Being the best at a sport doesn't make someone a star. Although the American public is certainly drawn to watching excellence in any athletic endeavor, a competitor generally needs a charismatic personality to make us love him or her. Thankfully, mixed-martial-arts champion Anderson Silva has a low-key but undeniable allure that director Pablo Croce captures repeatedly throughout the documentary Like Water.
The movie follows Silva as he trains to defend his UFC middleweight title against Chael Sonnen. In addition to watching him master various techniques, we get a glimpse of Silva as a regular guy -- the devoted husband and father who detests leaving his family behind to go train. He must not only perfect himself physically for this encounter, but because MMA is still growing in popularity, he must also be something of a huckster for himself and his sport. This side of Silva is the most fascinating because he gives off a sly knowingness about what he's doing when it comes to self-promotion. He claims his English isn't very good, but it's hard to deny the impression that he actually understands much more than he lets on.
Another of the film's great assets is its bad guy, Chael Sonnen, whose brash style is the antithesis of Silva's cool efficiency. Sonnen acts like he's ingested every available stimulant, legal or otherwise, and his behavior is so infuriating that he comes off as cartoonish as an elite pro-wrestling villain; it's hard to imagine anyone more deserving of a public ass whipping.
The final battle between the two men, although certainly dramatic, does turn out to be rather anticlimactic. The problem with MMA is that sometimes the moves are so quick or so subtle that they don't look nearly as powerful as they are. When the winning choke hold is finally applied, don't blink or you really will miss it. While this certainly won't be a problem for fans who have made MMA arguably as popular as boxing, newbies may be surprised at how quickly a fighter's fortunes can turn.
Luckily, Silva is such an engaging presence that even those who feel like they would be put off by the brutality of the action will be won over by the movie. Like Water manages to please both hard-core fans and the uninitiated. It's not a knockout, but it is a memorable trip inside the octagon.