Thursday, September 9, 2010

The WWE's LEGENDARY pairs Cena and Clarkson and proves a pretty good movie

It's been awhile since the theatrical screen was treated to a decent look at adolescent wrestling (remember Take Down, the movie that put Lorenzo Lamas on the map?). While we view countless films about adolescents wrestling with love, sex, school and parents, seeing them actually wrestling with each other in competition -- and having this provide one of the motivating forces for the film at hand -- is relatively unusual.

Furthermore, to have seen LEGENDARY, the new movie from WWE Studios (that's World Wrestling Entertainment, for the uninitiated like TrustMovies) at a press screening immediately prior to seeing The Extra Man proved an enlightening experience.  Expecting to revel in the latter movie and to dutifully sit through the former (because a favorite of mine, Patricia Clarkson, was one of the stars), instead, I actually found myself enjoying the unpretentious pleasures of the wrestling movie and dutifully enduring the misfires of the much more sophisticated but problematic Extra Man.

Directed proficiently by television veteran Mel Damski (shown at right) and written competently by John Posey (a TV actor whose first screen-writing gig this appears to be), Legendary boasts a surprisingly good cast.  This includes, in addition to Ms Clarkson and an underused Danny Glover, some nods to the younger set -- the teenage Dexter, Devon Graye; Californication's Madeleine Martin; and Tyler Posey, from Lincoln Heights and Brothers & Sisters, who is also the son of the screenwriter -- and a big nod, of course, to the wrestling crowd in the person of champion wrestler turned actor and hip hop musician: John Cena (shown below).

As good as Ms Clarkson is (as usual, she's very good), Mr. Cena proves the real star of the show. After two tries at would-be (PG-13) violent action heroics -- The Marine and 12 Rounds -- that didn't pay off critically or at the box-office, it may be that a good "family" film like Legendary is the beefy fellow's real métier. Though this guy is clearly a disciple of the less-is-more school of acting, unlike master practitioner Clint Eastwood -- who appears to believe that, regarding acting, if less-is-more, then nothing is best of all -- Cena actually allows some feelings, however haltingly and angrily, to come through.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that director Damski had coached Cena in a such a way that the wrestler/actor's attempts to try to act were then used in the very scenes in which his character must open up and express a different side of himself. However it happened, the result works. Whether he's beating up some blow-hard in a bar, or having a dramatic scene with Clarkson, who plays his mom, or Graye, who essays his younger brother, the guy is always believable and sometimes even quietly moving.

The plot begins with the bullying of the Graye character (above, left, with Tyler Posey) and then moves to the story of his family -- mom (Clarkson, shown at bottom) and an estranged and in-and-out-of-prison older brother (Cena) -- all still reeling from the sudden death, years earlier, of its wrestling champ patriarch. Also involved are a local girl (Ms Martin, below) whose unrequited crush on Graye has led her into some slutty activities and the somehow involved solitary man (Glover) who pops up at odd times and whose identity eventually comes clear (this is the sub-plot least well-handled by the filmmakers).

To the film's credit, it covers subjects like sex, drugs, bullying and the like with a clearer eye and mind than have some "family" films, and its view of the importance of winning, while not particularly original, is still welcome in these dumbed-down times of all-or-nothing philosophy and behavior.

Well-cast and acted better than you'll expect, Legendary, despite (or maybe because of) its television provenance, proves fine family entertainment that's packed with heart and intelligence. Call it a Take Down for the 21st Century.

The movie opens all over the country this Friday, September 10. Click the film's website and then scroll down and click on TICKETS & THEATERS to see a list of the many cities and movie houses in which you'll find it. (In New York City, the 107-minute film plays at the Clearview First & 62nd 7).

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