I just returned from my local theater after seeing “Fighting With My Family.” (Spoilers ahead, so please avoid if you don’t want to know specific plot details before seeing the film.)
I’ve been cautiously optimistic about “Fighting With My Family” since learning about the project some two or so years ago. It’s rare to see to see two of my biggest passions (wrestling and film) collide in such a big way, with a major studio, major actors, and a whole lot of positive buzz. It was shocking to see “The Wrestler” mount an Oscar campaign, and even that barely crossed over into the mainstream. I was equally surprised to learn “Fighting With My Family” would be getting a major, wide release and shocked when I saw its immensely impressive collection of favorable critic reviews.
It helps that the film was written and directed by Stephen Merchant, who has a knack for comedic timing and well-fleshed out, living characters. (Check out his grossly underrated comedy “Hello Ladies” on HBO if you haven’t; it’s great stuff.) That’s on display here to some extent, with inspired performances from most of the film’s leads (Florence Pugh as Saraya/Paige being the stand out.) Vince Vaughn plays the quiet motivator, a journeyman pro wrestler turned coach who apparently was thrown off a 30 foot steel cage by The Rock at some point in his career. This fictional portrayal carnied up the story a bit too much for me, and he felt out of place throughout much of the film. Unfortunately, biopic tropes pop up in spades and prevent the film from really reaching above a relatively low bar set by a lot “popcorn” sports stories.
That’s not to say the film isn’t enjoyable. It’s a very easy, pleasing watch with an effective and accessible story. I tried to approach it with two minds – one a scrupulous film watcher, and the other, a scrupulous wrestling fan. It passes the first test (though I wouldn’t give it a glowing recommendation on that front), but misses the mark on the latter. While I appreciated the fact that the film never patronizes pro wrestling as a genre, it doesn’t exactly treat its fans with the utmost respect. Characters make flippant remarks about the audience’s intelligence, and a few scenes that occur in the Performance Center/Training Facility utilize a hostile and wildly dramatic portrayal of heckler fans as a story device. It’s the kind of thing that a casual film watcher thinks pro wrestling is, while the pro wrestling fan in the audience rolls his/her eye.
The film plays to the former type of viewer, too. Supplied WWE footage in the early portion of the film is strictly from the Attitude Era – namely Steve Austin, The Rock, and Triple H. It doesn’t match the timeline, but it ingratiates the audience with names it faces it expects them to know.
The timeline is decidedly quickened and renders the final act of the film feeling immensely rushed and wholly unrealistic. Again, the unknowing movie-goer will likely not think twice about the film’s large omissions, but the wrestling fan will likely take umbrage with the fact that Paige’s time in NXT is almost entirely absent. While I understand films require tight editing, the script sees Paige barely getting through tag team showcase matches in Florida spot shows before being immediately called up to the main roster to face A.J. Lee on Raw.
Her “call-up” is revealed to her and to the audience by The Rock, who had a chance encounter with Paige and her brother early in the film, setting up the climax. Recognizable faces are largely absent. The Big Show and Sheamus share some brief lines about hot dogs, and The Miz makes a very quick cameo but has no lines. Thea Trinidad (Zelina Vega) is effective as A.J. Lee, and really nails A.J.’s vocal delivery. Her look is changed dramatically for the film, likely to scrub A.J.’s “alternative” look so as to drive home the point that Paige was unique and different than the rest of the “Divas.”
The in-ring scenes, shot at a live Raw, are the film’s weakest points, and scream “B-Movie” far more than I would have expected coming from a production of this stature. Little attention was paid to logo or arena continuity – pre-taped footage from Monday Night Raw using the show’s 2014 entrance is showed on monitors backstage just before Paige enters onto the current Raw stage set-up. These small details will likely take savvy pro wrestling fans out of the moment and sour the final portion of the film.
Ultimately, “Fighting With My Family” shines in the smaller, intimate moments shared between the Knight Family. It appears as though many scenes were shot-for-shot recreations of the original documentary, and that’s when the movie is at its best. Once Paige arrives in Florida and the WWE branding kicks into high gear, it sort of devolves into a generic, wildly inaccurate portrayal of the business the family works so hard to promote.
I recommend wrestling fans watch the film solely because it’s an intriguing story and a rare chance to see pro wrestling on the big screen. Don’t be surprised, though, if you wind up saying “that’s not how this works…” to yourself quite a bit, though.
NOW CHECK OUT PREVIOUS REVIEW: MOVIE REVIEW: “Fighting With My Family” gets a strong thumbs up from pro wrestling fan