Just a heads up, I’m going to be reviewing this from the perspective of a wrestling fan so there might be a few points where I may say a bit of jargon that only wrestling fans are really going to know, but I will try my best to be as to the point as possible. To be fair though, it’s going to be very hard to separate that because, the fact of the matter is, I’m a huge wrestling fan, I have watched WWE since I was 10 years old. I really, really, really love watching it. I watch it every week, it’s thrilling. One of the great lines in the film is “it’s not fake, it’s fixed”.
We are now in an interesting point in history where WWE has had long success with the mainstream public and as a result, wrestlers are becoming more and more popular, sure it’s not quite reaching the levels that you had during the turn of the millennium, but it’s still out there and WWE obviously have, for some time, become a production studio. Surprisingly, in that entire time, despite them making vehicles for their wrestlers to break out into the acting business, they surprisingly, until now, have never really made biopics. You would have thought that out of all the wrestlers to pick to get a biopic, the first one isn’t Hulk Hogan, isn’t Stone Cold Steve Austin, isn’t even The Rock or Daniel Brian, it’s Paige. Now that’s not to say that Paige’s contribution to the business has been insignificant, far from it, Paige could potentially, had she had a better string of luck, could have been one of the most successful women in the company and really helped to revolutionise a lot of the business. She was the first ever NXT women’s champion and still holds the record of being the youngest women’s champion in WWE’s history and, as far as I’m aware, is still the only English born women’s champion prior to the introduction of NXT UK.
My suspicion is that WWE’s promoting has licensed her story to be heavily involved because they are trying to promote their big women’s revolution movement which has had a lot of success and women have received much better air time and much better events, including taking part in their own versions of several of the matches which were previously male exclusive events and most recently crowned the first ever WWE women’s tag team champions last month and later this month will be having the first ever all women’s wrestle mania main event. To say that the company’s booking philosophy has come far is nothing short of an understatement.
Paige was a big front in all of this as the film kind of explains, just based on she did on her first night on the main roster but does the story of how she got there work as a film? As you would expect, the film centres around the fact that Paige comes from a wrestling family, her real name is Saraya Knight, and in this film she is played by Florence Pugh. Saraya has been working as a wrestler since she was 13 alongside her dad Ricky, played by Nick Frost, her mum Julia played by Lena Heady and her brother Zak, played by Jack Lowden. After a WWE event comes to London, Zak and Saraya go to take part in an open audition and while Paige gets the call up, Zak does not, leading to a riff in the family and Paige being sent thousands of miles away to Florida to train to be a part of NXT and possibly the main roster of WWE television.
Ok, here’s what you’re probably asking, how accurate a biopic is this? Well, from what I know of Paige and her story and my insights into the wrestling business, it’s kind of accurate, there are quite a few things that, I wouldn’t say have been fabricated, but are more an amalgamation of several things that were going on at the time. Take for example, the three women that Paige spends most of her time training with, they’re actullay based on any of the women that competed in NXT at the time but more an amalgamation of a few of them at that time. They do also initially make them seem more like the classic divas that the company used to really turn their female athletes into, possibly more to emphasise about the impact of Paige’s career. Now, you might be thinking that this takes place only a few years ago, what’s the point of making a biopic about Paige, she’s still relatively young, well that’s just it, Paige’s career is over at this time. The film ends with her first night on the main roster, but it doesn’t actually show her career after the fact. She had a few controversies as well as a few ill-timed injuries and unfortunately, last year she was forced to retire at the age of 25 following a neck injury which forced her to end her career , just before the first women’s royal rumble, which must have been a gut punch. As a result, this biopic is actually very well timed in a sense.
This film is written and directed by Steven Merchant who you wouldn’t expect to be involved in a film like this, but he actually brings an interesting edge to it and in a sense, it is the Britishness of it all. Despite the fact that this film was based on something very American and a lot of the film takes place in America, it is actually rather surprising that this film is essentially almost like a British comedy. It has a lot of the sensibility of it, a lot of the setting of it, it’s a very feel good film. The wrestling company that the family run train a lot of the kids in the local area to keep them out of crime and Zak and Paige are even training a blind wrestler, which I actually assumed was a fabrication for the film but no, it’s actually true, good work!
