There’s nothing unique about the ol’ underdog sports movie, but Legendary, starring Patricia Clarkson, Danny Glover, and WWE superstar John Cena (in fact, WWE Studios produced the film) is actually a surprisingly refreshing addition to the genre.

Directed by TV vet Mel Damski (Psych, Charmed), it tells the story of beanpole Cal Chetley (Devon Graye) whose late father and estranged brother Mike (Cena) were both high school wrestling legends in Oklahoma. Cal, more content to spend his weekends fishing and studying geology, finally gets tired of being bullied, so he decides (since it must be in his DNA) to give wrestling a shot.

Trouble is, he’s terrible. Sure, his brother was an undefeated champion (and would therefore be a good man to have in his corner), but Cal hasn’t talked to Mike in 10 years. Now, though, along with seeing a way to avoid being bullied, Cal realizes this could be the only chance he’ll ever have to re-connect with his brother.

The script by John Posey (who also doubles as the coach of Cal’s wrestling team), is rife with situations that could very well have been clich├ęd beyond belief, but the vast majority of them are avoided. The result is a movie that tugs at your heartstrings a bit, makes you root for the little guy a bit, and gets you to stand up and cheer a lot.

Cena is (go figure) great as Mike, the deadbeat brother who ran off after their father’s fatal car accident. His character is much more than a cardboard cutout of his WWE persona, and somehow he pulls it off. He won’t be up for an Oscar anytime soon, but for a guy who spends his weekends smashing guys’ faces into the top turnbuckle, Cena was surprisingly good.

Clarkson has been nominated for an Oscar, and her performance as the boys’ mom reminds you why. She’s one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood today, and she brings the same amount of intensity to her role in Legendary as she has in every other movie she’s made.

Much of the credit for the movie’s success, though, goes to Graye. The whole film sinks or swims on his scrawny little shoulders, and he walks away with it. The vulnerability-turned-confidence that he shows as Cal gives the movie a spark that sucks you in and keeps you there.

Danny Glover’s cameo turn as an old-timer who helps Cal stay on track is just subtle enough to be fun (without stealing the movie), and Madeleine Martin is hilarious as Cal’s eccentric pseudo-girlfriend Luli.

Overall, Legendary doesn’t give you anything you haven’t already seen in The Karate Kid, Rocky, and Hoosiers, and while it’s not in the same league as any of those all-time classics, it holds its own just fine.

3.5/5 stars