“Vegan Badass” proclaims the T-shirt of one of the interview subjects in Louie Psihoyos’s flashy, pumped-up documentary “The Game Changers,” and perhaps that would have been a better title for it. 88 minutes of fast stats, slick science and celebrity testimony all aimed to debunk the “real men eat meat” mentality, it’s a sharp feat of PR for a lifestyle choice that already has momentum on its side, as studies point to a recent global rise in plant-based eating. “The Game Changers” isn’t here to preach to the wellness-culture choir, however. Headed by former UFC champion James Wilks, it sets out to convince the most stereotypically red-blooded carnivores that veganism is not just healthy and environmentally friendly, but actively macho, with a predominantly male ensemble of athletes and hardmen lined up to assert that it’s not just easy being green, but tough too.
It’s an unsubtle thesis, and the film pushes it in ruthlessly on-message fashion: Valuable points are made throughout, though by the time one of many talking-head doctors methodically demonstrates the benefits of a plant-based diet to a man’s erectile performance, some viewers may find themselves wishing “The Game Changers” would stop flexing and broaden its perspective a bit. Directed by Psihoyos with advertorial efficiency but less artfulness than his Oscar-winning environmental plea “The Cove,” this Sundance premiere presents few challenges to distributors with its on-trend topic and big-name endorsements: Arnold Schwarzenegger pops up on screen as a dietary evangelist, while it will probably remain the only film in history to feature executive producer credits for James Cameron and Pamela Anderson. Following some theatrical play, this would play particularly well as a special on an ESPN-style network.
If it’s Wilks’ constant narration, riddled with bullish investigative-journo phrasing (“I wanted to find out…”, “That led me to…”), that lends a televisual feel to the enterprise, he’s nothing if not enthusiastic company, hitting exactly the chipper, regular-guy tone the film as a whole means to strike. A retired MMA fighter turned elite military trainer, he turns to veganism after a career-stalling knee injury; research into the apparently vegetarian-dominated diets of Roman gladiators leads him to believe cutting all animal-based food from his diet will hasten his body’s recovery. When Wilks’ father Gary suffers a heart attack, his son persuades him to convert too.
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Working from these personal causes, Wilks launches into a larger study of fellow sportspeople and physical high-fliers who have switched to veganism and reaped the benefits: Schwarzenegger, record-holding strongman Patrik Baboumian, cyclist and Olympic medalist Dotsie Bausch and rugged Australian conservationist Damien Mander are among those showing up to make what was once dismissed as a wispy hippie fad look very robust indeed. Their gung-ho testimonies are buttressed by a gaggle of doctors and scientists refuting the misconception of veganism as a low-protein diet and laying out its manifold benefits to the body — from lowered blood pressure and cancer risks to more specific sporting advantages unlikely to concern viewers who don’t plan to lift 700 pounds of iron any time soon.
Supported by swift, nifty graphics, the science part is bright and well-presented, if a bit repetitive; there’s little tension even between varying schools of plant-based eating in the film’s dissertation. More discussion of the comparative benefits of vegetarianism versus veganism, for example, might be of interest to the novices Wilks and Psihoyos are seeking to engage; it’s left to Bausch, meanwhile, to make the sensible point that changing one’s diet for the greener needn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition. A late interlude on the adverse environmental effects of livestock farming won’t be revelatory even to many steak-eaters in the audience, but if “The Game Changers” is out to chasten the most stubbornly vegetable-opposed, it has all its bases covered.
Ultimately, this is documentary advocacy of the fighting-fire-with-fire variety. Wilks calls out carnivorous corporations like McDonald’s for perpetuating the myth in their own marketing that meat makes you more of a man, while claiming that very line of argument for itself: Once we get to the comparative monitoring of multiple sportsmen’s nocturnal erections before and after dropping meat from the menu, it’s a wonder “The Game Changers” doesn’t come right out and say, “Veganism makes you hard, in more ways than one.” That’s implicit, and if a few more guys start eating their greens as a result, this blunt but belief-fueled film will have done its job.