The life and times of extreme fighter Mark Kerr
He is part Adonis and part animal. His body is sculpted and tuned, pumped full of power and poised like a cobra to strike without mercy. Outside the arena, he is soft-spoken and childlike. Inside the ring, he is a gladiator of apocalyptic proportions. Exemplifying the phrase from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, in the world of mixed martial arts, two men indeed enter, but only one man truly leaves. For over a decade, Mark Kerr was that man. As an undefeated champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship League, an organized bloodbath combining bare-knuckle brawling, wrestling, kickboxing, various Asian fighting techniques, and the scent of death all in one over-hyped, histrionic filled package, Kerr owned this mid 1990s pay-per-view staple. When the UFC was finally banned in the United States, the Japanese took over and began, among others, the Pride Fighting Championships. Many of the talented world competitors, including Kerr, left for the land of the rising sun to seek their fame and fortune. But victory came at a heavy price. Pain, drug addiction, and interpersonal problems seemed to haunt all the participants, Mark included. In the made-for-HBO documentary The Smashing Machine, we witness the brute strength and inner fragility of one of mixed martial arts' most mysterious and melancholy competitors. Opponent after foolish opponent left the square circle beaten and defeated at the massive mitts and mindless violence of this human wrecking machine. And after every bout, he too suffered many hidden, horrendous scars.
The world of mixed martial arts fighting is a seedy and suspect realm that gives off an undeniable aura of snuff film familiarity without providing very much in the way of real world redemption. There is no doubting the sheer size, strength, and determination of those who wish to participate in it. But like the Russian roulette gambling scene in The Deer Hunter, there seems to be an audacious audience fascination with death and destruction that fuels these ferocious fisticuffs. It appears near impossible to find hope, humor, or happiness in this shady world of syndicates, sacrifice, and solitude. But documentary filmmaker John Hyams is determined to discover the man beneath the monster so to speak, and he followed Kerr around for one tumultuous year in his career as a professional destroyer. What he discovered became the basis for the shocking and sensational Smashing Machine. It is a non-fiction film that exposes the world of mixed martial arts fighting as a tough tenure of near indentured servitude where success or failure is merely a head-butt or knee smash away. Problem is, the movie has a lot of issues to deal with and it occasionally mishandles a few of them.
The Smashing Machine certainly has a lot to battle against. The concept of bloodsport as the basis for interesting human drama just doesn't quite sit right. Indeed, the fight sequences showcase a standard winning strategy for most mixed martial artists. After pinning their opponent to the matt, they wrap their legs around the lower torso and squeeze for dear life. Then they wait for an opening and pummel the poor prone person into near catatonia. Every match seems to end this way. Whoever ends up in the supine thigh pliers is dead meat. So there is not much inherent suspense in the matches themselves. Once the homoerotic ride has begun, it's just a matter of hard hammer crashes to the temples and face. Unless you find these sweat and sting exercises in mindless battering interesting, you'll cringe at the physical damage inflicted and marvel at how any human being can subject themselves to such punishment. After we leave the arena however, The Smashing Machine answers this query and really takes off. Because of our natural curiosity as to who would actually participate in this sport, the behind the battle sequences makes the individuals showcased instantly interesting.
Indeed, the human harm factories are what ultimately make this a spellbinding documentary. Kerr is a walking dichotomy, a man who befriends the men who he obliterates in the ring. He loves his girlfriend as he allows her to walk all over him. He primes his body into the ultimate offensive and defensive weapon as he simultaneously pumps it full of illegal intravenous drugs. And he seems to need the violent antics of mixed martial arts as a means of confirming his manhood as much as his Olympian body seems to scream sculpted superiority. Indeed, everyone in The Smashing Machine has the beefed-up look of a wounded warrior imprinted across their battered visage. Each face wears the same engorged rage and hints at multiple layers of bruises. These are men who throw their bodies into the mêlée for a taste of victory and a sip of success and defeat rings the rims of their eyes with darkened foreboding. Between Kerr, whose rise and fall is near Roman in its tragedy, to his friend and mentor Mark Coleman who sees his chance at reclaiming previous glory, The Smashing Machine has a arc of triumph and redemption that manages to say positive and uplifting things about its subject without resorting to forced set-ups. While it is not always perfect (the drug issue is handled in a couple of quick scenes, and Mark's yenta of a girlfriend is never fully explained), this is still a skillful examination of the kind of person who would make their living off the pounding and punishment to and of others.
Presented by Docurama in a nice DVD package, The Smashing Machine has a vibrant 1.33:1 full screen image that captures the tone of the movie perfectly. While some sequences excel (the matches all look exceptional), other times a dreary ambiance is manufactured thanks to the technological limits of the cameras used. On the sound side, The Smashing Machine has a few aural issues. Kerr is a very soft-spoken man, and while it is understandable, somehow, for him not to be miked for recording (how else could you capture "off the cuff" moments, one guesses) at the same time, it becomes more and more difficult to figure out what he is saying. Obviously, the cameras used doubled as the sound recording devices, and their limitations are exposed in difficult settings like locker rooms and hotel lobbies. Thankfully, there are subtitles that can be activated so you can catch all the nuances in the narrative.
From a standpoint of extras, Docurama really loads The Smashing Machine with intriguing material. First up is a commentary with filmmaker John Hyams and producer Jon Greenhalgh. Discussing the making of this film, along with their personal impressions of the people featured, we almost get a secondary, narrative "movie" about mixed martial arts, Kerr, and the people in his life. Indeed, some of the commentary does a better job of explaining what is going on than the movie does, as do some deleted scenes, removed for various reasons (time, tone, overall length, etcetera). The subject of a couple of these edited sequences, Renzo Gracie, is also the focus of a 35-minute short entitled Fight Day. It chronicles the entire Gracie family and its legacy of fighting in a wonderful, spirited fashion. [Editor's Note: One member of the Gracie clan, Rickson Gracie, was profiled in the documentary Rickson Gracie: Choke, also reviewed on this site.] Along with the standard trailers and Docurama promotional material, this is an intricate and detailed package, which is very necessary for a subject like this.
Ultimate Fighting was, at one time, the brutal answer to wrestling's soap opera showboating and boxing's elitist aura. The fact that it had to move underground to the questionable quagmire of Asian "legitimacy" explains a great deal about why Mark Kerr ended up the way he did. Battered, beaten, and personally defeated, this demolishing apparatus was chipping away a little piece of himself every time he stepped into the ring to throttle an opponent. As a testament to the spirit of senseless stupidity that flows inside desperate individuals, this documentary has no equal. While it fails to tell a completely rounded and full story, this is one Smashing Machine that finally understands when to halt the destruction. For now.
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• Exclusive Short Film Fight Day featuring Renzo Gracie
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