LITTLE ROCK — As schmaltzy after-school special/Hallmark Hall of Fame family fare goes, Legendary isn’t so bad.
While it’s certainly nothing that you haven’t seen before, it has designs on quality and is more specific and prickly than a lot of similar life lessons. Some of the characters click in unexpected ways.
For instance, pro wrestler John Cena, while no Olivier, has a surprisingly compelling presence and is (and I mean this as a compliment) thoroughly convincing as Mike Chetley, a sullen underachiever who finds purpose in instructing his nerdish kid brother Cal (Devon Graye) in the art of grappling.
For bookish Cal is tired of being dissed by high school bullies and sees the school’s wrestling team as his opportunity to rustle up some respect. It’s in his blood, for Mike and his decade-dead father were wrestling stars, which in Oklahoma makes them, um, “legendary.”
But the Chetley boys’ mom, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), doesn’t approve of Cal’s wrestling, because he’s “a beanpole”and because she watched the sport consume her husband and eldest son.
Knowing the setup, you can probably fill in the blanks - what we have is a kind of Karate Kid-style story of overcoming with an occasionally treacly score by Jim Johnston, the house composer for World Wrestling Entertainment (where he wrote the entrance themes for pro wrestlers), which produced the film in concert with Samuel Goldwyn Films. The storyline alternates currents of triumph and defeat, culminating in ... well, if you don’t know, far be it from me to spoil your surprise.
But as formulaic and conventional as the story is - Danny Glover plays a fisherman/sage named “Red” who providesCal with folksy advice and may or may not be a product of the boy’s imagination - there are some interesting quirks. Many of these are provided by Clarkson who - like Bret Favre working out with those Mississippi high school kids - makes the game look ridiculously easy. The patter between her and Cal is believably stilted, seeded with a private history and in-jokes. Her scripted fretfulness is tempered with intelligent calculation - she knows if she pushes back too hard against Cal she’ll lose another son.
As Cal, Graye - who plays the teenage Dexter on the campy Showtime series - is never completely credible as either a teenage loser or a 15-year-old (the actor’s 23) but hey, it’s a movie, whaddaya want?
To end on a positive note, director Mel Damski, a prolific TV director making his feature debut after more than three decades in the business, knows something about sports - he was a football player at Colgate and a sportswriter for Newsday in the 1970s. It shows. He’s no Ron Shelton, and Legendary isn’t close to great, but you can root for it.