Ever since 1976, when the original Rocky was filmed here in Philadelphia, there has been a familiar formula: an unlikely underdog who overcomes the doubts of others and himself, and eventually emerges triumphant has been replicated hundreds of times over the last four decades.
The new Fighting With My Family, however, is the first Rocky-inspired film to apply the formula to a sport with a predetermined outcome.
The film, based on a British documentary of the same name, is the story of Paige (real name Saraya-Jade Bevis), a native of Norwich, England, who suddenly emerged as WWE Women’s champion a few years ago. Paige is played in the film by the very talented British actress, Florence Pugh.
Unlike most WWE women of the time, Paige looks less like a model than a goth type, and came from an actual blue-collar background, as her parents (played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey) were former wrestlers as well.
Paige and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are both young aspiring wrestlers, but when Paige is accepted into WWE’s training program and Zak is not, the jealousy becomes a major theme. One welcome aspect of the film is that it’s a believable portrayal of a working-class family.
Another notable aspect is that wrestling films of the past, from the one Barton Fink was writing to Hulk Hogan’s unintentionally hilarious No Holds Barred, have maintained “kayfabe,” which is wrestling’s ancient code for keeping up the pretense that the fighting is 100 percent real.
Fighting With My Family, like most ancillary WWE products today, leaves kayfabe behind entirely, acknowledging that wrestling is staged, but, at the same time, establishing that wrestlers are talented athletes who bring skills to the ring.
In its middle section, Fighting With My Family resembles the old WWE reality show Tough Enough, in which aspiring wrestlers go through training and are sent home one at a time, Survivor-style. Vince Vaughn, of all people, plays the main trainer.
It appears Stephen Merchant, writer and director of the film had the Rocky connection on his mind. On a recent visit to Philadelphia to promote the film,he filmed himself running up the steps. Additionally, executive producer and the film’s co-star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has been photographed in front of the statuei n at least two of its locations. Occasionally, he was even called “Rocky” in his wrestling days.
Johnson appears as himself and reminds us just how different Johnson’s current screen persona is from when he played the character known as The Rock.
One surprise, considering Merchant’s pedigree as co-creator of the original The Office and other noted comedies, is that the film isn’t especially funny. In a recent interview on Film Scribes, the podcast I co-host, Merchant admitted that he knew very little about pro wrestling going into the project.
The film was produced by WWE Studios, and it does feel at times like a commercial for WWE, although Fighting With My Family is a considerable improvement over the WWE production arm’s usual output, which is heavy on direct to video-on-demand genre films starring pro wrestlers. It’s enough to wonder what other WWE stars might get origin-story biopics – Mick Foley, in particular, comes to mind.
The scenes filmed in England, however, form a nice contrast with the more polished WWE product. The federation in Norwich, with its small venue and extreme style, bears more than a passing resemblance to ECW, the influential “hardcore wrestling” outfit that operated in South Philly throughout the 1990s. Nick Frost, as he’s made up in the film, looks exactly like someone The Sandman might have tossed through a table at ECW Arena in 1997.
Fighting With My Family is also stylistically very different from GLOW, the Netflix series about the independent women’s fed from the 1980s.
There is one false moment in Fighting With My Family. When Paige’s brother insists, “if you make the main roster [of WWE] you’ll be set for life.”
Anyone familiar with the economics of pro wrestling can tell you that that’s not true.
Pugh, who again plays Paige, gave an astonishing performance in a little-seen 2017 film called Lady Macbeth which, despite its title, was not a Shakespeare adaptation. She also shined in last year’s TV adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl. As Paige, she’s believable as a wrestler and as a talker-a talent which, as the film conveys, is an important one for a wrestling star to have. The real-life Paige actually retired from the ring last year, although that’s left out of the movie.
WWE these days takes women’s wrestling seriously in a way that it didn’t for a long time, although that of course went out the window when they did those events in Saudi Arabia, including the one a few weeks after the Jamal Khashoggi assassination.
The formula that Rocky gave us has gotten so repetitive and tiresome over the years that it took a complete re-orienting of it by a master filmmaker-Ryan Coogler’s great 2015 Creed-to revive the parent franchise. Fighting With My Family isn’t quite a complete reinvention, but it still takes the cliches we all know in a unique and inspiring direction.