Though it’s become a kind of sports cliche, the phrase “a real-life ‘Rocky’” is practically unavoidable in describing the protagonist of “The Cage Fighter.” This middle-aged Washington State competitor is, however, less in line with the “classic” 1976 triumphant underdog than the 2006 “Rocky Balboa” edition who’s struggling, aging, and beset by personal problems. An engaging and sympathetic documentary, if not necessarily as revealing as it appears, Jeff Unay’s directorial feature debut stirred some buzz in its premiere screenings at the San Francisco festival.
By day, swarthy, tattooed Joe Carmen toils in the boiler room of one among the many ferries servicing peninsular Greater Seattle. By night — and any other time he can steal — he obsessively trains for variably “pro” bouts on the cage fighting circuit where he’s competed since age 24. The trouble is, Joe is now pushing 40, facing junior opponents whose youth allows them to keep trim, recover from injuries, and so on much more easily. His four daughters and spouse run an emotional gamut from worried to furious over his repeatedly broken promises to quit this dangerous “hobby” before suffering serious, long-term health consequences. But he can’t bring himself to stop.
It’s certainly not for the money — even when he wins, the financial gains are trivial. Instead, Joe seems driven to “prove something” he can’t quite define or articulate, save in one conversation where he tells wife Norinda that the matches are “the only time in my life when I feel proud of myself … that I like me.” He denies it’s about proving something to his father Stan, though that may be an evasion: On the couple of occasions when we meet him, the older gentleman shows all signs of being an unreconstructed bully, one his son terms “slightly bipolar,” depressive, and alcoholic. Stan still explodes into petty rages, while flatly denying any past actions (such as throwing teenaged Joe out of the house) whose acknowledgement might suggest an overdue apology.
By contrast, Joe himself is from all appearances a gentle giant everywhere outside the sportive arena, and who is adored by his children. As he goes against his loved ones’ wishes to train for a rematch against a younger fighter who’d routed him, however, some questions bubble below “The Cage Fighter’s” compelling surface.
We learn nothing about his prior marriage, beyond the crisis triggered when his ex-wife petitions the custody court for a move to Spokane, taking their shared daughters with her. And Norinda, who has numerous apparent health issues of her own (even as Joe copes with possible “post-concussion syndrome”), is seen here only as a nag forever complaining that no matter what he says, he does whatever the hell he wants. One does wonder if some pieces of the psychological puzzle were left out in order to present a simple, easy-to-root-for portrait of our protagonist as a stubborn working-class warrior who deserves better support from his womenfolk.
Nor is there much insight into the general world of mixed martial arts fighting (non-aficionados may well be shocked when poor Joe is felled during one match by a knee to the groin, a move that appears to be perfectly legal). It becomes Joe’s fixation to best the fearsomely fit competitor Clayton Hoy, and one unexpected late sequence here that does reveal a lot about the sport finds the two men having a friendly drink together. While you might expect the strapping younger athlete to be on top of the world, he cheerfully reveals that his girlfriend just dumped him, he’s flat broke, and virtually homeless. So much for fame and glory.
Though it may leave audiences with a fair number of questions unanswered, “The Cage Fighter” is engrossing and notably well-packaged within its limitations. Unay’s own widescreen camerawork is handsome and often atmospheric, David Teague’s editorial hand deft, and a plaintive piano-based score by Ben Winwood underlines the story’s somewhat melancholy emphasis on dogged, sometimes self-defeating determination rather than the laurels of victory.