The unsettling strength of John Hyams’ feature-length docu on the bone-smashing world of professional mixed-martial-arts competitions is the unfettered honesty, bordering on despair, that Hyams draws from interviews with fighters like the aging, weary Mark Coleman and the opiate-addicted Mark Kerr, who lends his nickname — “The Specimen” — to pic’s title. Hyams intercuts the interviews with multi-angle closeups of the fighters in action, creating a completely detached study of some of the most brutal “sports entertainment” ever documented, without herding the viewer into a moralistic pen. Pic is something of a tough sell, but should be of interest to theatrical distribs, its vivid images imbued with a power that will be somewhat diminished on small screens.
This bruising spectacle, which makes widely seen pro-wrestling docu “Beyond the Mat” seem suitable for pre-schoolers by comparison, is neither a parade of shock images nor a Freudian deconstruction of its subjects. It’s a film about the excruciating pursuit of money and self-gratification, which Hyams makes strangely analogous to the everyday workplace, suggesting that the conflicts and aggressions being worked out in the no-holds-barred ring are merely a more primal expression of what anyone who works any kind of job encounters daily. Maybe it’s a more honest expression, too, given the astonishing friendliness with which these competitors interact before and after bashing each other to a gooey pulp. But is this entertainment?
Sprung from age-old Brazilian roots, the current incarnation of no-holds-barred fighting came to prominence in the U.S. in the early 1990s, largely via a series of televised pay-per-view tournaments called “The Ultimate Fighting Championship,” which were promptly banned in most of the 50 states once media-watchdog groups and politicians got wise to them.
Beginning in August ’99, pic follows the better part of a year in the life of Kerr, a onetime UFC champion now fighting competitively in Japan, where the tournaments (like most forms of extreme entertainment) flourish. One of the first images Hyams gives us is that of Kerr paying a routine visit to his physician, where his unclothed body is revealed to be a relief map of bulbous bruised peaks and wide scarred valleys. Why does Kerr subject himself to such agony? Partly for the thrill, as he tells a curious onlooker in a priceless waiting-room encounter. Mostly, though, Kerr can’t put into words what drives him. Fighting is his job and, ultimately, something preferable and more rewarding than the blue-collar job in which he might otherwise find himself.
However, the sheer physical pain Kerr endures has made him addicted to prescription painkillers, which take their inevitable toll on the fighter, his girlfriend and the other significant people in his life (including close friend and co-competitor Coleman) right up through a near-fatal overdose in October ’99. After that, pic becomes something of a comeback story, as Kerr trains for a so-called “champion of champions” match in Japan.
Like everything that is good about “The Specimen,” the comeback saga is viewed from afar, with the filmmakers refusing to take an emotional position on the circumstances. Should we really feel excited that Kerr is revving up to hurl himself back into what seems an inevitably self-destructive cycle? The question lingers long after the film has run its course. (Though pic ends two years ago, the filmmakers — seemingly with intent — provide no postscript updating us on Kerr’s fortunes.)
Tech qualities are strong by docu standards.