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The annual Mr. Olympia bodybuilding contest, established in 1965 and currently considered the preeminent competition and tastemaker in the field, gets its close-up from Russian filmmaker Vlad Yudin in this uneven documentary that references 1977’s Pumping Iron in the title. Primarily of interest to insiders and fans, the film should see a swift shift to ancillary before the platform release gets much chance to expand.
A curious individual sport where most of the action takes place offstage, professional bodybuilding attracts a fervent worldwide following focused on a relatively small group of aspirants and contestants. With origins in classical weightlifting competitions and other demonstrations of male strength, bodybuilding has evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry incorporating specialized gyms, workout equipment, dietary supplements, clothing lines, entertainment products and media hype.
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Well-known contenders include Lou (“The Incredible Hulk”) Ferrigno and seven-time Mr. Olympia Arnold (“The Austrian Oak”) Schwarzenegger (whose careers both benefited from the exposure Pumping Iron afforded them). The two are champions who epitomize the sports’ entertainment aspects and provide Yudin with the pop culture angle to get behind the sport’s veneer of masculine invincibility to examine just what makes these competitors tick as they prepare for the 2012 Mr. Olympia contest.
Profiling seven professional bodybuilders across the U.S., Yudin naturally gravitates toward 2011 champion Phil Heath, a soft-spoken, powerfully built African-American athlete from Denver. Although Heath speaks modestly of his accomplishments, his impressive gym workouts and weightlifting routines reveal a deeply driven competitor.
Russian-born Dennis Wolf, a tightly wound, blond bundle of muscle, idolizes Schwarzenegger and displays a similar craving for the media spotlight. Japanese contender Hidetada Yamagishi is the only Asian interviewed and at 5-foor-5 and 220 pounds considers himself an outlier to be reckoned with. Heath’s strongest challenge, however, comes from Brooklynite Kai Greene, a street-tough athlete who turned to weightlifting as a teen, in part to avoid the risk of falling into a life of crime.
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Following the group over nearly three months in the lead-up to the national title, Yudin examines their training routines, diets and lifestyles, as well as profiling their personal and family lives. These intimidatingly huge men, with their sometimes grotesquely distorted physiques, on the whole turn out to be kindly and even humble — at least on camera — as they pursue their lifelong dream with unflagging drive and dedication.
Unfortunately, Yudin struggles to convert this characteristic determination into narrative momentum, held back by repetitive scenes and uneven pacing, and dissipating nearly an hour on intercutting among the seven with interviews, workout sequences and oblique discussions about “supplements” and performance enhancing drugs, which several acknowledge are prevalent in the field, but none will cop to abusing.
Ironically, beauty contests are an apt comparison for all the training, preparation and presentation involved in bodybuilding — as the competitors perfect their physiques and preen before admiring crowds — an analogy that seems lost on both the filmmakers and talent. At the same time, they fail to present any coherent description of how competitions are organized and scored, required performance elements or how winners are determined, even with Mickey Rourke as an inspired choice for the voiceover. Although his delivery seems as often poetic as it is narrative while filling in the contestants’ backstories, Rourke is also frequently far too grim or grandiose performing Yudin’s overwrought script.
Technically the film is basic but intermittently effective, although the audio on the sole, critical interview with Schwarzenegger — who observes at a hopelessly loud event that bodybuilding combines aspects of both sport and entertainment — is distractingly compromised, and much of the B-roll neglects to add any layer of significant detail.
In fact, it seems that Yudin isn’t entirely clear what he wants the film to be, referring to it both as a Pumping Iron “remake” and a “sort-of sequel,” as well as a “docudrama,” when it’s actually a fairly straightforward sports doc.
Production company: The Vladar Company
Director-writer: Vlad Yudin
Producers: Vlad Yudin, Edwin Mejia
Executive Producers: Jerome Gary, David J. Pecker, Jim Manion, Robin Chang, Eric Weider
Directors of photography: Guy Livneh, Colin Morvan
Editor: Justin Timms
Music: Jeff Rona
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes
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