'Fighting With My Family' Review: Stephen Merchant Gives WWE Fans The Wrestling Movie They Deserve

Dwayne Johnson now has a huge blockbuster career, but before that, he was one of the most popular professional wrestlers in the world. Now he's returning to his roots as himself in the new comedy Fighting with My Family, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, the creator of the UK version of The Office.

But this isn't the story of The Rock. Rather, it's the true story of Divas wrestler Paige and how she worked her ass off and rose to WWE fame thanks to the support and obsession of her unconventional wrestling family. And the result is not only the wrestling movie fans have always wanted, but one of the best underdog sports movies ever made about a female athlete.

Fighting with My Family follows Florence Pugh (The Commuter) as Saraya Knight, the daughter of a family so obsessed with wrestling that they stage their own matches, rolling around with each other in the ring. Saraya's frequent opponent is also her inspiration: her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden). Both siblings have big dreams of going pro in the WWE.

There's also Nick Frost as Ricky Knight, their father and promoter. A rowdy former bank robber who pours everything he has into the World Association of Wrestling in Norwich, England, he keeps sending tapes of his kids to the WWE for consideration. He's married to the slightly less rough-around-the-edges Julia (Lena Headey), who dresses like Joan Jett and has no problem showing love for her kids and supporting their big dreams.

Even though the WWE proves resistant to the Knight family's self-solicitation, both Saraya and Zak get a chance to show what they're made of when the WWE brings a show to London's O2 arena...complete with tryouts looking for the next big wrestler. When Saraya makes the cut and Zak doesn't, the underdog sports formula unfolds, with a little bit of sibling jealousy thrown in for good measure. It's the kind of story you've seen dozens of times before, but there are several elements that make Fighting with My Family stand out in a crowd.

This is very much a British comedy, which is not something we see often in sports films and is practically non-existent in stories about wrestling. Merchant (who also appears in a bit part as Zak's girlfriend's clueless father) and his brand of humor bring big laughs to a story that could have felt like the dopey 2000 wrestling movie, Ready to Rumble. Instead, Merchant leads with his working class sports heroes: they're blunt, proud, and hilariously inappropriate. That's a big part of what makes Saraya stand out in the ring, and it's also what makes her so thrilling to watch on screen.

Saraya is initially known as Britani in the ring, but the WWE already has a Diva with that name, so she becomes Paige. And when she arrives in America to get in proper shape for her debut in the NXT division (basically the WWE minor leagues), she certainly looks very different from the competition, who she perceives as blonde bimbos hailing from the world of cheerleading, dancing, and modeling. Since Paige looks more like a goth high school kid than a bikini model, she's not exactly the crowd favorite. But this affords the movie a unique opportunity, of which it takes full advantage.

Fighting with My Family celebrates the woman at the center of its story, letting her stand out from the typical WWE crowd. Paige struggles with her identity and appearance in the ring – we watch as she tries to force herself into a dishonest image to win over fans –  but she realizes that being herself is what sets her apart from the pack. It's a simple and even cheesy message, but it's one that feels necessary when telling the stories of female athletes.

Even more satisfying is how the film approaches sisterhood in the WWE. At first, Paige feels pitted against her female counterparts, judging them based on their looks and surface-level behavior. But they end up striking a bond with one another and developing a real camaraderie, forming a found family. It's welcoming and charming... especially since these women are competing for a job that will have them battling it out in the ring.

Fighting with My FamilyFighting with My Family portrays professional wrestling in a blockbuster fashion that has rarely been seen on the big screen. The excitement that comes from seeing Paige make her way up the ranks of WWE is triumphant – there are shades of Rudy here, spiced with a little bit of Happy Gilmore. I'm not even a wrestling fan, but even I was impressed by how the film presents the massive scale of events like WrestleMania. The film puts you right in the ring alongside Paige, surrounded by 20,000 screaming fans. It's a sequence that was actually shot in the span of an hour during a real WWE event with the support of the company, and it truly sells the experience.

And of course, there are a handful of real professional wrestlers who make cameos, including Dwayne Johnson as himself (where he throws a hilarious jab at Fast and Furious franchise co-star Vin Diesel).

Of course, this is a sports movie and it leans on the usual tropes and cliches. There are training montages aplenty (enforced by Vince Vaughn as the WWE's sarcastic scout/drill instructor), missteps for Paige to make along the way, and, since this is a true story, ultimately a triumphant climax. However, Merchant mixes up the formula by also tracking Zak as he struggles with being left behind. This may be a story about following your dreams, but it's also about accepting that life isn't over if you don't.

Stephen Merchant and Dwayne Johnson may make for an odd pairing, but that's appropriate for a movie about families, both makeshift and otherwise. And that makes this a special kind of uplifting sports flick, one that even non-wrestling fans can enjoy.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10Fighting with My Family hits theaters on February 14, 2019.