FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY: American professional wrestling has always been a choreographed melodrama performed by stuntmen to the delight of the working class along with being a guilty pleasure for baby boomers who still smile fondly when recalling a childhood watching “The Iron Claw”. But for the hardscrabble, rough around the edges ex-con British father (Nick Frost) and his formerly homeless spouse (Lena Headey) with multi-colored hair in this crowd-pleasing, quirky film, it’s a positive obsession. It’s also their hoped for outlet to fame and fortune for their two nearly grown children (Jack Lowden, Florence Pugh), named Zak and Raya, who are the main event at their grappling club where bottom barrel matches are staged for the locals and athletic prowess is supplanted by the ability to withstand a bowling ball shot to the nether region. But both of the youths get their opportunity at WWE stardom when the organization comes to London in search of new talent. But when the cliché of only the sister being chosen is invoked, the story in director/writer Stephen Merchant’s screenplay follows Raya’s struggles to make the big show while Zak’s life flounders as he loses a sense of self-worth after his dreams are dashed. It’s a familiar story but it does happen to be true and like the ROCKY movies, we see shots of Raya training vigorously as she runs in slow motion while her brother, in a more compelling storyline, tries to find his own identity beyond the ring before he winds up coming to a bad end. Pugh (OUTLAW KING) gives a strong enough performance to carry a movie like this although there are occasional scenes where the charisma that made her professional alter-ego, real-life WWE star Paige, a fan favorite feel absent. Not so with Lowden (DUNKIRK) and Vince Vaughn’s (THE WEDDING CRASHERS) blunt speaking scout/coach who comes off, at times, like he’s channeling Louis Gossett Jr. from AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982) by helping his charges achieve their full potential even as he destroys the hopes of others he knows will always be on the outside of ring glory looking in. Although as predictable as a warm-up undercard match, this movie does have a healthy serving of heart and humor to win over even the most cynical non-fans of the “sport”. CRITIC’S GRADE: B
CLOSING CREDITS: The cinematic barometer by which all other movies with professional wrestling as the subject matter are measured is THE WRESTLER (2008). Mickey Rourke (BODY HEAT, DINER) drives home a tour-de-force performance as aging pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson who despite failing health continues to ply his trade in an attempt to regain the fame he had in his heyday in the ‘80s. Outside of the ropes, the title character tries to mend a relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) even as he begins to develop feelings with a local stripper (Marisa Tomei) who’s also something of an on the fringes entertainer considered old for her profession. Maryse Alberti’s documentary style cinematography was shot in a variety of seamy locations in New Jersey (Aren’t all locations in New Jersey seamy?) with a glam metal ‘80s soundtrack utilized as nostalgia pieces and also featured Bruce Springsteen’s elegiac sounding “The Wrestler” during the closing credits. Some of the roles were played by actual denizens from the low end wrestling world and the movie represented a comeback for Rourke after a career that felt self-sabotaged by a string of crappy films and an ill-advised foray into professional boxing which messed up his formerly handsome in a sleazy kind of way looks.