The latest release from WWE Studios, Legendary stars WWE star and corporate mascot John Cena alongside Patricia Clarkson, Devon Graye and Danny Glover in the most heartfelt film the company has been a part of. Devon plays the role of Cal Chetley, a target for bullies in his small Oklahoma town, who lives with his mother Sharon (Clarkson).
Against his mother’s wishes, Cal decides to join the high school wrestling team despite his small stature as a way to reconnect with the father he barely knew and the brother Mike (Cena) he has rarely seen in the past ten years. Down on his luck and filled with self-loathing, Mike reluctantly begins to train his brother in the ways that made him a championship wrestler which ultimately helps bridge the gap between the two.
It’s hard to hear the premise of Legendary and not begin to see correlations to Rudy. An undersized kid trying to make it in a sport based on physical superiority and muscle mass that only has his heart helping push him forward. Thankfully, WWE Studios pushed past a story just about high school wrestling and added a layer to Cal Chetley and his new obsession.
As a result, there is a lot of emotion behind everything happening that doesn’t feel like a Rudy ripoff. This young man didn’t always dream of being a high school championship wrestler. He just sees it as a way to connect to a past and a family that is so far away from him.
The relationship between older brother Mike and mother Sharon is also incredibly well done. The few times they are on screen together is incredibly uncomfortable as Sharon appears to be in physical pain from being in front of a son that has chosen to stay out of her life for so many years that she never forgave for something that wasn’t even his fault. The deeply conflicted Mike also has some great scenes when he is apart from his family that show just how much his grief has consumed his life.
While the story of Legendary is good and heartwarming, there are some moments that feel unnecessary and cliché. The two prime examples of this come from Danny Glover’s character and the romantic interest of Cal. Glover portrays the stereotypical “wise old man” who always seems to show up just when Cal can use some fatherly advice.
While Glover does a fine job in the part and a logical reason for the character’s existence is revealed, the character feels somewhat unrealistic and pulls the viewer momentarily out of the story. The love interest for Cal also feels like an excessive Hollywood cliché. Played by Madeleine Martin (Californication), Luli does little for the story except for adding a “WWE”-esque moment during the latter part of the film. It feels like the relationship between Cal and Mike could have been better explored using this time.
The stand out performance of the film without a doubt goes to Cena. He is not the adrenaline packed larger than life monster he can be on television. Instead, he is a man with real emotion and does a great job of showing it. There are no moments where the audience feels like they are watching a “Professional Wrestler” on screen. John does a great job interacting with his brother on screen and an ever greater job in the emotional confrontation with his estranged mother.
Not to be outshined by Cena, Patricia Clarkson does a great job balancing the role of a loving and supportive mother while still being guarded from the sport that tore her family apart. Devon is no slouch on screen either as he plays a more believable Michael Cera. What is meant by this is that he plays the outcast not comfortable in his own skin. But it doesn’t feel like Devon is playing a role, he actually looks and feels like he is a young man out of his element trying to gain access to the one thing that might bring his family back together.
It was nice to see WWE Studios take two unexpected turns with this release. They took arguably their biggest star and put him in a role that requires legitimate acting credentials to pull off. This is not an adrenaline packed excuse for explosions like The Marine or 12 Rounds. Instead, there is an emotional journey that John Cena helps nail down.
The second is how WWE films was able to do a wrestling movie that, with one notable exception, looked and felt nothing like a WWE broadcast. The movie was not all about grandeur and showmanship. It was about finding the heart in competitive high school wrestling.
Scheduled for limited release, Legendary shows that John Cena isn’t just a giant in the ring. He is on screen as well. Cena is able to pull off a role that no “pro wrassler” would have ever been considered for even five years ago alongside the rest of a small but superior cast. As much as it is different from Rudy, Legendary has the potential to invoke the same emotions from men who tear up when they see Rudy taking a stance for the Fighting Irish for the first time. To date, this is the most impressive release from WWE Studios.