Rightwing Film Geek

Victor picks fights


TOUGH GUYS (Henry Roosevelt and WB Zullo, USA, 2017) 5
THE CAGE FIGHTER (Jeff Unay, USA, 2017) 8

Did the phrase “in the tank” specifically originate in combat sports … trying to avoid a Scott Renshaw #Hackstamp here. Regardless, it fits TOUGH GUYS, which is the sort of retrospective personality-profile, “slice of history” documentary that suffers from excessive closeness to the subjects and, relatedly, efforts to puff up their historic importance. In the late-70s and early-80s Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola promoted a series of “tough guys” contests, which put ordinary men without formal training or experience into the ring, under “no holds barred” rules that allowed ground fighting and kicking as well as boxing (to this aficionado, it was a little unclear in the details, but no mind).

Indeed, if you google the words (without quote marks) “tough guys documentary,” the first hit as I type now is to a Variety article about Morgan Spurlock joining the project. Both the headline and the lead say TOUGH GUYS is about the origins of mixed martial arts, a claim the film itself makes (“proto UFC,” “a decade ahead of Dana White,” that kind of thing). While that kind of big-talk ridiculously overstates the historical role that Caliguri and Viola played, it IS the kind of self-aggrandizing claims common to both ad-copy writers and combat-sports promoters. Among many historical objections — it goes unmentioned that “NHB fights” were a mainstream sport in Brazil and Japan (plus the BLOODSPORT “kumite”) before the UFC; the film grossly oversimplifies on several levels the state-sanctioning issues involved (or not); and the historic line is fuzzy from here to the UFC, which began with “style-vs-style” hype and which tried to get world-class wrestlers, kickboxers, judokas, etc., not guys off the street.

The best parts of TOUGH GUYS, and the reason I can’t dismiss it entirely, is that “guys off the street” element. Caliguri and Viola are clearly “characters” as are the fighters interviewed now, 40 years later. The film also does a good job of juxtapose different memories — everybody thinks he won every fight, and the directors cut from “I landed a big bomb” [Cut] “one lucky punch didn’t hurt” type talk. Old though they are, the fighters are also peppery enough to talk shit at each other and demand rematches. “Mad Dog” Danny makes you think it’s not a metaphor when he talks about his rival Frank Tigano. And let’s just say there’s a hilarious story involving the Maf… a man with connections.

TOUGH GUYS also gets a bit more critical and less rah-rah later in its third “act,” but even then it pulls its punches (sorry … #Hackstamp). The decline of the promotion begins with a ring fatality that prompted a state-sanctioning crackdown on NHB fighting, the inevitable byproduct of untrained men fighting. But it’s quickly pointed out that the fatality that fueled a crackdown on NHB fighting happened at a rival “Toughman” promotion, led by Art Dore. The film plays Dore, whose men fought under boxing rules and who was involved in the roughly contemporaneous semi-promo fiction film TOUGH ENOUGH, as the supervillain of the story. Look at the lighting scheme as he chomps on a cigar in his office — subtle TOUGH GUYS ain’t.

The film raises the obvious moral question, besides those inherent to combat sports, only to drop it. One of TOUGH GUYS’ strengths is that it very specifically situates the promotion in the Pennsylvania rust-belt of the late-70s and early-80s, saying that steel mills, coalmines, dockyards, etc., bred the kind of layman who fights just to prove he’s the toughest man in the room. But that era’s economic depression and stripping away of jobs made such men desperate for the cash being dangled by Viola and Caliguri. And most of the men didn’t get it — we see contemporaneous local-news footage of battered faces saying they needed the money. Viola and Caliguri meanwhile each buy a Lincoln with cash. The film notes the discrepancy and some talking heads (not overly sympathetic ones, BTW) make the obvious charges of exploitation … and the film hurriedly moves on. Afraid of landing a punch too hard.

Which brings me to THE CAGE FIGHTER, the seeing of which the afternoon after watching TOUGH GUYS, was critically clarifying on two levels.

