Review by James Lindorf
The world of mixed martial arts may have just gotten its Rocky with The Cage Fighter, the story of everyman fighter, Joe Carman. Joe is a blue-collar family man who breaks the promise he’d made to never fight again. Now forty years old, with a wife and four children who need him, Joe risks everything to go back into the fighting cage. Jeff Unay makes his directorial debut with this real-life story that was three years in the making. It is available in select theaters and on VOD Friday February 2nd.
While watching this movie, I had to stop and wonder if it really was a documentary or if IMDB had it misclassified. It feels like a lower budget, but strongly written and acted narrative film. The lack of interviews and confessional moments that are so common to documentaries really helps you immerse yourself in the events surrounding Joe and the rest of the Carmen Family. It is as unglamorous and unfriendly as the original Rocky film. Both feature good men who are hard workers, down on their luck and feel their best in the ring with an opponent that’s capable of being conquered. The film doesn’t treat Joe like a hero who is always right and mistreated by the world. He gets tough breaks, but some things are of his own doing.
Unay and Carmen will make you evaluate your dreams, your sense of self-worth, and ask you what you are and are not willing to give up for them. Joe works all day in a boiler room. He is a trainer at the gym and an amateur fighter. The rest of his time is devoted to his family. His wife is unable to work due to an undiagnosed illness, which puts all of the financial burden on Joe. His ex-wife wants to move and take her two kids with her. In addition, he also has a contentious relationship with his father. All of these things are what push Joe back into the ring. The rest of the film is about how the people in his life react to this revelation and how will Joe respond. Will he give in to the demands, will he counter punch his way to a compromise or will he lose everything he loves outside of the ring? You can’t help but care for Joe, someone that works so hard and loves his family so passionately, that you want the best things for him.
I do wish we had some of the additional information that we tend to get in a traditional documentary. I want to know the timeline of these events. It feels like the film takes place over a few, to maybe 6 months, and not the three years they spent filming. I would also love to have seen post credit cards telling us what is going on with the family since filming wrapped. Most of the filming is well done, even during the fight scenes. They don’t have an elevated platform to get the best angles, but they are on the ground near the action, making it feel very intense at times. The cinematography outside of the ring is pretty consistent, but takes a shaky turn towards the end, like it was older footage or maybe a stabilizing rig broke. It stood out as jittery compared to the rest of the film.
Taking everything into account, this is an easy film to recommend. You get to see all the hard work that goes into being an amateur MMA fighter. You get to see Joe making mistakes, but being a very good and loving father. And if you’re like me, it makes you thankful your dream doesn’t involve getting hit in the face or constantly put you at odds with your family.
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