REVIEW: Fighting With My Family

Move over Stone-Cold Steve Austin; looks like we have a case of Stone-Cold Steve Merchant.

Raised in a tight-knit British wrestling family, the punkish Paige secures a spot in the WWE competitive training program, running the risk of losing the love and support of her determined older brother, Zak, who’s dreams of the “big time” slowly diminish due to his sister’s success.

I think I have noted before that I am a big fan of Stephen Merchants. The co-creator and writer of hit shows like The Office and Extras with the occasional acting role here and there (but I guess best known for his part in the decade long roasting of one, Karl Pilkington), Merchant may not have the largest, long-running career of a filmmaker in the industry, but his outputs have quite usually proven to be well-rounded gold. I remember hearing Merchant’s voice a lot on podcasts and radio, considering him hilarious and insightful, but I never actually bore the chance to see the man until 2010’s Tooth Fairy… where he happened to be paired with non-other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And although that movie was light, fluffy, crowd-pleasing fun, it would appear the best element to arise from it was the pairing of Merchant and Johnson and the unexpected biographical comedy drama that would be born from the two, a decade later.

A project offered from Johnson to Merchant, Fighting With My Family has seemingly emerged as the surprise hit of early 2019. A hilarious, dramatic recount of the events that boosted WWE’s Paige to stardom, Merchant’s wrestling biopic encompassed the best elements of snappy, witty comedy with heartfelt, emotional pay-offs. Really underlining the very concept of WWE – of how it may be fixed but not fake – Fighting With My Family may stumble through some sporting clichés but managed to balance its inability to be entirely fresh with its pure charm and charismatic prowess.

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(Robert Viglasky/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, 2019)

Now, usually I will find major negatives in a movie that gives into clichés and follows certain formulaic structures in order to find some ounce of success, but with Fighting With My Family, I found it easy to look past these derivative negatives purely because of the talent onscreen. Due to mainly the Rocky movies, you will be hard pressed to find a fresh and dynamic way to build a nuance film about a wrestler or boxer as you’d discover almost every avenue has already been uncovered. When it comes to these biographical, character study type sport movies, I no longer believe it to be a challenge to formulate a new way to plot the story (since almost everything has now been done), but more-or-less to entertain the audience and furtherly distract them from noticing they’re just seeing the same old movie play out. Through the snappy writing of Merchant, the excellent performances of the actors and the film’s adoration of WWE, Fighting With My Family managed to avoid being a “pretentious” recount of the cliché sports drama and instead made itself at home with its clichés – really embracing its familiar atmosphere to tell a well-realised story.

Fighting With My Family grounded itself in a Green Street Hooligans-type culture of, almost, the British lower class, or, at least, the working class man. The film never appeared afraid to play into the attitudes and lifestyles of its lead family, mining a lot of its niche British subculture antics for comedy, but also for a means to truly care about the character’s troubled worlds – because, well, when you truly have almost nothing, you at least have your family. Fighting With My Family really drove home the importance of family support impacting dreams and furtherly equating to success. Painting these characters into a corner where their only comfort was one another, really helped push Fighting With My Family down an emotional road of resentment, fear and finding oneself. The very title of Fighting With My Family, easily worked to create a double meaning of one, quite literally fighting with loved ones and two, fighting alongside loved ones… the true complexities of family dynamic in reality; never simple but always morphing and changing.

Although Fighting With My Family found equal emotional weight and comedic support from the parental characters of Rowdy Ricky Knight and Sweet Saraya, it would be a disservice to the film to not centrally highlight the layered and incredibly deep relationship seen between the siblings, Paige and Zak. A strong amount of the film’s drama came from the bond between the two siblings as, much like A Star Is Born, the film depicted the rise of one star and the simultaneous fall of another, as the two intersect for what it appeared to be a moment… only Fighting With My Family may have been more complex than A Star Is Born. The relationship between siblings is quite unlike any other and the WWE biopic really proved it so. The relationship between Paige and Zak was never stable but always built on passion – whether constant love and adoration or resentment and confusion, never did the bond between the siblings not feel like it was beating a thousand times a minute, like a true relationship between brother and sister. Everything about the characters of Paige and Zak felt real from the darker changes they undertook over the course of the film to the realisation they needed each other when times got truly tough. Calling back to the WWE mantra of it being fixed but never fake, Fighting With My Family may have been fixed to be a cliché sporting drama revolving around a character study but the emotion in said character study was never fake – everything felt real and earned.