First of all, my reaction to each gave me confidence re my reaction to the other. I was neither “putting out” for one film about my non-cinema hobby¹, nor being needlessly insidery-critical about the other. Second, it provides (redundant) confirmation that what I prize in movies (these are my hermeneutic glasses; sorry, folks wearing other specks) is the specific, the personal, the realistic. TOUGH GUYS is a retrospective historical film, largely consisting of talking heads describing “what we did back then” (there is footage of the circa-1980 fights, but it’s so sparse the film even resorts to present-day re-enactors). THE CAGE FIGHTER is an observational, present-tense film, following one man (one family actually), a man whose type I’ve interacted with going in, and whom I felt I knew by the end. That’s in a Bazinian’s wheelhouse.

Joe Carman is pushing 40 and not only will clearly never hit the big time but just as clearly will never be able to support himself by fighting. Nor does THE CAGE FIGHTER goose things — he wins and loses during the film, and not in ways predictable from the “fight film” / original ROCKY / THE WRESTLER template that this film, speaking broadly, is working off of.

Unay follows Joe for what must be a couple of years and the principal drama concerns his family, which opposes his “career,” such as it is. Or isn’t. And that’s what gives the film tension. It’s easy to say, in re a hypothetical film about Anderson Silva’s family, that the wife and kids should just STFU and enjoy the mansion. But THIS guy?

And that family tension raises formal questions too. The best parts of CAGE FIGHTER, the scenes that make it near-great, are family quarrels, scenes in which you wonder, “why is nobody turning to the camera and saying ’stop recording’?” There is one scene in which two of Joe’s four daughters tearfully quarrel in the parking lot in the way that only children of a divorce or difficult marriage can — one siding with Mom, the other with Dad. And another involving Joe and his own parents that draws blood on multiple levels — you can’t punch even the most punchable of fathers, but the mother still is obliged to keep the peace.

Indeed, one of the raps against the film is that certain scenes appear contrived. My buddy Mark Pfeiffer said CAGE FIGHTER looked like a fiction film in need of a more-polished screenplay. And I’d shudder to think what Mike D’Angelo, who has complained about *early Wiseman* films on “why are these people acting like the camera isn’t around?” grounds, would make of CAGE FIGHTER. And here I think there is a further worthwhile critical point. People have changed, “thanks” to the era of reality TV. Yes, Mark, if CAGE FIGHTER were a fiction film, we’d think the “screenplay” somewhat lumpy. And yes, 51-year-old Victor says to 49-year-old Mike, neither of us would act out our family daemons like this in the presence of the world. But 2010s people have lived their whole lives in a wholly-mediated environment, and expect everybody to know everything, and think nothing of sexting and sending dick pics and beaver shots. Remember how in THE BREAKFAST CLUB (released the year I graduated high school), Ally Sheedy scandalizes Anthony Michael Hall by revealing he has a beaver shot in his wallet. Meh (#2017Tweets).

As to why it’s not a 9 — CAGE FIGHTER seems to be leaving some stuff out. Joe has a legal case involving an unseen ex-wife and two daughters, the details and issues of which might politely be called “murky.” It’s presented here as “his family abandons him” … which is true and apropos. But I wanted more. And the last scene … (vague spoilery talk) I get why it’s there thematically. Fighting and family are (kinda) united. But … the second-to-last scene is so great I wanted it to be the walk-off. Every man who’s touched gloves with another man or who has cried at FAT CITY or who has thought that the grass is greener on the other side … this is our scene.
¹ Can’t say I wasn’t amused by the Variety review in which the writer de facto admits he knows nothing about MMA, stating that a groin strike “appears to be perfectly legal.” A man needn’t be an expert in a subject matter to review a documentary on it — indeed inexpertise can even offer advantages. But one wishes such people would thereby avoid pronouncing on the subject matter.

June 23, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment