Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's 'Fightville,' which examines the unabating mixed martial arts craze, is an exhilarating sports documentary and a levelheaded, piercingly intelligent treatment of a touchy subject. It humanizes and makes sense of a sport that, for all I knew, consisted of putting two men in a cage and setting them loose to beat the crap out of each other to the delight of hordes of bloodthirsty goons. 'Fightville' demolishes that preconception. Not since Chris Bell's 'Bigger Stronger Faster*' has a documentary done more to contribute to an ongoing discussion about sports.

Which is all the more interesting since there is nothing on the face of 'Fightville' to suggest that it is interested in contributing to any discussion. Unlike 'Bigger Stronger Faster*', this is not an issue film. Instead, it functions as a profile of four individuals in various roles within MMA, all based in and around Lafayette, Louisiana: a trainer, a promoter, and two fighters. The movie follows them for 18 months as they make their way through the lower echelons of this brutal sport. (And whatever other preconceptions 'Fightville' may correct, it makes clear that MMA is brutal – it only takes a couple of minutes to get to a shot of a bloody and prone man being mercilessly pounded in the face by a thinly gloved fist.)
The most high-profile of 'Fightville''s subjects is Dustin Poirier, a good-looking 20 year-old brawler who, at the time of filming, was rapidly ascending through the ranks of MMA USA, the grassroots "feeder" of professional organizations such as UFC and Strikeforce. Bright-eyed and intense, Poirier has the look of a troublemaker who has found a productive way of channeling his negative energy -- the prototypical case for the value of something like MMA. Interviews with his mother suggest that he has had run-ins with the law, and but for the grace of God could well be in jail instead of on an ascent to stardom. We learn that he is married and owns a home.

A few rungs behind Dustin on the MMA USA ladder is a slightly older fighter named Albert Stainback. Whip-smart, well-spoken, and relentlessly self-analytical, Stainback seems drawn to the purity of fighting as a physical and psychological contest. Among other things, he offers a fascinating discussion of the "staredown" -- an MMA tradition of pre-fight intimidation.

Both Poirier and Stainback are trained by Tim Credeur, a well-known mixed martial artist and the movie's resident philosopher, trotting out the old canards about how fighting for physical dominance is in our blood and dates to the start of civilization. Gil Guillory, an up-and-coming MMA promoter who works with Poirier, Stainback and Credeur, is the most pragmatic character in the film -- for him, this is a business and a living, and he goes around promoting his fights with his wife and his two young kids.

'Fightville' is not particularly interested in psychoanalyzing its subjects; nor does the film attempt to mythologize MMA as some sort of return to the ideals of the Spartans. Tucker and Epperlein show, instead, that MMA is a sport that does a lot of work for a lot of people -- providing a life purpose to some, spiritual fulfillment to others, a livelihood to many, and entertainment to many more. They do so by introducing us to four bright, interesting people who fit none of the stereotypes we associate with MMA, its participants, and its fans. 'Fightville' is a subtle but powerful rebuke to the shallow thinking that pigeonholes this sort of sport as subhuman brutality. In the process, it casts into doubt the prevailing attitudes toward violence in general.

Tucker and Epperlein are among the best working documentarians (check out 'Gunner Palace' and 'How to Fold a Flag'), and 'Fightville' is a clinic in documentary craft. With a propulsive, percussive soundtrack, a fast pace, and terrific fight photography, the movie is rousing and suspenseful. In many ways, it tells an old-fashioned story -- one about the value of hard work, the importance of dreams, and the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in adversity. That 'Fightville' tells this story in the context of a controversial and widely disdained subculture makes it one of the best films of the year.