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Where do legends come from? And what does it take to become a legend? These are the questions that Legendary strives to answer. Yet somewhere along the road to redefining society’s usual, rather shallow measure of a legend, this story picks up a lot of mud and leaves plenty of moral road kill in its wake.
Despite the movie’s many swerves off the straight and narrow, the filmmakers seem to reach their destination in the end—but that conclusion feels like ending in a swamp when you thought you were driving to the Grand Canyon. It may have a few flowers, but ultimately that swamp, like this film, is a murky, sorry substitute for a real legend.
In a break from the typical sports movie mode, Legendary focuses not on an athletically gifted jock, but on a teen boy who has the build and sports aptitude of a bean pole. Cal Chetley has always been more brains than brawn, so his mother, Sharon, is stunned when he suddenly joins his high school wrestling team. Sharon’s surprise, however, is secondary to her dismay, as she already watched Mike, her oldest son, be consumed and destroyed by wrestling.
Sharon’s husband and the father of her sons, Mac, was a state champion wrestler, and Mike followed in his footsteps, becoming a legend at the high school and an NCAA champion. But after getting injured, Mike faded from the wrestling arena and checked out of life, disappearing into a listless existence far away from his family.
As the film progresses, we learn that there is more to the story than wrestling. Mike’s descent and the ten-year rift between Sharon and her oldest son actually began with the tragic death of Mac. Cal, much younger than Mike, doesn’t remember his father, and as the teen’s desire to know his dad increases, so does his thirst for a relationship with Mike. Knowing that wrestling was the shared passion of his brother and father, Cal seeks to become a wrestler in an effort to connect with Mike and, perhaps, even reunite his grief-severed family.
Cal’s noble, loving goal of restoring his family is the most uplifting aspect of Legendary, and gives the film a good foundation. This strong start, however, is negated by the weak building materials that are haphazardly piled up as the story unfolds. For starters, Cal himself exercises a sort of pick-and-choose morality that means he can be disrespectful to whomever he likes and lie, which he does repeatedly, whenever it suits his purpose. In his defense, Cal is only mean to a vindictive wrestling teammate who bullies Cal. Nevertheless, the “mother” jabs (innuendo-laden insults regarding the teammate’s mother) that Cal hurls at this boy are uncalled for and set a poor example for young viewers.
The justification for Cal’s almost pathological deception is similarly weak. He lies for such honorable efforts as saving his brother from jail and creating opportunity to have a relationship with Mike, but relying on such self-generated, “ends justify the means,” guidelines for moral behavior is perilous, to say the least. If there were clear consequences to, or authoritative disapproval of, Cal’s dishonesty, this element of the film might be redeemed and become a useful lesson. Yet the only disapprobation that Cal incurs because of his lies comes from his mother, who then later apologizes for her negative reaction to discovering that Cal had deceived her.
Sharon’s parenting lapse in this case is disappointing, since the mother-son relationship demonstrated through Sharon and Cal is in other ways positive. Brought to life in strong performances by Patricia Clarkson and Devon Graye, Sharon and Cal share a close, supportive bond that is uniquely loving and creates the most beautiful moments of this film. Clarkson, in particular, is marvelously compelling, creating a palpable authenticity in all of her scenes that gives her character a magnetic emotional accessibility.
At the same time, the friendship dynamic is so strong between Sharon and Cal, that one wonders if Sharon has held on to her parental authority. Her inability to discipline or correct Cal when needed, along with his ready independence and disregard of Sharon’s commands and warnings, makes the answer obvious. Sharon is a true friend to her youngest son, but not much of a parent.
Given Sharon’s hands-off approach to parental guidance, it’s a wonder that Cal turned out as well as he did. Perhaps one of Cal’s best moves in the film is his enduring affection and friendship for Luli, a teen girl Cal has grown up with. Hit with puberty and a sexual awakening, Luli has started exposing herself to boys for money and attention. This situation leads to some crude terms and innuendo, as well as one scene when Luli “shows” herself to a group of young boys. Viewers are spared any nudity in this scene, as we only see Luli from behind, in the perspective of the watching Cal.
After Cal frightens away the group of boys, he stops Luli from exposing herself to him and, later, encourages her to end the practice completely. Luli also receives advice against such behavior from Cal’s mother, who gives Luli the council that she should not “sell the whole package” and should be chased, not do the chasing herself.
This message would be more effective if it had a solid philosophy behind it, such as moral reasoning or even the idea that Luli should value herself and demonstrate self-respect. Without that grounding, Luli seems less than convinced with the ill-founded advice, but she does later encounter consequences for her behavior that illustrate at least one reason why girls shouldn’t indiscriminately flaunt their bodies—that is, if they don’t respect themselves, most men won’t respect them either.
Though not in a sexual context, Cal is strangely the character who ends up presenting nudity in this film. [SPOILER WARNING] Mike advises Cal on psychological intimidation strategies before a wrestling match, and tells Cal that he must weigh-in completely naked in front of his teammates and competitors. Most wrestlers weigh-in wearing shorts, but Mike insists that Cal should go without clothing to demonstrate ultimate self-confidence to his opponent.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers decide that we should see some of Cal’s exposure, too, and we’re given a full view of the naked Cal from the back. Called “partial nudity” by the ratings board and thought of as acceptable by many modern viewers, this exposure is still nudity and does not belong in a sports film aimed at families and youth audiences.
In the language department, the film doesn’t fare much better. Less offensive than some, Legendary still manages about half a dozen uses of “h---” (mostly delivered in prominent fashion by teenagers) and a few of “d---”. Profanities are kept out of the film, but that restraint isn’t enough to make up for the unnecessary obscenities.
In the end, Legendary is unintentionally sad. With its inspirational story premise, this film had the potential to be an uplifting, family-friendly tale that would motivate young people to reach admirable goals and families to draw closer to each other. Some of these lessons can be found in this film, but to discover them requires digging through fickle morality, foul language, nudity, and other suggestive content. With other, less sullied movies available, conservative viewers need not be so desperate.
Even the film’s final attempt at profundity runs amuck, as Harry “Red” Newman, a supposedly wise counselor to Cal, offers a narrative summation. Legends, he points out, are not always made by winning. An admirable sentiment, but the thought is undermined when Harry goes on to say that legends are sometimes born out of the struggle to find out “who you are and your reason for being” (something that all people are actually engaged in doing). If Cal’s identity is in wrestling success and his entire reason for being is to reunite his mother and brother, he’s in serious trouble at the end of the film, left with no purpose for the rest of his life.
“Legendary” is not the right word for such a reality, or for this film—“tragedy” comes much closer.
Check out these movies instead:
The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend (Campbell-Stone Media, 1990)
The Climb (World Wide Pictures, 2002)
A Legend and a Legacy (Documentary, Valor Visual Media, 2007)