Merchant’s script though is one of the real highlights, the writing in this film is nothing short of excellent. The film really has an understanding of the wrestling business and just how truly hard and demanding it really is. This is where Zak’s part really comes into the whole film. Zak really does kind of represent the several Indie wrestlers that try their best but won’t succeed, especially now that in WWE terms, you don’t necessarily get to the main roster, even if you pass the early audition, if you flop in NXT, you’re out of there. Zac’s portrayal in the film and considering he’s such a hard worker, does make you wonder why he wasn’t picked, well the film does explain why a lot of people don’t get picked, it’s very hard to succeed in this business. It is aided brilliantly by an excellent performance by Jack Lowden.
Now obviously this film is not a scathing critique on WWE or the wrestling business, WWE would never sign off on that. We are hardly talking about the level of drama of “The Wrestler” starring Mickey Rourke, which is another film I’m very surprised WWE promoted considering what it implies their wrestlers go through, but it doesn’t exactly pull its punches, which is particularly true from Vince Vaughan’s character of Hutch, who is the trainer at NXT although he’s not a real person he’s actually an amalgamation of several of the trainers, although luckily they kept out most of their more controversial trainers aspects to his character. This is actually again one of Vince Vaughan’s best performances for a long time, I think he is actually a very talented actor which a lot of people don’t give credit to and it’s films like this that actually highlight that. The other performances are also excellent, there’s a brilliant cameo by producer, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, who seems to be having a ball playing a more comedic version of himself. As well excellent performances from Nick Frost and Lena Heady and I think they have both had career highlights in this film. Obviously, the real focus is on Florence Pugh’s performance and she knocks it out of the park as well, giving an excellent lead performance. Unfortunately, due to the timing of the film, this probably won’t happen, but I think her, and Lowden should really be considered for award season next year, they overall really nail it. They also really nail the chemistry between the four of them, you can believe they are a genuine family.
If you go into this film expecting quite a few wrestling cameos, don’t get your hopes up, there aren’t that many, the only ones that were really visible were The Big Show and Sheamus. John Cena is only in the film as stock footage of him!
The film plays rather fast and loose with NXT, treating it more as just a training session, whereas at this time NXT became and still is a televised developmental league, you can watch it on the WWE network right now. So as a result, pretty much all of Paige’s career on there and how she got herself over with her fans in a big way is kind of almost absent, it really shows how hard it is to get over with the fan base which is part of the deal. But with her first night on the roster you can see a big fan reaction to her from some people in the first rows, but the reason for that was because some of them knew her from her time in NXT. It also doesn’t help that the wrestler (AJ Lee) that she faced on her first night is no longer with the company is rather disgruntled. So they had to use Thea Trinidad, aka Selena Vega to play her, which makes sense since Vega is at least a talented wrestler who sports a similar style to AJ Lee, but man, fans are going to notice, she may be able to talk and act like AJ Lee but the long term fans will find it weird that someone who is currently on Smackdown right now is currently in this role. Speaking of which, the wrestling scenes are actually really well done, you can tell a lot of time has gone into the training and implantation gone into the role, so kudos there for that and the big moments really do make you feel like you’re at a proper wrestling show, the cinematography helps out as well with that.
Fighting with my family I was really worried was going to bomb big time and be a failing, however, unlike other films that depict wrestling, this one does treat it with the respect it deserves and tells you how hard it can be to get into the business and stay there, not just make an impact and the story it tells is a brilliant one, this is an excellent biopic about Paige, which may play a bit hard and loose with some of the facts, but at the same time gives real respect to her story and her legacy in the business. It is an excellent family drama about a less than conventional family. The central performances of Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost and Lena Heady are some excellent ones and the film has a real respect to its audience which will resonate with both wrestling fans and outsiders, you don’t need to be a wrestling fan to really get into this one. This has been one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a few weeks and it has really uplifted my spirits. I really hope that WWE could potentially do more of these films. Here’s hoping that Chris Hemsworth will do a good job when he plays Hulk Hogan in an upcoming movie.
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