What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Vlad Yudin
Produced by: Vlad Yudin, Edwin Mejia
Featuring: Kai Greene, Phil Heath, Branch Warren, Dennis Wolf, Victor Martinez, Ben Pakulski, Hidetada Yamagishi, Roelly Winklaar, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Michael Jai White
Narrated by: Mickey Rourke
Running Time (in min.): 106 minutes
There’s an enormous man in a white mask dancing in the New York subway. Thousands of miles westerly, another man jogs along a deserted mountainside highway. In Holland, a spiky haired grandma pushes a man to his breaking point during a morning workout. And all the while, there’s multihyphenate Vlad Yudin and his camerapeople, watching it all wide-eyed.
The Russian-born Yudin’s new documentary Generation Iron, currently rolling out theatrically around the U.S., aims to pick up where bodybuilding classic Pumping Iron left off. That film worked successfully to bring the Mr. Olympia competition into the public eye, and introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to fame in the process. Working with that film’s exec producer, Jerome Gary, it’s clear from the first shot – of the internationally renowned athlete Kai Greene painting a self-portrait – that Yudin and Mejia are after something different here. Though unlikely to supplant the fame and respect that the 1977 film received, the element of surprise keeps this subject matter quite open to the newer interpretation.
What exactly the producers are after, though, is a little less clear. Part docudrama, part seven-character ensemble study, Generation Iron introduces those outside the BB world to Phil Heath, the defending 2011 Olympia champion, and several of his most dangerous competitors. Most fearsome is our painter, Greene, a poetic and quiet soul nonetheless possessed of great grief and ambition. So open about a childhood spent in institutions and a near fall into civil crime, Greene could serve as the subject of his own film if not for the five other individuals Yudin shadows. There’s Dennis Wolf, a Schwarzeneggerian blonde giant, who wants to win the competition almost as much as he wants to act in blockbuster comedies; Hidetada Yamagishi, who at only five feet five inches tall, is the most significant bodybuilder in Japan’s history; and nearby is Victor Martinez, a family man with four children, still reeling from a seven-month incarceration and the loss of his athletic sponsors ( lifeblood, for most of them.)
Yudin has expressed an interest in destroying the mythos of the meathead, and if he’s not entirely successful, he at least identifies that each of these large, artificially tanned men is just that: a human being. Disregarding a talking heads structure for a more intimate approach, we see the men feasting on rice and fish while their wives and children talk quietly (after all, seven-thousand calorie-a-day diets are necessary to keep their masses growing.) Some are not so open or revealing, like the more mechanical, brutal Branch Warren, whose temper and impatience with Yudin’s style makes the crew seem like a nuisance. But these instances are certainly fewer and further between than those who give themselves to the camera, often with the result of an extremely charming presence.
With seven journeys to Olympia at its core, Generation Iron can not help but feel incohesive, and so we come to enjoy seeing some more than others. Greene and Heath, one another’s rivals into the 2012 Olympia competition (no spoilers as to the winner here, but the Internet is a great thing), come off as soft guys talking trash just to keep up appearances. Appearances and tough-talk have recurred in Yudin’s work, from his investigation of a contemporary rap artist in Mr. Immortality (2011) to Head Smash, the graphic novel he wrote and optioned for 2014. Bodybuilding at the highest levels is as much pomp and bluster as hard work and, as they refer to it here, “innate talent.” It takes a certain kind of genetic code to live through the workouts that form a 23-inch-neck, sure, but only a truly gifted individual can survive the vicious inter-competition badgering and stress. I hate to wonder what professional bodybuilders might think to say to film critics.