What motivates someone to pick up a weight and sculpt their body? It’s different for everyone and nearly 40 years ago Pumping Iron explored the nascent bodybuilding culture that had sprung up. With the exercise industry booming in its wake, and bodybuilding becoming a niche sport and the supplement industry becoming a multi-billion dollar boom, it seems about right to go back to the world of hulking men trying to get as muscular as they can.
Generation Iron is a spiritual sequel to the film that debuted Arnold Schwarzenegger as a tour de force.
The film follows the men who’d make up most of the final competitor’s in the 2012 Mr. Olympia competition. Olympia is the biggest event of the year in bodybuilding, its Super Bowl of sorts, and as such the pressure is its greatest. Each competitor has a different story and motivations. The two primary ones are Phil Heath and Kai Greene.
Heath is the defending champion and viewed as the greatest of his generation. He has the perfect physique, et al. Grantland had a tremendous behind the scenes piece on his personal life, et al, but Heath is his generation’s Schwarzenegger. He’s got the physique, etc, and is on all of the muscle magazines. He’s straight out of central casting when it comes to being the best bodybuilder in the world.
Greene is his biggest rival, of course, and the man who many view as the one to be able to top Heath’s reign on top of Olympia. He’s an artist who loves to paint when he’s not pumping iron, a crowd favorite because of his hairstyle. His body is a piece of art like his paintings are; there’s an artist’s soul in this huge hulk of a man.
Narrated by Mickey Rourke, this is the story of Greene and Heath preparing for the biggest show of their careers while the also-rans try to topple the two men viewed at the top. What makes this an interesting film is that we get the best of a sports film (the competition) while getting just enough from the competitors to make it a compelling character study.
And the latter is why the documentary is as compelling for this generation as Pumping Iron was 40 years ago; it’s the personalities that matter the most. Why these guys do what they do is more important, cinematically, than just showing them working out and posing. Seeing Heath break everything he does down to get him ready for this one day, so that everything he does puts him at peak performance, gives you the reason why the competition means so much. Olympia, the central theme behind the film, becomes the ultimate proving ground for all involved.
The film is a showcase of the mentality of everyone and it’s all different. For all it’s hard work … but with various addendums. For some it’s scientific, trying to improve just a little bit more than everyone else. For someone like Greene it’s artistic; his body is the ultimate canvas and he wants to paint a masterpiece above the others. For Heath it’s more competition; he’s the best in the game and he has to get better or else he will lose his throne to any number of worthy competitors.
Mickey Rourke provides narration and it’s note perfect; you can tell it’s him early on because his voice is so unique but he doesn’t try to overpower the film, either. He wants to fade into the background and you barely notice him at times. The film does a terrific job of letting the real life tell the story, not the narration.
This is a number of the very best at what they do, the upper 1% of competitors, and why they do it. This is a film about the essence of the competition between the best at what they do and why they do it. It’s compelling and rich, a worthy successor to Pumping Iron in every way possible.
Director: Vlad Yudin
Notable Cast: Mickey Rourke (Narrator), Phil Heath, Jay Cutler, Kai Greene, Branch Warren,