From the moment Danny Glover delivers opening narration in a voice as soothing as a warm bath and an afternoon nap on a brisk October afternoon, it’s apparent that Legendary will not be a typical WWE Studios action extravaganza. For wrestling superstar John Cena’s third starring vehicle, the film branch of Vince McMahon’s steroid-fueled multimedia empire has given the beefy grappler a role that challenges his acting muscles more than his biceps or abdominals. Yes, WWE has finally done the unthinkable and cast a popular professional wrestler in a movie about wrestling. But the action-light, dialogue-heavy drama is really all about family and the ways in which a shared history can unite and divide us. Legendary isn’t quite a contemporary version of the wrestling movie Barton Fink was lured to Hollywood to write for Wallace Beery, but it does strive for substance and meaning in a way that gives it an unmistakable Barton Fink feeling, if nothing close to a Barton Fink sensibility.
Dexter’s Devon Graye stars as a scrawny 98-pound weakling of a high-school student who struggles to live up to his family’s legacy of athletic achievement. Graye’s late father and his estranged older brother, played by Cena, were both championship wrestlers, so when bullies begin antagonizing him, Graye seeks out the troubled and hard-drinking Cena as a mentor, much to the chagrin of their mother (Patricia Clarkson), who has a troubled history with her eldest son. Glover, meanwhile, pops up intermittently with a fishing pole in hand and wise words to impart as a man with a secret link to Graye’s family.
Television veteran Mel Damski gives the Legendary a sleepy autumnal look and a sentimentality heightened by a score that goes overboard with sappy strings. Damski’s melodrama deviates wildly from WWE’s template of films starring wrestlers as wrestler-looking dudes who beat up various bad guys in favor of a tastefully dull examination of a troubled family struggling to come to terms with its past. Finally, WWE Studios has made a film that wouldn’t feel out of place on the Hallmark Channel.