Incredible hulks

Pub date June 4, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Competition is seemingly bred into Americans, along with an obsessive-compulsive desire to win that neighbors around the world find variably admirable, amusing, and bewildering. We aren’t team players — we’re capable of finding logic and necessity in the phrase "US out of UN." Not so coincidentally, recent US cultural attitudes toward sport and sportsmanship have caused even team athletics to become focused on arrogant and overpaid lone superstars. Why think about the collective good when the whole point, obviously, is to become an American idol?

In taking a trip down just such a road to self-betterment, the unexpectedly delightful and deep documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster bumps up against cosmetic surgery, steroid usage, and wheatgrass juice. As it questions the points at which an investment in exterior or physical perfection might constitute cheating, it holds up a mirror to the American way of life.

Somewhat to the bewilderment of their nebbishy parents, Bigger, Stronger, Faster director Chris Bell and his older brothers, Mike and Mark, developed a childhood fascination with size and strength training that continues to this day. Disillusioned by the youthful realization that all his ’80s tough guy heroes — Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone — injected steroids to get their bulked, cut physiques, Chris refused any chemical assistance in the pursuit of powerlifting titles. But his siblings felt no similar need to constrain themselves. As "Mad Dog" Mike strived for World Wrestling Federation stardom and "Smelly" Mark trained for powerlifting events, they lied to their loved ones about continued drug use. They were unable to break their habits, because their habits worked for them.

Frequently onscreen, Bell — whose mid-’30s waistline is now as expansive as his biceps — provides an ingratiating everyguy perspective on steroids and related complex issues. He’s not so quick to judge, either. Bigger, Stronger, Faster empathizes with the thirst for Superman and Superwoman excellence by any means. It also debunks many myths regarding "’roid rage" while spotlighting the still-unclear health consequences of long-term steroid use, via the cancer battle of NFL star and exploitation flick thespian Lyle Alzado.

Tiger Woods had LASIK eye surgery. Does that constitute dishonest tampering with nature? What about Gramps downing Viagra to reach for Olympic gold in the boudoir? The lines between unfair advantages and the simple good fortunes of technological and pharmaceutical progress can be blurry.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster is no apologia. Ultimately it’s less about steroids than about the never-ending American drive to grow über-masculine and dominant — a conviction applicable to select variations of women as well. Bell and his exceptional offscreen collaborators milk considerable parodic joy from deft archival montages and clever graphic elements. The narrow focus of this terrifically entertaining documentary winds up encompassing a much larger cultural truth.


Opens Fri/6 at Bay Area theaters.