Arnold Schwarzenegger famously played pranks on opponents and smoked marijuana in the 1977 docudrama, Pumping Iron. For Generation Iron, which writer and director Vlad Yudin sees as a sequel to the original, Schwarzenegger offers a more mature contribution, describing bodybuilding as sport, entertainment, lifestyle and art—all rolled into one bulky, spray-tanned package.
Viewers can decide which perspective they prefer when Generation Iron opens nationwide on September 20, a release date set to coincide with Joe Weider’s Mr. Olympia competition September 26-29 at the Orleans. Filmgoers who don’t already know that Mr. Olympia takes place in Las Vegas each September—be they local or not—will figure it out as the drama unfolds, for a few reasons.
First, Generation Iron features compelling characters whose fates Yudin gets you to care about, in part, by pinning them to the outcome of the contest. He chose eight top-tier professional bodybuilders to follow in their preparation for the 2012 Mr. Olympia, and it’s a colorful cast, including Phil Heath (a.k.a. “The Gift”), the handsome, arrogant 2011 winner; Roelly Winklaar, a Curaçao underdog who trains (and shares a hotel room) with an elderly Dutch woman nicknamed Grandma; and—the most likable of the bunch—Ben “Pakman” Pakulski, who employs a team of laboratory scientists in his search for the perfect body.
But the film opens and closes, as it should, on Kai Greene, the deepest well to be pumped in the search for meaning behind a sport that is, by definition, superficial. An orphan raised by foster families and juvenile-detention officers, Greene finds salvation in weight-lifting—a cliché that Yudin touches on sparingly. Instead, he focuses on Greene’s talent as a painter to literalize the essence of bodybuilding: treating human form as clay lump to be sculpted to spec. Greene is shown practicing his craft as a masked street performer, which he says is a better place than the gym to perfect the difficult art of posing, connecting mind and muscle so intricately that the bodybuilder can alter any inch of the body on command.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the film boils down to a Mr. Olympia duel between Greene and the title-holder, Heath, with the other characters providing heartbreak and laughs along the way. (One character, who is struggling to support his family after seven months’ incarceration, is forced to bow out; another is thrown from a bucking horse as he rides out of a shot in which he’s declared his status as self-made maverick.)
Such moments rescue Generation Iron from the brink of commercialism—those moments when it slips into the lightweight formula of bio pieces on Olympic athletes: Person X comes from adversity Y and finds inspiration Z to make it to The Big Show.
The difference here is that you want to know what happens to the characters beyond the main event. Sure, Mr. Olympia provides structure for the narrative, but the announcement of winner and loser only adds layers to the characters in question.
Yudin accomplishes this by facing the tough questions about the sport. He delves into performance-enhancing drugs, injuries and the toll that bodybuilding takes on the human form in its relentless (reckless?) search for the limits of muscle growth.
“It’s a very hard sport,” one competitor’s wife says. “They don’t get to enjoy their lives.”
No, most of them don’t—at least in the film. But we certainly get to enjoy pondering what their sacrifice means about civilization.
Generation Iron (PG-13) ★★★✩✩