World Wrestling Entertainment's earnest efforts to make man-mountain John Cena a movie star take a turn toward "family-friendly" with Legendary, a film that puts Cena in a supporting role, mentoring a kid who wants to learn to wrestle.
Not wrestle WWE style. There's nary a folding chair to be found in this high school drama. This is about a fatherless boy looking for male role models. And it's about his roughneck brother's redemption.
Devon Graye plays Cal Chetley, a smart kid who excels at science and dreams of starting his own catfish farm. (Well, this is Oklahoma.)
Cal lost his dad some years before, and his brother Mike (Cena) has been out of the family ever since. Mike works the oil fields and never calls their mom (Patricia Clarkson). But Cal wants to try his hand at the family sport, the one Dad and later Mike excelled in: high school wrestling. He ignores mom's dismissive caution, "You're a beanpole," and signs up. Then he hunts down Mike, who has to be persuaded/blackmailed into helping him. Cal's into the science of the sport: "It's about leverage, mostly."
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Mike is all about the mat, the head games a wrestler can play and how to psyche yourself up: "Your girlfriend is in the front seat of his car, and if you lose, she's going home with him."
Cal's not-quite-girlfriend is the hyper-hormonal Luli (Madeleine Martin of TV's Californication). She's a motherless teen who is getting attention and a reputation for all the wrong reasons.
What works here is the wrestling primer, having Cena explain the sport's moves and techniques to the kid and the audience. The training scenes provide a few laughs, too. Martin's floozy-in-training might be a trite character type, but she gives her heart.
Clarkson, the classiest member of this cast, can't do much with stilted lines like "That kid is all I've got" and "I've already lost one kid to that sport." But hearing her and Cena, at the big tournament, yelling "Squeeze it, squeeze it" at the kid is priceless.
Danny Glover shows up as the fisherman/sage who keeps running into the kid, offering up such pearls as "Just don't quit."
The script, by actor-turned-writer John Posey, has structural and motivational problems between the clichés. And Cena, a few movies into his career, is still all presence and no acting.
But at least in tone and content, Legendary is head and shoulders above his other WWE Films vehicles (The Marine) and it gives one hope that somewhere down the road, Cena will become a more relaxed actor, and the budding studio will find a decent vehicle for him.