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Review: ‘The Cage Fighter’ a hard-hitting doc about an aging family man still drawn to MMA

Callie Carman, left, and Joe Carman in the documentary "The Cage Fighter."
(Sundance Selects)

The title brawler is introduced in the stunning first shots of “The Cage Fighter,” silhouetted against a blue light and flipping a giant tire in the cold night air. Joe Carman breathes heavily, each gasp visible in the chill. Almost 40, he’s well past the ideal age for reentering the cage.

Director Jeff Unay cuts to Carman’s daughter’s birthday, setting up the documentary’s central conflict between his role as a family man and an MMA fighter. Carman has returned to the sport after promising his wife and daughters that he would quit, but he can’t stop, despite his love for them and the challenges he faces as an aging athlete in such a brutal discipline. Unay’s subject in “The Cage Fighter” continually proves himself a character as worthy as “Rocky” or “The Wrestler,” as he endures blood, sweat and his daughters’ tears.

At just 81 minutes, “The Cage Fighter” has been whittled down to its fighting weight, trimmed of every ounce of fat. Unay tells Carman’s story without interviews or narration, but the film lands every punch without their help.

Unay makes his directorial debut here after working in visual effects on films such as “Avatar” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” “The Cage Fighter” arrives on screen, costing a fraction of their heavyweight budgets, but boasting far more emotional heft.

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‘The Cage Fighter’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes

Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood

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