John Brzenk is to arm-wrestling as Babe Ruth is to baseball. It’s difficult to label John Brzenk as simply an arm-wrestling champion; an arm-wrestling legend would be more apropos. As demonstrated in this excellent documentary, from the heartland of the United States to the remote areas of Russia, “John Brzenk” means one thing: the ultimate goal for every arm-wrestling up-and-comer.
Believe it or not, arm-wrestling is huge. Mammoth-sized giants compete on an international level for titles, trophies, fame, etc. I was skeptical myself that this could be too enthralling; what’s the big deal? Two macho dudes lock hands and arm-wrestle, what’s the big deal? Little did I know that there are techniques and strategies to the sport, rules and regulations; it’s a true competition taken very seriously by millions. Luckily for the novice types like me, the film does a thorough job at going over the few key rules involved, as well as techniques used. The audience can easily follow the lingo and talk of the competitors.
At the center of the arm-wrestling world is John Brzenk, the giant killer. He is called so because even though he is in a smaller weight class, he was able to take down the “super-heavyweights.” It’s proof that size doesn’t always matter. In John’s case, it never mattered, as he had gone undefeated and unchallenged when we first meet him in the film. John’s a terrific character to watch, not only because of his gentle charisma and humble demeanor, but the array of emotions he experiences. His plan is to go back to the game, and compete once again against a new generation of gigantic titans out for his title.
And so over a period of several years, the filmmakers of Pulling John followed two of these titans. One of which is Alexy Voevoda. Hailing from Russia, this powerhouse has grown up in a country where the government sponsors arm-wrestling as a sport. He has trained for years to become one of the best. In fact, most of what we see Alexy doing is training in his well-stocked gym. A team of trainers coach him as wee see him work out and lift ridiculously heavy weights. At one point we see him lift almost 1,000 pounds. All this training in hopes for a final faceoff with John Brzenk. Let the Rocky IV comparisons begin.
The other hopeful is West Virginia-born Travis Bagent, an energetic and cocky house-sized giant. Travis could easily be an unlikable character, what with his hotdoggin’ rowdiness. But yet again the film does a tremendous job inviting the audience into Travis’s home life. We see where he came from and the pressure he has built for himself to be the best. His family are his greatest supporters, especially his father, who is a former arm-wrestling champion. Travis is full of confidence to the very end, but getting to see where his confidence comes from allows us to understand it.
And so it begins: the countdown to the main competition. Alexy and Travis square off during one tournament. That east-meets-west moment is in itself one of the tensest moments the film has to offer, only to be dwarfed by yet again another faceoff between the two, which will determine who gets the chance to take down the giant killer, John Brzenk. John’s nervous, Travis’s nervous, Alexy’s nervous—we’re nervous. This is a great documentary aimed at audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the international sport phenomenon of arm-wrestling.
DVD Bonus Features
There are a few trailers cut different ways, some audio commentary with the director and producer, and also from John Brzenk himself. There are a bunch of deleted scenes that are okay if you are really interested and have some time to kill.
"Pulling John" is on sale May 16, 2010 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Sevan Matossian, Vassiliki Khonsari. Starring John Brzenk, Alexy Voevoda, Travis Bagent.