When people think “WWE,” wrestling and the larger-than-life stars that occupy the company’s so-called “universe” understandably come to mind. If the mind drifts to movies, it’s likely to megastars like Dwayne Johnson or John Cena, who have made the jump to multiplexes around the world.
If you’re an outside observer, the existence of a WWE movie studio may come as a surprise. But what is professional wrestling if not its own form of blockbuster entertainment? With timeless battles of good versus evil and characters ranging from undead monsters like The Undertaker to antiheroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin, it’s positively primal stuff. The wrestling world is tailor-made to exist somewhere within the cinematic stratosphere, as shown by Cena and The Rock’s successful splashes across mediums.
WWE realized this, too. At first, the sports entertainment company happily lent its name as producer to films like the Hulk Hogan-led No Holds Barred, and then later to The Rock’s first major vehicles, The Scorpion King and The Rundown. In 2005, the WWE cut out the middleman and formed WWE Studios. Like most of WWE’s attempts to venture into the mainstream, public response was largely derisive, and the box office receipts for the studio’s first three outings reflected that. While The Marine (starring John Cena) and See No Evil (starring Kane) weren’t total failures, recouping some of their budgets, the Stone Cold-fronted The Condemned was an unambiguous bomb.
Quickly refocusing their aims, WWE Studios attacked the direct-to-video market. This made plenty of sense, as their compilation videos and documentaries had sold well over the years. It stands to reason the same person buying a “Best of Randy Orton” DVD might also grab an action thriller with Orton’s face plastered on the front cover. While WWE Studios’ movies have ventured back into theaters here and there to varying success, it’s the DTV realm where they’ve found most of their fruitful results. Filled with a vast array of films, the studio has a little bit of everything. With sequels you had no idea existed, partnerships with Hanna-Barbera on wildly silly cartoons, and a legitimately great theatrical outing starring Florence Pugh, if you sift through WWE Studios’ prolific (but mostly terrible) filmography, there’s some great stuff to be found.
Below is a sampling of the hidden gems produced by the studio and where to find to them:
Fighting With My Family
Far and away the most successful film in WWE Studios’ library, Fighting With My Family was a critical and commercial triumph. Starring Florence Pugh as WWE wrestler Paige, it charts the popular star’s rise to fame within the company. In real life, Paige likes to joke she’s been wrestling since she was in the womb, as her mother (British independent wrestler Sweet Saraya, portrayed in the movie by Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey) unknowingly wrestled matches while pregnant.
Paige’s story — first as a girl coming of age in a ring surrounded by a family of wrestlers, then as a woman who didn’t have the look WWE desired but still found success — is compelling. So compelling, in fact, that a documentary short was made (also called Fighting With My Family) following Paige’s and her brother Zak’s attempts to be signed by WWE. The story goes The Rock, having seen the documentary, was so enamored with Paige’s journey that his production company (Seven Bucks Productions) bought the rights and partnered with WWE to re-create the inspiring journey.
While ticking the well-worn boxes of any sports biopic, the film manages to rise above to be a delightful slice of the kind of life we rarely see on screen. Sure, we’ve seen the social outcast proving everyone wrong on their way to victory, but the scrappy world of British independent wrestling is a unique setting for this kind of narrative.
Stephen Merchant’s lovely script cuts through the schmaltz, but the lion’s share of credit has to go to Florence Pugh. Released the same year as Midsommar and Little Women, it’s easy to forget this one hit first. Already seen as a rising star thanks to Lady Macbeth, Pugh exploded in 2019, giving three wholly distinct and well-realized performances. If you haven’t seen Fighting With My Family, Pugh sinks right into her role as Paige, nailing her sardonic wit and suffer-no-fools attitude. It’s a good film, but Pugh is great, radiating the kind of magnetism so few possess. The idea that you’re watching a major star in the making is as clear as day.
As a fun time capsule of one our biggest movie stars right as she broke big, Fighting With My Family is essential. That it’s a rock-solid sports/family drama packed with earned emotion is a bonus. Just try to ignore Dwayne Johnson gracelessly inserting himself into the film for a few moments that absolutely didn’t happen in real life.
Fighting With My Family is available for digital rental or purchase on all VOD platforms.
The Marine 3-6
Even if you have zero knowledge of WWE Studios, you’ve likely heard of The Marine. Starring John Cena, it was one of WWE’s first solo outings as a production company and, to be frank, it’s not great. If you’re at all familiar with the DTV action market, you know no minor action film is truly dead, because all you need is name recognition and a vaguely well-known face to keep the flame alive for endless installments. That forced franchising was The Marine’s fate isn’t exactly surprising. What is surprising is how the franchise not only got better, but got flat-out great as it went along.
DTV action is filled with these kinds of success stories (the Universal Soldier and Undisputed series being among the best examples), but those were built on steady ground. If you were one of the few sitting in a theater enduring the first Marine movie, there’s no way you’d ever believe that by the sixth entry you’d be on the edge of your seat, holding back tears as it came to a close. That at the center of the franchise is famed WWE bad guy, the obnoxious Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, makes the series’ success even more shocking.
