Movie Review: Knucklehead
Those multi-media moguls at World Wrestling Entertainment haven’t quite got the hang of this “family friendly” turn they’ve taken with their motion picture division. But with “Knucklehead,” a road picture “get him to the big brawling tournament” comedy, we see hints of promise. It’s every bit as formulaic as their first stab at this audience — “Legendary.” But it goes down easier thanks to a lighter tone, some laugh-out-loud moments, and a charismatic turn by a WWE star who isn’t John Cena.
The film stars man mountain Paul “The Big Show” Wight, and the big BIG guy is funny and not just funny looking. He’s the title character, a 35 year old hulk still living in the orphanage where he grew up. He’s naive, but not simple, gentle but clumsy. He fits right in with this broad, low, fart-joke comedy about a self-described “knucklehead.”
The orphanage is in trouble. The salty Sister Francesca (Wendy Malick, a laugh-landing pro), is open to ideas. The shady mixed martial arts trainer Eddie (Mark Feurstein, dull) thinks Walter would excel at fighting. He’s seven feet tall, 445 pounds. Can he learn the fight game between home and win the big Mixed Martial Arts purse and save the orphanage?
“You damn well better,” says Sister F.
Molly (Melora Hardin) will tag along to see that no harm comes to Walter and keep the slippery Eddie, in hock to a thug (Dennis Farina), in line. And Walter will train and fight his way south to New Orleans.
First fight? Backstage at a synagogue, where a hustler rabbi (Saul Rubinek) “oys” and “gevalts” and takes bets before hurling Sugar Ray Goldberg at Walter.
“That guy hates Christmas!” Eddie hisses to psyche Walter up. “How can anybody hate Christmas?” A brawl ensues, with Walter wearing tidy whiteys instead of trunks and not knowing how to throw a punch. After he’s “Met some nice Jews,” he moves on and is tossed into the ring with “Bare Knuckle Dave,” who teaches Walter and Eddie that it’s important to know how the folks spell “bare” before agreeing to a fight.
Daft moments like that are scattered in the film, with Wight doing a nice deadpan and showing a gift for physical comedy — slamming his head into the roof of the battered orphanage bus they travel in. Malick is reliably testy and hilarious, but the funny Rubinek would have been a better choice for the trainer/manager. Feurstein lacks that comic spark, at least in this film.
Director Michael W. Watkins, whose decades of TV credits go back to “Quantum Leap,” manages one clever visual gag — a bus wreck, observed from the far side of a cornfield. We hear a crunch, see a telephone pole wobble and a little puff of smoke. Then Watkins blows the moment with a fiery overkill.
There’s a whole “Youtube fame” thing meant to follow Walter that doesn’t work, and after an hour, the filmmakers pretty much give up on finding anything else funny in this — a beer bust, a bad gay gag, a taste of Molly’s pole-dancer past. That’s “family” to the WWE.
But Wight has charm and holds his own. The WWE is figuring out that their stars aren’t tough guys. From Hulk Hogan to The Rock to Cena in “Fred: The Movie,” these guys make the transition from ring to screen best by making fun of themselves.