The image of mixed martial arts as the day labor of professional sports is hardly contradicted by “Fightville,” an up-close-and-personal doc that climbs into the ring with several Louisiana-based warriors with an eye toward illuminating the entire cage-match phenomenon. Ready-to-order fan base certainly means exposure, but helmers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein aren’t interested in glorifying the gore of ultimate fighting as much as revealing its heart. And yet, given their political inclinations, the filmmakers convey far less perspective about the economics of a sport that’s been called “human cockfighting” than might have been expected.
For the fighters, the draw of mixed martial arts — which is usually awkward, graceless and lacking in any of the poetry that trained boxers bring to the ring — is obviously the money. Shots of shotgun shacks, boarded-up stores and general poverty in petrochemical southern Louisiana tip us off to the desperation behind so many fight careers. But in their last film, “How to Fold a Flag,” Tucker and Epperlein were far more upfront about the last-ditch nature of the military as a career choice. With “Fightville,” they seem to have drunk a bit of the Cajun Kool-Aid.
MMA is sport in which contestants are known to scrap for no pay and suffer injuries that can nip fledgling careers in the bud. That the film’s chosen subjects are beyond that stage of the game doesn’t mean those aspects have ceased to exist. One of “Fightville’s” principals admits as much. “Most of these guys will never make a penny and few will ever step into the ring or cage again,” says Gil “the Thrill” Guillory, a leading promoter of cage matches in rodeo arenas around Lafayette, La. “If you can’t sell tickets, I can’t use you.”
If you’re someone like Dustin Poirier or Albert Stainback, however, Guillory is on your side. Poirier, who’s been fighting for the hell of it all his life, finds in MMA a way to channel his rage for profit; Stainback, the more complex figure of the two, is better able to articulate his feelings about the sport and his failings. (That Stainback’s ring persona is a “Clockwork Orange” Droog, replete with bowler hat and “Singin’ in the Rain” theme music, says plenty about him.) Pic follows both young men as they weather the ups and downs, as well as the ego bruisings and bodily injuries, that come with incipient MMA stardom.
Perhaps predictably, there is no end of self-serving blather in “Fightville,” during which Tucker and Epperlein allow their principals — notably, Gladiator Academy owner “Crazy” Tim Credeur — to wax philosophical, often to the extent that the film loses its way. This kind of stuff may be a staple of sports movies, but it’s unclear here whether the audience is supposed to be laughing, or if the shots of hardscrabble Louisiana are supposed to be empathetic. The filmmakers find themselves caught between two fronts: their documentary instincts and their very understandable sympathies. “Fightville” may not be good journalism, but it is stimulating viewing.
Production values are quite good, especially Tucker’s shooting in and around the ring.