‘Knucklehead’: The Tenacious Appeal of Pro Wrestling

“Knucklehead,” the PG-13 comedy starring WWE star Paul “Big Show” Wight, is built from the ground up to appeal to the sensibilities of 14-year-old pro wrestling fans.

Nothing wrong with that. I was a 14-year-old pro wrestling fan once, but this was back when Rowdy Roddy Piper and the Iron Sheik still roamed the ring. I once had a series of very vivid dreams that Junkyard Dog and King Kong Bundy were living in my bedroom closet. At night, they would come out to play Dungeons & Dragons and discuss Reagan’s economic policies. I wish I could say I was making this up.

Like most other kids, I lost interest in pro wrestling when I discovered girls and marijuana, but I’ve kept track of things in a kind of peripheral way over the years. I’m aware, for instance, that Hulk Hogan turned into a bad guy at one point.

And that the ’80s entity WWF (World Wrestling Federation) had to change its name when the other WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, objected to the acronymic encroachment. This might seem silly, until you consider the case of George “The Animal” Steele, who really could have qualified for a paycheck from either organization.

In recent years, I’ve become aware of wrestling again due to the film career of former WWF star Dwane “The Rock” Johnson. My kids have an inexplicable love for this guy, whose many family films – each terrible in its own earnest, unique way – are in heavy rotation on our DVD player. By my calculations, Johnson owes me three years of my life back. I want them now.

Familiar Stories and Wandering Thoughts

So my hopes weren’t high when I was rope-a-doped into seeing Knucklehead. Clearly, Wight is aiming for a Rock-like career shift into family entertainment.

The set-up goes like this: Wight plays Walter Kronk, the 30-something resident of a church-run orphanage otherwise populated by feisty, adorable Oliver Twist types.

Walter never got adopted, you see, because he was six feet tall at ten-years-old. Now seven feet tall and 450 pounds, Walter remains with head nun Sister Francesca (Wendy Malick) until the day when he accidentally burns down part of the orphanage.

And so, in the manner of the Blues Brothers and 1,000 lesser screenplays, it seems the orphanage needs money fast, and it’s up to Walter to hit the road and save the day.

He teams with down-and-out fight manager Eddie Sullivan (veteran TV actor Eddie Feuerstein), who also needs quick cash. Together with a chaperone from the orphanage (Melora Hardin, The Office), Eddie and Walter cross the country to compete in a series of bare-knuckle bouts, which are now apparently referred to as mixed martial arts competitions.

It occurred to me that Clint Eastwood used to make these kinds of movies – often with an orangutan – back when he made good movies. Perhaps this is unfair. But based on his recent movies, Eastwood has to be the most overrated director working today. Invictus and especially Gran Torino are just aggressively bad movies.

Clearly, Knucklehead gives your mind lots of time to wander. This is basically an odd-couple tag team comedy, peppered with an underdog sports story, and stitched together with chapter titles from the freshman Intro to Screenwriting textbook. Just like every pro wrestling script ever penned. (The movie is a production of WWE Films, of course.)

Melora Hardin, Wendie Malick and Paul Wight in Knucklehead

Broad Strokes and Pleasant Surprises

So does the movie work? Within the scope of its cash-in-and-cash-out ambitions – sure, it does. Wight, with his sad eyes and weirdly Gallic profile, comes across as a supersized Gerard Depardieu, without the actual acting ability.

He does surprisingly well. Director Michael W. Watkins is smart enough to keep the genuine emotions to a bare minimum, and the comic moments painted in broad strokes. Dennis Farina fills out the villain role with the same artful subtlety of – oh, say – Randy “The Macho Man” Savage, circa 1985.

There are a few genuinely funny scenes. I liked the idea of an underground Orthodox Jewish fight club. And Wendy Malick, who can do no wrong in my book, has some good lines as the no-nonsense nun. (“We are royally screwed! Like, Buckingham Palace, tea-and-crumpets, bad-skin-and-crooked teeth screwed!”) She also gets to do a old-school vaudevillian spit take, one of the few fringe benefits of being in a movie like this.

If you’ve got a teenage kid into pro wrestling, Knucklehead is an entirely sensible option. The fighting is cartoony and bloodless; the tone and humor about what you’d expect.

It’s essentially just the 20-minute hero-vs-heel template from a mid-’80s Wrestlemania bout, with an additional 70 minutes of sitcom situations. Dumb and dependably predictable, this stuff never really changes or ages. And it’s still likely to be better than whatever movie Clint Eastwood is directing, this year.