The tetralogy of Marine 3 through 6 follows The Miz’s Jake Carter, a former marine whose sister is kidnapped. After rescuing her, our unlikely lead becomes a protector of all manner of people throughout the rest of the series. Each entry is about as boilerplate as it gets for the genre so why, then, are these essential? Because they feature some of the most rock-solid action in DTV.
If you’re a DTV action head, you’re likely familiar with the names William Kaufman (director of 4) and James Nunn (director of 5 and 6). If you aren’t, giving these films a spin will totally change your perception of what DTV action can be. Kaufman and Nunn are two of the best in the genre, and their work with the tactical side of production has been some of the most realistic on screen. Their level of craft behind the camera takes these abjectly standard action flicks and turns them into some of the most pulse-pounding and efficient action you’ll see.
As the series progresses, you can actively see The Miz get better and better as an action lead, and there’s a real sense of fulfillment in sticking the series out. By the finale, the investment that was only slightly present in 3 digs itself deep into your bones. Other wrestlers crop up in fun appearances, most notably The Miz’s real-life wife, Maryse, WWE legend Shawn Michaels, and current megastar Becky Lynch in a legitimately great villain turn in 6, but this is The Miz’s franchise. His commitment coupled with the strong craft on display takes this series from footnote to must-see.
The Marine 3 is available for digital rental or purchase on all VOD platforms, The Marine 4 is available to stream on Starz and on all VOD platforms, and The Marine 5 and 6 are available to stream for free with ads on Tubi or on all VOD platforms.
Sticking with James Nunn-directed action, 2016’s Eliminators is another look at just how good this guy is. Starring DTV legend Scott Adkins and former WWE star Wade Barrett, Eliminators follows former U.S. federal agent Thomas (Adkins), whose identity is exposed after killing multiple people who break into his home by mistake. On the run, with his daughter taken from him and an assassin hot on his trail, Thomas must clear his name before it’s too late. This is as standard as an action script gets, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in fleet-footed brutality.
DTV action lives and dies on, well, the action. It’s always a thrill to see what filmmakers can come up with on tight budgets and schedules, and Nunn is one of the best. That he has a capable star like Adkins (as well as fight coordinator Tim Man) with him is a major boon. While a sagging middle drags the proceedings down, Eliminators features some of Adkins’ most undersung fights. In Barrett, Adkins has a brawler who matches up well with his shifty speed. Their two fights toward the end are phenomenal — hard-hitting barnburners full of spellbinding choreography that make the preceding 90 minutes well worth it.
The crowning moment, though, is a fight between Adkins and a couple of goons inside a cable car suspended over the city. Nunn’s strength is in letting his fights breathe and not cutting them to ribbons. In a fun bit of camerawork, we circle around the cable car as Adkins trades sickening blows with these two brutes. It’s a great bit of business and a peek into what Nunn would be capable of going forward, most notably in his re-teaming with Adkins, 2021’s excellent One Shot.
Eliminators is available for digital rental or purchase on all VOD platforms.
See No Evil 2
Let’s just get this out of the way: The first See No Evil is awful. A Z-tier slasher starring WWE’s perennial monster Kane, it took the worst, most offensive elements of Jason Voorhees and brought them to a noxious and ugly conclusion. Nastiness has its place, but there has to be some style behind it, otherwise your eyes eventually glaze over as you’re poked and prodded.
Luckily for See No Evil 2, we’re upgraded from hack director Gregory Dark to the incomparable Soska sisters. For reasons far too long to go into here, the Soskas are hard to praise and their style is very much a “you’re either in or out” situation. What is undeniable is they have a vision.
Here, as a group of teens descend upon a morgue for late-night antics that awaken the previously assumed dead Jacob Goodnight (Kane), the Soskas’ sicko, edgy style heightens this ill-advised sequel to a gonzo romp. Firing out like a cannon and never letting up, See No Evil 2 is riotously bloody, only tipping into eye-rolling exhaustion toward the end.
Helping along the way are two horror veterans to class the joint up in the always great Danielle Harris (Jamie in Halloween 4 and 5 and Annie in Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies) and Katharine Isabelle (Ginger herself from Ginger Snaps). The two give Kane’s Goodnight a pair of victims the audience can really care about. Harris has a strong claim as one of cinema’s greatest scream queens, turning in excellent performances as a child and adult. She’s no different here, punching well above the film’s weight class and grounding it when necessary. Isabelle is an absolute scream, overplaying every moment to delicious effect. They’re two wildly conflicting performances that make this run-of-the-mill slasher stand apart. See No Evil 2 probably can’t be called “good” by any metric, but it’s too much gory fun not to recommend.
See No Evil 2 is available to stream for free with ads on Vudu, Tubi, and Plex.
