Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review: "Legendary"

An after-school-special on steroids, "Legendary" is the story of a fake wrestler teaching his kid brother how to be a real wrestler.

WWE star John Cena headlines this sports drama produced by the wrestling empire's film production company, which also bankrolled his previous star vehicles, "12 Rounds" and "The Marine."

Those were mindless action flicks suited to Cena's stone-faced, muscle-bound appeal. This time, though, he's called upon to do more than grimace and growl, and his meager acting chops leave him face-down on the mat.

Director Mel Damski, a television veteran, tries to shoot around his star's inability to emote by pairing him in scenes with another actor who does all the heavy-lifting -- shouting and pleading and such. Cena just stands there, tight-lipped and blank-faced.

Unfortunately, making movies is a contact sport. Other than a couple of times where his character gets into bar fights, Cena sucks the life out of every scene he's in.

He plays Mike Chetley, a legendary high school wrestler now facing a bad stretch. He just lost his job, has a string of parasitic girlfriends, and can't stop drinking and brawling.

Then Mike gets a visit from Cal (Devon Graye), his younger brother. Unlike Mike and their father, who tragically died in a car accident years ago, Cal is a skinny beanpole, a smart nerd who gets bullied.

Cal decides he wants to try out for the school wrestling team, at the urging of Red (Danny Glover), a mysterious stranger who shows up one day with a fishing pole and a whole cornfield worth of homilies.

Cal's mother (Patricia Clarkson) is secretly torn up over her estrangement from Mike, but seems to have a healthy relationship with Cal. She hates the idea of him wrestling, though, having seen it consume the lives of her husband and elder boy.

Cal's a washout at wrestling, losing all his matches, so he seeks out Mike for coaching. Of course, it's mostly a ruse to engage in a little male bonding.

The screenplay by John Posey (who also plays Cal's coach) is an assemblage of moldy sports movie clich├ęs and made-for-television sentimentality. For example, Cal begs Mike to teach him a rare and difficult wrestling move, so we just know it's going to be whipped out for the big match, a la the Crane Kick from "The Karate Kid."

The mushy melodrama stuff builds toward the big reveal of a Dark Secret that, when it finally arrives, feels trite and inauthentic.

It's a curious thing to use a "pro" wrestling star in a movie about the real kind. Actual competitive wrestling organizers go out of their way to disassociate their sport from the phony entertainment version. Meanwhile, it's doubtful the average WWE fan is interested in a bunch of scrawny kids in tights and ear protectors down on all fours.

Still, some showbiz slips in. There's one scene complete with Cal wearing a gaudy robe entering the arena to rock music and pyrotechnics that would have immediately got him banned for life from a real high school wrestling circuit.

So "Legendary" is a movie that's not for fans of either real wrestling or the bogus kind. That leaves it with those dying to see a lunkhead pro wrestler whose screen presence could best be described as a charisma sinkhole stumbling through "serious actor" mode. Count me out.

1.5 stars out of four

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