Two years ago today, Stephen Merchant's Fighting with My Family hit cinemas in the UK, and a little over two years ago, I joined a jam-packed press screening for the professional wrestling film at Leicester Square. The film tells the real-life tale of WWE superstar Paige's (previously known as Saraya) colourful wrestling family in Norwich, England, and her journey to the pinnacle of wrestling, the WWE. As a life-long wrestling fan, the film's story and the fact it was produced by Dwayne ‘The Rock' Johnson was all the ammunition I needed to wait with bated breath to see what this wrestling project had to offer. Not only did the film far exceed my expectations with how well they transferred Paige's story to the big screen, but what I found more rewarding and enriching was witnessing and hearing the reaction of the people around me. The probability that the room was full of gigantic wrestling fans is likely small, and regardless of that fact, the people in attendance laughed and cheered with the characters, and some of them were even educated about the profession without being put to sleep. At that moment, it became apparent to me that Fighting with My Family was truly a revolutionary film. Through blending genres, tweaking a traditional Hollywood narrative, and taking Dwayne Johnson back to his ‘Rock' roots, it finally transformed Hollywood's often disrespectful and consistently dismissive presentation of the theatrical world of professional wrestling.
“Wrestling is an incredibly cinematic sport, but there's not that many movies made about it.” – In conversation with… the Fighting with My Family film-makers | BFI
Although there have not been a large number of wrestling films over the years (surprisingly), the track record for what had been made prior to 2019 was by no means stellar. In many cases, the results were laughable, painful, and terribly dismissive of what the profession was truly about, and in a lot of ways, the projects were also a reflection of Hollywood's attitude towards wrestling. WWE tried their hand at making a film centred on their world with No Holds Barred (1989), and it was, by all accounts, a cringe-worthy effort. Jack Black later used the profession as a base to get laughs in Nacho Libre (2006), and while it was certainly better than WWE's efforts, it did nothing to change the perspective that wrestling is a foolish world full of Neanderthals. Both suffer because they tried to present wrestling as “real” within their stories. Also, their finales, like countless other sports-centric films, revolved around a “fight” against a big antagonist. Of course, if you didn't know by now, wrestling isn't a legitimate sport – it's as WWE proudly states, “sports entertainment.”
On the other hand, when Hollywood did shift gears and created a film that actually highlighted the true performance art of wrestling, like with 2008's critically acclaimed The Wrestler, there remained this underlying negativity in how the industry presented wrestling. In Dwayne Johnson's own words, that was “the underbelly of wrestling.” The Wrestler is a truly horrific extreme of how poorly a wrestler's life can end up. So while it's true in its representation of the art form by showing Mickey Rourke's character cutting himself to bleed in a match, the likelihood of non-wrestling fans taking away any positivity or respect for wrestling was minimal. It was a unique contradiction, as it allowed wrestling to finally showcase its performance element and even show that it can be the subject of a truly terrific piece of cinema. However, at the same time, the bleak and rather depressing tone of the narrative did little to shift the perception that wrestling is this terrible world of entertainment. Even with an excellent film, there was a catch when it came to films that had wrestling as a subject. That was until… Fighting with My Family.
Fighting with My Family does take some of the genre elements of past wrestling films, as it is a comedy and a sports drama, and it explores the tricks of the trade of the profession, yet it also ties in relatable themes of the Rocky Esq. underdog, family, and being true to yourself. This clever combination allowed Merchant and co. to create an uplifting and feel-good story centred on the world of body slams. It also honours the profession by cleverly educating the uneducated and giving an accurate representation of Paige and the squared circle. All the while allowing the audience to laugh and invest in the journey of Paige, who's wonderfully portrayed by Florence Pugh.
The comedic element is an essential ingredient in that it was almost an ice breaker for those perhaps on edge when it came to the subject matter, and even for those within the wrestling community, they were able to appreciate the fact their world is a tad absurd. Whether it was Paige's father Ricky (Nick Frost) throwing a bowling ball at the privates of one of his wrestlers and calling it a “unique sensation,” or Paige's family meeting the parents of her brother Zak's (Jack Lowden) girlfriend in a hilariously uncomfortable meeting of the “normal” family and the wacky wrestling one. These scenes tickled the funny bones of the audience, regardless of if they understood wrestling or not, and this light-hearted tone eased in the audience before they had to learn more about the intricacies of Dwayne Johnson's former profession.
Once the audience was hooked by the humour and became invested in the characters, the dramatic elements seeped into the film and created a wonderful platform for the film to go in-depth into the world of WWE. Through intense drills at the WWE's Performance Center in Orlando, thousands of miles away from her home, Paige struggles with the physically demanding training. Also, with the delicate details of creating a “persona” through promo class, which is where wrestlers show their characters and advance storylines while speaking on the microphone. Through the drama of Paige's struggles and brilliantly accurate recreations of wrestling drills, we learn about terms like “get over,” and non-wrestling fans learn just how difficult it is to master the art at the highest level. Within this dramatic and challenging portion of Paige's journey, Merchant beautifully juggles respecting wrestling with the level of detail put into showcasing various elements of the profession. He also allows the non-fans to understand and appreciate what goes into making a great WWE superstar because they are ultimately aware the story has a fairytale ending, unlike The Wrestler. So just like Merchant stated in an interview with IGN, Fighting with My Family is “very much the antidote to The Wrestler.”
