Fightville: Film Review

An up-close but superficial portrait of aspiring MMA stars as they fight their way through the Cajun Country regional circuit.

A documentary from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein covers aspiring mixed martial arts stars as they fight through the regional circuit.

Having chronicled various aspects of the war in Iraq in a quartet of docs, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein (Gunner Palace) turn to combat as entertainment: mixed martial arts. With some ambivalence but also a strong dose of boosterism, Fightville looks at the high-impact and increasingly high-profile sport through up-close portraits of four men, all involved in MMA cage fighting on the southern Louisiana regional circuit.

The intimate and kinetic film, which opens April 20 in Los Angeles and New York, as well as on demand or via digital download, should connect with viewers who count themselves among the sport’s growing fan base. But for non-aficionados, the collection of vivid, pounding details doesn’t offer enough insight or drama to give it the broader impact of an athletes-and-hope documentary like Hoop Dreams.

Beginning in 2009, the directing duo spent almost a year and a half in Lafayette, La., zeroing in on two up-and-comers as they trained hard in hopes of going pro. The shotgun shacks and strip malls of Cajun Country are a long way from the glitz and big money of national-level platforms like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and a DIY impresario has stepped in to bridge the gap.

With his local USA MMA, Gil Guillory, a 40-ish family man and ex-fighter, has fashioned a sort of minor league for the UFC, staging bouts in rodeo arenas and civic auditoriums and signing fighters via handwritten contracts. Certain that “fighting is truth,” he’s evangelical about the sport but pulls no punches about fighters’ prospects, acknowledging that “potential has a timeframe.” Trainer “Crazy” Tim Credeur, a former UFC champ with Mark Ruffalo eyes and cauliflower ears, is also realistic about the big time being a long shot.

For the two determined wannabes at the center of the film, the siren call is not fame and fortune but a love of fighting. Dustin Poirier’s single mother recalls the time he broke another kid’s jaw and the troubles with the law that followed. For the more complicated Albert Stainback, who knows he could put his intelligence to other use but wants only to fight, a dark family backstory has helped to fuel his passion. Embracing the showbiz and the primal, he enters the ring wearing a Clockwork Orange bowler, pumping his chest like a chimp.

All the men speak of the purity, peace and spirituality they experience when they’re in the cage, and the filmmakers push the fighting-as-life metaphor almost to the breaking point. Promoter Guillory and trainer Credeur, whose Gladiators Academy gym separates the warriors from the dreamers, are philosophical and emphasize that MMA is about making good men, through discipline and grueling work.

Tucker and Epperlein seem to accept this assessment at face value, notwithstanding their glancing nods to the blood that’s shed and the economic realities that frustrate the young hopefuls. Fightville is, ultimately, preaching to the choir. In the key bouts they excerpt, the directors assume knowledge of MMA rules and don’t explain the technicalities behind refs’ decisions. They frame their story as one of noble struggle and uncertain triumph. Not unlike the high-end, TV-fare fights that are the goal for Poirier and Stainback, the filmmakers’ finished product looks good and is high in energy; it’s designed to entertain rather than provoke.

Opens: Friday, April 20 (MPI Media Group)
A Heros Film production
Producer-directors: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Executive producers: Michael W. Gray, Dan Cogan, Rachel Schnipper
Director of photography: Michael Tucker
Music: Alex Kliment
Editors: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
No MPAA rating, 85 minutes