Review: Fighting With My Family (12A, 108 mins)

Mötley Crüe, Maiden, Motörhead…and a giant poster of Metallica’s Master Of Puppets. Metal’s enduring crossover with wrestling is writ large across Fighting With My Family and it’s just one of the reasons why Stephen Merchant’s first movie as a solo writer-director slams the opposition into submission.

There’s one particularly memorable minibus scene – in which a bunch of cute kids bang their heads and sing in unison to Maiden’s wholly inappropriate Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter – that rivals the Bohemian Rhapsody trip in Wayne’s World. Thanks, in part, to Marvel the kickass soundtrack is making a long-awaited comeback and the heavy riffs, which underpin a family drama with a soft underbelly, are pitched perfectly.

Making herself heard above all of the peripheral noise – those classic cuts, familial infighting and the wild excess of the WWE PR machine – is Saraya Knight. Hooked on grappling since the age of 13 and part of the family ‘business’ (WAW), the heroine of this instantly likeable true-life tale is ballsy, beautiful and, crucially, believable.

And making a wrestling film believable is just one of the challenges facing Merchant. The sport itself is renowned for its well-rehearsed ‘fights’, cheesy banter and carefully scripted, pre-determined storylines. Merchant tackles any potential criticism head-on and the scene involving a has-been heavyweight, a dustbin lid and a bowling ball takes some beating (quite literally) as an hilarious pre-emptive strike.

It’s the tacit acceptance of wrestling’s theatrical weaknesses – coupled with a stirring defence of its dramatic strengths – that makes Fighting With My Family so compelling. Those new to the sport and unaware of the WWE’s position as US entertainment kingpins, will have their eyes opened to a world where only the strong survive. Saraya’s journey from Norwich-based hopeful to global star and title contender is far from simple. And the decision to focus on the unrelenting NXT training camp – the WWE’s unforgiving school for future stars – is a massive shot in the arm for wrestling’s credibility. 

As a character, the audience is fighting Saraya’s corner from the off. And few would have forgiven Merchant for using creative licence to ensure her fiercely ambitious brother, Zak, joined his sister on the journey of a lifetime. That would be the Disney way. This is a film that mirrors the trials and tribulations of the Knight family more closely than might have been expected and what starts out as a shared passion swiftly drives a wedge between the wrestling siblings.

Casting is key to a cracking film. Dwayne Johnson – aka The Rock – is a blast as himself and Saraya’s mum and dad (Lena Heady and Nick Frost) almost threaten to steal the show: the pull and push of a dysfunctional East Anglian clan is just as dramatic as the in-ring action.

If the rousing finale is utterly predictable then it stands alone within a smart and keenly judged screenplay that constantly surprises and frequently thrills. Any movie that kicks off with Crüe’s Wild Side deserves serious consideration but throw in Thunderpussy’s Taking Care Of Business and Motörhead’s Born To Raise Hell and it becomes unmissable. Even without the wrestling.