When it comes to the Rocky-style underdog vibe that Fighting with My Family so clearly possesses, the film does an excellent job tweaking some of the conventions that people tend to expect from this type of film. The primary change comes in the form of the obstacle that Paige has to overcome, which in this case isn't a rival wrestler, a move that would have gone down as cheesy and predictable. Although there is a big match at the end of the story (Paige's WWE debut), and she does initially have a combative relationship with the ex-models at the Performance Center, her battle is with her own identity. Paige ultimately has to embrace who she is to succeed, which is an unconventional and feisty girl full of heart from Norwich, England. The change in the obstacle allows the film to not revert to the trap of past wrestling films and general sports stories by having the big showdown with a rival competitor in a “real contest.” Plus, in addition to embracing who she is, her fortunes change when she decides to embrace working with the ex-models, which highlights the beautiful theme of family and community that not many are aware exists in wrestling. As is stated in the book Performance and Professional Wrestling, “it is a performance form that is both intensely physical, even dangerous at times, yet at its core, it is a cooperative, theatrical effort between two performers.”
The 2019 release truly broke the mould for wrestling-focused films in more ways than one. It showed the real side of professional wrestling while laughing with the wrestlers, not at them, and it also showed that the world of professional wrestling and WWE has the inspiring human stories we all love as well. The film is jazzed up and tweaked to add the desired Hollywood effect, as Paige's title-winning RAW debut at the climax didn't actually involve a passionate speech after the match. However, it is a wrestling tale that's almost 95% accurate according to Paige and her family, brought to life, and despite it not being an original Hollywood creation, it stands with a 93% critics score and an 86% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The journey of professional wrestling on the big screen is still in the early stages of this evolution, as this big shift in presentation with Merchant's film only came two years ago. But it is akin to the change in perception towards superhero blockbusters. Arguably the biggest compliment to a superhero film now is that it's simply a great film that happens to be about superheroes. Looking at its percentage score, the reaction from the Leicester Square audience over two years ago, and a comment from a young actor and a colleague of mine who said that Fighting with My Family “didn't feel like a ‘wrestling film' as you'd expect one to be,” and it was a film about her [Paige] journey and not fitting in. The “wrestling film” seemingly attained that same prestigious superhero compliment.
“Couldn't look the way I look, couldn't talk about wrestling, couldn't work out as much, had to slim down, couldn't make it about masculinity. … Finally, I said, ‘Well, I'm not that, and I can't be that.'” – Dwayne Johnson (Hollywood Reporter)
Fighting with My Family would, of course, never have materialized had it not been for the one and only, Dwayne ‘The Rock' Johnson. Johnson stars as somewhat of a mentor figure for Paige in the film, but he's also the producer and the man who saw the original Channel 4 documentary on Paige's family and decided to turn it into a feature for the big screen. In more ways than one, the project represents a full circle journey for Johnson, who in 2011 reached new heights of superstardom thanks to Fast & Furious 5 and finally showcased his truest self to the world, as he also returned to the WWE that same year.
In Fighting with My Family, Johnson dives in and out of ‘Rock mode' – from cutting a promo on Paige and her brother where he refers to them as “two rejects from Harry Potter.” However, in the blink of an eye, shifts back to Dwayne Johnson by imparting wisdom on the siblings that The Rock is Dwayne Johnson, just with the volume turned up, and encourages them to “be the first you.” In that one scene, it's arguable that audiences have never seen a truer, more honest look at the superstar on-screen as he effortlessly blends his ‘reel' and ‘real' personalities. He embraces two young dreamers calling him The Rock, showcases that loud personality that helped guide him to Hollywood, and drops the wisdom that he consistently shares to this day, of being yourself. All of this wrapped in a film that was spearheaded by him to ensure that professional wrestling, an industry that's been an integral part of his family's life for generations, is honoured in Hollywood.
It's hard to deny Johnson and Merchant have helped turn the corner for how wrestling is and should be presented in Hollywood productions. Although, the journey and this transition to remove this stigma against Johnson's world of larger-than-life figures is by no means near completion. In an interview with Dark Side of the Ring producer Evan Husney, he informed me that: “It [wrestling] just always seems like one of those things that's still stigmatised, and we find that across the board.” The statement also goes hand-in-hand with a comment made by Johnson's producing partner Dany Garcia to the Hollywood Reporter, where she stated that countless studios passed on Fighting with My Family because wrestling “has a certain stigma.” Fighting with My Family was also more of an independent project with a small budget, and it ultimately earned a little over 40 million at the worldwide box office. Making its reach and impact a lot smaller, even though it clearly had the desired effect on those who watched the film.
Although there is a long way to go yet, the progress in this newfound evolution is visible in 2021. Young Rock, a series that explores Johnson's early life, is throwing around wrestling terminology and spotlighting various legendary wrestling characters without any resistance or “catch.” It's a clear sign of Johnson continuing from where he left off in 2019 and ensuring the desired presentation continues, this time with a big series on NBC. In addition to this, we're expecting a Hulk Hogan biopic starring Chris Hemsworth. Netflix is producing a multi-part documentary on WWE CEO Vince McMahon, and seemingly more and more ex/current WWE superstars are being placed in high-profile roles (John Cena in HBO Max's Peacemaker). Now, it's hard to justify or claim this is all due to Fighting with My Family, but the film's quality has no doubt turned a lot of heads. It showed what a wrestling film could be, should be, and that allowing the industry and its characters to be presented honestly and positively on screen can still lead to a narrative that will touch the hearts of audiences, whether they're wrestling fans or not.