Well, you’ve gotta give WWE Films credit: they’re at least trying.
After generic, lackluster action pictures like the two “Marine” films–yes, there was a sequel to the 2006 John Cena vehicle, though Cena himself couldn’t even condescend to star in it, one of the in-name-only sequels to the Owen Wilson flick “Behind Enemy Lines,” and (shudder) “The Condemned,” now, reflecting the WWE’s new family-friendly programming, they’re now putting out family friendly films as well.
Their first attempt, “Legendary,” again stars Cena, but he’s curiously more of a supporting character. The real star of the show is Devon Graye, who has done a lot of TV but hardly anything worth headlining a major motion picture. Graye acquits himself relatively well as high school student Cal Chetley, a skinny, lanky kid whose brother Mike (Cena) was a high school wrestling champion, but left town and his family when his coach/father was killed.
This leaves his mother (Patricia Clarkson) to care for Cal, who grows into a somewhat withdrawn teen who excels in academics but is more or less your stereotypical 98-lb weakling.
When Cal decides to go out for the wrestling team, he finds some direction, but is disadvantaged because of his size. So he seeks out his brother’s guidance. Turns out Mike has run into some trouble with the law by way 0f bar fights with guys who recognize the old champ and want to give him a go. Cal helps get him out of the slam, and Mike helps his long lost brother learn to grapple.
If none of this sounds particularly engaging or original, and in some ways you’d be right. It’s more or less one giant sports movie cliche, but filtered through a less-mainstream sport. As Mike and Cal train together, they bond, and soon Cal finds himself winning matches and starts eying the 136-lb championships.
The acting is so-so at best; Clarkson inexplicably gives the worst performance I’ve ever seen her give (and I say that as a big fan of hers; she’s usually the highlight of whatever film she’s in). Graye isn’t primed to be the next Shia LeBeouf or anything, but he has an oddly likable crooked grin and was mostly passable as the lead.
The real surprise is Cena, who is passable in a role that admittedly requires him to do little more than express quiet, stone-faced regret. He does it well, but when he finally starts playing big brother he and Graye have a fun dynamic.
Danny Glover has a small, inconsequential role and is honestly shoe-horned in, no doubt, when his schedule opened up, and he’s at least better than his last role, when he stammered through the apocalypse as the president in “2012.”
But even for the frequently amateurish direction and editing, there are a few moments of heart, where “Legendary” dares to do what other films will not. That is when the film really clicks, and becomes the inspiring sports film it aspires to be.