The family that chokeslams together stays together in Stephen Merchant’s scrappy Sundance-bowed wrestling comedy — a movie about as subtle as the “bowling ball to the bollocks” one hopeful grunt has to take early on, but still a winning one.
Based on a true story and executive-produced by Dwayne Johnson, who also drops in for a Rock-sized cameo, Fighting tells the unlikely tale of the Knight family: Ex-con Ricky (Nick Frost), his fuschia-haired wife Julia (Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey), and their nearly-grown offspring Zak (Jack Lowden), and Raya (Florence Pugh). (Another brother, played by James Burrows, spends about two-thirds of the story offscreen in prison.)
The Knights, with their lip rings and Megadeth T-shirts, look like working-class understudies for the Osbournes, but they live for the beloved American pastime of professional televised wrestling — an obsession that would come off a lot more expected Stateside than it does in the grim industrial outpost of Norwich, England.
It does allow them to be pretty much the only game in town when it comes to dominating the sport: Together, they run a sort of all-purpose gymnasium-slash-club house, mixing lessons for locals with DIY matches headlined by Zak and Raya, whose ultimate goal is to become WWE stars in their own right. Or is it their parents’ dreams they’re living out?
When the actual organization comes to London to look for new talent, both kids get their chance to audition for a golden ticket; the prize is a spot at the WWE’s Florida training facility courtesy of Hutch (Vince Vaughn), a stone-faced scout who seems to hold the weight of the world in the soft grey pouches beneath his eyes.
Only one of the siblings makes the cut; most fans who follow the league in real life will know which one. But Lowden (Dunkirk, Mary Queen of Scots) and Pugh (a compelling actress in everything she’s been in, from Outlaw King to AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl) are equally watchable, and better than Merchant’s broad-strokes script really allows for.
Still, the actor-writer-director — best known for his work on the original British Office and Extras — squeezes some good laughs (a seemingly tossed off Vin Diesel joke is brutally perfect) and even genuine pathos from Zak and Raya’s internal struggles as their diverging paths pull them further apart.
Most of Fighting’s narrative moves are as choreographed as any undercard match — and the outcome as clearly forecast — but the tears brought on by the movie’s last ten minutes of rhinestoned Rocky triumph taste salty, and real. B