile, casual moviegoers and entire families will enjoy this movie regardless of whether or not they’re fans of professional wrestling, because Fighting With My Family might have a familiar plot line, but the story at its core is something everyone can relate to, and boasts a strong script, a great cast, and an endearing protagonist that everyone will want to see succeed from the opening bell.