Legendary’s Moneyed Professional Wrestler Producers Can’t Buy a Story with Strength

I almost feel bad saying anything negative about Legendary. It’s like criticizing a student essay for not being fit for publication in the New Yorker. The fact is, Legendary has no business having a wide release. The earnest family drama about a scrawny, 15-year-old high school kid trying to make the wrestling team belongs as a Lifetime original movie. The acting is atrocious, the directing is amateurish, and the story is an amalgamation of derivative sports film clichés. I double-checked the release info twice while watching the movie just to make sure this thing was actually getting released in movie theaters. Yep, it opens at the Inwood today. This is almost as shocking as seeing someone of the stature of Patricia Clarkson (Dogville, The Untouchables) in the role of the young wrestler’s mother. The only possible explanation for any of it comes in the form of three letters that appear in the opening credits: WWE.

Legendary is a production of the WWE, as in the professional wrestling company “World Wrestling Entertainment,” and it stars WWE wrestler John Cena. There must be some good-natured moralists at the WWE who thought they could promote their sport and old-fashioned family values in one fail swoop. Cena, (The Marine, 12 Rounds) trying to explore new ground as an actor (that is, actually trying to act), is Mike Chetley, once the best high school wrestler in Oklahoma, who is now an oil rig worker who battles his demons (drinking and bar fights). Having spent a decade away from his family, he barely knows his little brother Cal (Devon Graye), a skinny, nerdy kid who wins science competitions, raises catfish in a nearby creek, and is the sole companion for his mother, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Sharon’s husband Mac died in a car crash when Mike was in high school. The father and son were driving during a snow storm to scout one of Mike’s wrestling opponents when the car slipped off the road. Because of this, Sharon blames wrestling for Mac’s death and Mike’s nosedive into bad behavior (because everything in this movie has to somehow relate to the central drama).

Cal decides he wants to join the wrestling team, which worries Sharon because she has “lost” both her husband and son to the sport. But Cal is persistent. He is terrible at the sport, but then tracks down his estranged brother for coaching. Mike reluctantly agrees after Cal helps him out of a legal jam related to a bar fight. The two begin to form a fraternal bond, and Cal’s honest, genial determination ends up bringing the family back together. Cal becomes a pretty decent wrestler too, making it all the way to the regional finals after a handful of wrestling match scenes plucked from the “How to Make a Sports Film About an Underdog” handbook (I think John Avildsen wrote that one).

Legendary drowns in its relentless sincerity and corny drama. Even Patricia Clarkson, who puts her heart into a few scenes, is undone by the canned dialogue and 7th Heaven subplots. Danny Glover’s appearances as a wise old fisherman who gives Cal Hallmark card advice are so hackneyed you can’t help but wince at the thought that the producers actually wasted money casting an actual actor in the role. Then there’s Cal’s girlfriend Luli, who is played by Madeline Martin, a sweet young girl who would be lucky scoring a lead role in an Ursuline Academy play. Watching her on screen with Clarkson is something like watching a pee-wee tackle line up to block DeMarcus Ware. The otherwise innocent film opens itself up to full ridicule when it introduces a ridiculous professional wrestling style match walk-in during the regional high school final, complete with pyrotechnics. The whole thing is just out of proportion, and you can’t help but blame the WWE for thinking that if it spent enough money, it could dress up a pipsqueak story like a professional.

Photo: John Cena (left) and Devon Graye in the WWE-produced Legendary (Courtesy photo).