Scooby-Doo! and WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon
WWE and Scooby-Doo aren’t brands one would immediately group together, but it doesn’t take too much thinking to square it. Between the latter’s history of teaming up with celebrities like the Harlem Globetrotters or Adam West’s Batman, and the former’s dabbling in the supernatural over the years, it only makes sense that Mystery Inc. would get caught up in “sports entertainment” shenanigans.
One of many Hanna-Barbera collaborations with WWE Studios, Curse of the Speed Demon is by far the best (the less said about WWE’s foray into the future with the Jetsons, the better). Teaming Shaggy and Scooby-Doo up with The Undertaker, this cartoon finds the trio squaring off in an off-road racing competition with a mysterious evildoer called Inferno. As with most Scooby-Doo capers, it’s up to them to solve the mystery of who Inferno is and, naturally, win the race. At a quick 72 minutes, Curse of the Speed Demon is a delightful breeze that pairs WWE’s penchant for the absurd well with Hanna-Barbera’s history of cartoon car racing. Littered with a cast of stars like Paige, Kofi Kingston, Triple H, and more, this is much more of a WWE cartoon than it is Scooby-Doo, which makes it a fun little outlier in the studio’s body of work.
Scooby and the gang provide their standard laughs, but the novelty here is how well these larger-than-life wrestlers lend themselves to this world. Mark Calaway (The Undertaker) in particular is having a ball, something he wasn’t always allowed to do as the deathly serious Deadman. WWE’s always tried to corner the children’s entertainment market, and WWE Studios is home to some of the worst kids’ programming you’ll ever see (Jingle All the Way 2 being a low point). Curse of the Speed Demon is the lone bright spot as a well-drawn, wonderfully goofy jaunt.
Scooby-Doo! and WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon is available for digital rental or purchase on all VOD platforms.
No One Lives
Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura was once a major crossover force after 2000’s spectacularly bloody Versus, but his body of work has been a bit quieter stateside as of late. Outside of The Midnight Meat Train (and if you’re a Godzilla fan, Final Wars), Kitamura hasn’t been on a lot of people’s minds, and that’s a shame. He hasn’t slowed down, and as 2012’s No One Lives shows, he hasn’t lost his edge either.
Like most WWE films, originality isn’t a priority, as we find a gang of highway robbers (including former WWE star Brodus Clay) attacking a couple traveling cross-country. What appears to be a down and dirty cat-and-mouse thriller is quickly turned right on its head when the gang opens the trunk. The twists and turns keep No One Lives humming, but it’s Kitamura’s penchant for gore that makes it sing. Some of the kills here, including an especially nasty one involving a face and a car engine, are the kind that’ll either make you squirm or leap out of your seat. This thing is a monstrously exhilarating bit of exploitation, the likes of which could only exist in DTV these days. Luke Evans, known only as “The Driver,” gives one hell of a wicked performance, oscillating with each turn to increasingly horrific effect. There isn’t an ounce of wasted space either; it clocks in at barely over an hour. No One Lives isn’t going to light the world on fire, but if you enter knowing as little as possible, it’s a hellish good time.
No One Lives is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi and Vudu.
12 Rounds 2: Reloaded
Rounding out our list is another sequel to a forgettable John Cena movie. Both 12 Rounds and 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded shamelessly rip off Die Hard With a Vengeance, but where the former saw director Renny Harlin phoning it in on the downside of his career, the latter sees a DTV stalwart turning in above-average work. Starring Randy Orton (perfect, as his career will always sort of exist in Cena’s shadow), Reloaded finds paramedic Nick Malloy forced into the titular game of 12 Rounds — a series of life or death puzzles orchestrated by a mysterious figure from his past — in order to save his wife’s life.
It’s all very sub-sub-Jigsaw, but at their basest level, “one wild and crazy night” films are almost always a good time. They allow our lead to bounce around into increasingly absurd situations, never settling in too long to become dull. Reloaded’s no different, as each round gets sillier and sillier, a highlight being Nick finding a figure from his past buried under a giant pile of sugar. As with the other action entries on this list, it lives or dies with its director. Here, journeyman Roel Reiné takes the wheel and turns in one of his sturdier outings. Reiné is typically a feast-or-famine filmmaker; you’ll either get pretty good (this year’s underrated Fistful of Vengeance) or downright unwatchable (Death Race 2). His action ranges from well shot and cut to sloppy and without focus. Here, he pulls it all together, delivering a knowingly silly pulse pounder. Reloaded is not particularly strong with the emotional beats, which does slow us down after a wild first hour, but Reiné reels it back in for a terrific finale.
Randy Orton’s only recently found a charismatic spark to his wrestling persona, but there’s something compelling about his sleepy stoicism here. He brings a certain level of reality where other people might overplay it (see Jon Moxley’s abysmal turn in part three of this series). It’s enough to mistake him as an actor making choices, and hey, that just adds some further charm to a sequel that has no right to be as fun as it is.
12 Rounds 2: Reloaded is available to stream on HBO Max.