And a lot of the reason why the film felt completely deserving of its ability to bring a slight tear to the eye of audiences towards the end, was because of the amazing acting talent on show. Both Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden were insanely good as Paige and Zak, never skipping a beat in their delivery or emotional ranges. Lena Headey also offered some rather touching moments whilst Nick Frost… good gosh, was the standout. Sure, Pugh and Lowden deserve a claim for their roles, but Frost as the seasoned performer he is, really stole the show in the scenes he came to feature in. A visual comedian and genius line deliver, Fighting With My Family garnered a strong amount of entertainment from Frost and his ingenious performance. Also, not to forget Vince Vaughn who, like a lighter version of his character in Hacksaw Ridge, really proved his ability to bring a serious edge to the film. The main source of conflict resulted from Vaughn’s character and yet, despite his comedic routes, Vaughn yet again proved his ability to really take control of more dramatic and powerful cinema roles as seen in Hacksaw Ridge, but now also in Fighting With My Family.

By the way, The Rock was certainly in this movie… but only in two scenes. The duel sequences Johnson appeared in were incredible but, yeah, he was not the star of Fighting With My Family and for that reason the film worked better to keep him as a special, one-off appearance.

The Rock, like most of the WWE elements in Fighting With My Family, felt kept at bay but still close enough to really sell the culture of the sport for the period time it ruled the world. I may have never been too big on WWE as a kid, but, honestly, I think if you ever did have a fascination with the world of WWE, Fighting With My Family would certainly be a film you should check out. Surprise cameos, solid insights into training methods and archival and/or recreated footage that would surely trigger some nostalgic value, Fighting With My Family really managed to be that penultimate crowd-pleasing picture.

To be frank, there was hardly anything in the movie not to like from an easy-going audience member perspective as I would definitely say Fighting With My Family was a quality family film… well not for little kids at least. Although, coming from the perspective of technical analyzation, Merchant’s first solo big screen directorial effort, was not entirely perfect, as much as I hoped it would be. Much like with how Aaron Sorkin managed his directorial debut, Molly’s Game, its obvious with Fighting With My Family that Merchant is a highly talented writer with a director’s vision that does not quite match his skill of producing a polished script. With Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, the movie’s biggest fault was the fact that the talented writer could not visualise his words as well as he wrote them. Similarly, Fighting With My Family never felt like it had a specific or captivating directorial vision. Not to say Merchant did a bad job directing this film, but Fighting With My Family never visually matched in quality the genius of Merchant’s writing. Despite being a really well written film, Fighting With My Family could obviously be picked out in the long run as a director’s first rodeo as opposed to a seasoned effort.

Fighting With My Family wrapped up with a rather cheesy speech and conclusion that felt a bit too “perfect”, as in for the characters – like there were no loose ends and everyone lived happily ever after. And that’s fine; films can go down the road of tying up every loose end and making everything appear polished and pristine, but I guess, because of the well-done execution of the film leading up to its finale, the culmination just stood out to me as bit too much on the “fine” side rather than a powerful and impactful close.

Seriously, when I actually think about it, the only real problems I had with Fighting With My Family were brief nitpicks, whereas almost everything else about it was highly entertaining. I could, in fact, definitely recommend Fighting With My Family for multiple reasons, despite the fact its not exactly a masterclass. An enjoyable film, dedicated to a fixed formula, that still manages to prove to the world that, when you look closely enough, none of it is fake – it all comes from the heart.

Fighting With My Family is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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