"Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water." So says Bruce Lee in an archival interview tacked onto the beginning of "Like Water," a documentary about Brazilian mixed martial artist Anderson Silva. "You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend." With that, we wait to see how Silva applies this philosophy to his life and/or his fighting career. And we keep waiting. Before we know it, all of the film's seventy-five minutes have passed, and we're none the wiser. Here is a film so distant from its subjects and so lacking in insight that it never once engages the viewer. Its status as a documentary is not only unearned, it's also a bit insulting to those that take the genre seriously.
The film doesn't even work at a superficial level, which is bizarre given the innate cinematic qualities of a sports drama. There is a climactic big fight at the end, and yet the footage leading up to it is such a nonevent that it fails to build anticipation. There's no sitting on the edge of your seat in suspense, no rooting for the champion, no cheering or applauding, no sense of victory; there's only the sinking feeling that nothing of value has been accomplished. This film is so poorly structured, it's almost as if it had been assembled entirely from outtakes. Either that, or director Pablo Croce is woefully unfamiliar with documentaries and how they're supposed to work. For the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around the fact that this movie earned him a Best New Documentary Director award at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.
He follows the middleweight Silva, who holds the record for the longest winning and title defense streak in UFC history, as he prepares for the UFC 117 fight that was held in Oakland, California on August 7, 2010. Apart from a brief recap of Silva's records, and a few shallow scraps about his wife and children back home in Brazil, we learn virtually nothing about his personal or professional life. He's presented as an awkward mix between a martial arts sage and a childish eccentric, at times acting out like an immature teenager, almost never speaking anything apart from his native Portuguese even when travelling across America for training and promotional campaigns. His words of wisdom come off as either embarrassingly hackneyed or infuriatingly abstract, as if he were intentionally trying to push back at Croce for documenting his life.
We do learn that UFC President Dana White was so disgusted with the way Silva performed – or, rather, didn't perform – during the UFC 112 fight against Demian Maia that he refused to bestow Silva with the championship belt he won after five rounds. Instead, the belt was presented by Silva's manager, Ed Soares. What the film does not address is that, during the immediate post-fight interview, Silva apologized, claiming that he wasn't himself and needed to "reevaluate" his sense of humility. I learned this simply by logging onto Wikipedia. Indeed, I learned much more about Silva from Wikipedia than by watching this documentary. If you're interested in this man, I recommend you avoid the movie altogether and boot up your computers or smart phones – provided, of course, that you've downloaded the free Wikipedia app.
Silva's UFC 117 opponent was Oregon native Chanel Sonnen. We see him in the days leading up to the big fight mostly during press junkets and sports highlight shows. I don't know if I've ever witnessed a more unflattering depiction of a real-life sports figure in all the years I've been watching documentaries. He's combative, insensitive, racist, and alarmingly ignorant. If this were a fictional film, his presence would be protested. Was he merely posturing for the camera, or did he actually believe all the inflammatory things he said? Since the film never bothers to humanize him, I suppose we'll never know. His planned rematch with Silva never took place; he would ultimately be fined $2,500 and suspended for one year by the CSAC after drug tests confirmed elevated levels of testosterone/epitestosterone. In other words, he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. This came after he chastised other sports figures like Lance Armstrong, whose doping allegations have never been substantiated, for being phonies.
Given the fact that the film opens with a Bruce Lee interview clip, you'd think "Like Water" would in some way delve into the psychology of fighting on a professional level. When I see a boxer or a wrestler or a martial artist, I don't see an athlete trying to better him or herself through competition. What I do see is an unhealthy desire to be physically aggressive. Here is a movie that should have worked much harder at explaining to a layman like me the appeal of fighting another human being. What is it about being a mixed martial artist that has focused Silva? Is he even focused, or has fighting blinded him to other opportunities? Does he live by Lee's Be Water philosophy, as the opening clip suggests? That opens up another can of worms, since I truly have no idea what that philosophy means.
-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)