Throw The Rock at any film and chances are you’re going to improve it by some margin. That super slick and sharp wit matched with enough charisma to crush a human skull is what draws us in every single time. Though it’s been on display in the build-up to Fighting with My Family, Mr Johnson cameos briefly in Stephen Merchant’s latest comedy, on board mainly as a producer here. Instead, it’s the real-life family he became fascinated with, after one dismal night in London who are the main attraction. Channel hopping along on the box, he stopped on a documentary about the Knights; a family of wrestlers from Norwich in England who always had their eye on the world of WWE. Kids of the clan – Paige and Zack – went to tryouts for the holy land of steel chairs and fold-out tables, with only the former making the cut. This marked one of the few rare elements the film has that other underdog tales might not necessarily venture into; a story not just about the contender that achieved the impossible, but also the one that didn’t.
Written and directed by Merchant, who hasn’t called the big screenshots since the criminally overlooked Cemetery Junction in 2010 with former partner-in-crime, Ricky Gervais, Fighting with My Family sees him going solo but wields the same familiar familial traits and undeniable small-town feel. Much like that film’s focus on getting away from it all in the hopes of better things, the journey is made all the more appealing with the cast that is on it. Nailing every single branch of the Knight family tree, Nick Frost and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey are parents Ricky and Julia (both absolutely tremendous), channelling their hopes and dreams (for better or worse) into their offspring Saraya and Zak, played by Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden, who undoubtedly give the most compelling and truly surprising performances in the film.
Saraya’s turn to Paige (her stage name) and WWE glory is understandably the main event, but Fighting with My Family ensures that time is also spent on the sibling that didn’t reach the spotlight, also earning an equal amount of time in the ring. Seeing this Norwich-born Diva Champion-in-the-making burdened with family pressures and battling with even the possibility of fame is undeniably compelling, and Pugh pins it down wonderfully. Rough around the edges but with only the best intentions, she gets put through her paces but rarely falters, handling that underdog archetype just right, opposite the likes of Dwayne Johnson (albeit briefly) and Vince Vaughn’s tough to crack coach (imagine an edgier Pete from Dodgeball, had he never beaten White). The most active element that blends so brilliantly though is seeing this inner turmoil grow and ripple out across the pond and back home to her bitter older brother.
Lowden is a wonderful ringside partner to Pugh, who provides an earnest and dependable performance as the fallen Knight. Trying all he can to keep in high spirits as his sister gets a ticket to a future he’s wanted all his life, seeing him slowly fade into Paige’s shadow is heartbreaking as he battles with the idea of tapping out and wondering where to go next. It’s a perspective that rarely gets shown and is a welcome element at times, and Merchant handles it with care for when the two finally collide. The issue is that much like the sport it’s highlighting, some of it all feels a bit too staged.
There are specific mechanisms that just can’t be removed from an underdog story, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be handled differently. Fighting with My Family instead risks losing the crowd by treading over routines and going through the motions rather than break out of them. Paige hits hard times only for her to take the challenge head-on in a final act that comes out of nowhere for those that don’t know her backstory and feels skimmed over. It doesn’t tarnish the film too much, but it is frustrating for a movie that is clearly aching to go beyond the mat and doesn’t. Still, when the final bell rings and the ref makes the count, Fighting with My Family has fought enough to earn a few air punches along the way.