Filmed over four years, Gavin Fitzgerald’s Conor McGregor: Notorious has been promoted as an unprecedented probe into McGregor’s rise to the top of the UFC world; the ultimate behind the scenes look.
In that respect, the film falls short.
Despite its access, Fitzgerald never highlights anything you haven’t or couldn’t already see from an Embedded video.
There is literally nothing in the film’s 90-minute running time that ever approaches the playfulness of watching Conor try to replicate Jackie Chan’s Wheels on Meals trick (technically Benny Urquidez’ trick).
The film opens with McGregor – looking like he walked out of that Italian underground mercenary Men’s Warehouse from John Wick 2 – loudly proclaiming “let’s go school this motherf—ker.”
Fitzgerald cuts back to footage of McGregor sparring in a gym with a Rugby player twice his size. This is McGregor before he came to America. However, there’s nothing after that. Any insight into his training in Ireland is basically skipped. There’s nothing about his childhood, or family life that reveals what forces helped shape the most popular figure in MMA.
Even the scenes of a pre-UFC Conor that show him collecting his last welfare check are intercut with fight footage from Ireland, in which Conor calls himself “the future” of MMA.
Granted, documentaries don’t require character arcs. In a lot of ways, it’s refreshing to see McGregor as a pimple-faced idealist with no money, yet still driven and colorful with or without a ‘f—k you’ suit underneath a July mink coat. But a character study about Frederic Bourdin this is not. Fitzgerald himself has waded into interesting territory such as Irish hip hop, so to see such a stale approach to one of the most interesting figures in the sport feels like a lost opportunity.
Against Mendes we learn just how bad McGregor’s knee injury was going into the bout. Unless you only watched the fight, and literally nothing else, we already knew this.
The film re-emphasizes this by showing the fight itself, except slowed down in Zack Snyder super-mo as if the fight were some dramatic come from behind victory. There’s a po-faced treatment to Conor’s career that feels at odds with who he is.
We get a few moments of what you might call levity. Conor talks about a female fan of his who fantasizes about him so much that she’s picked out names for their future kids. Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up in Jack Slater garb, and wows the McGregor household with an “I’ll be back” joke. To be fair, it’s actually a good one (and this is from someone who watched all the Expendables movies try to suck the joke’s milk out a rock). The best moment might be afterword, as Conor and his girlfriend slouch upon closing the door, giddy over the experience like a pair of teenagers.
Around this time the film abruptly transitions into Conor’s joke about Aldo – “doctors have revealed that he’s a pussy” – which is the kind of thing that would be news to UFC fans who never read a single headline about the sport (not that I blame anyone).
The closest Notorious ever gets to real insight is through its footage of Dee Devlin, McGregor’s longtime girlfriend.
Back in their Ireland home, Dee has a picture of them smiling together, Conor beard-less, and sporting a massive shiner. Even when the film shifts to focus on their relationship in the middle of the film, it never feels like we’re meeting her for the first time.
What makes Devlin more interesting than Conor (at least in the film) is how her presence seems so central to everything he does. Despite this, she’s the opposite of how Conor portrays himself. It’s their story that draws attention to the line between the person, and the persona.
McGregor, after all, continues to be a source of controversy. Fitzgerald glosses over McGregor’s sensationalism, preferring to show Conor in his heated moments only when he’s instigated by Nate Diaz. Not when he’s looking to provoke. It’s almost jarring for those of us who have covered Conor for so long to see him presented merely as a fun loving overachiever rather than the rugged firebrand we’ve come to know. That’s what makes Devlin’s presence so critical – if Fitzgerald had tackled McGregor’s persona head on, Devlin’s scenes would have felt like a reminder to turn down the volume on our own personal echo chambers. McGregor’s life belongs more to Devlin than it does to any of us. If their private union is so civil, what does this say about McGregor’s more public, and more jagged one with the media?
I’m not trying to make excuses for Conor’s actions, or frequent gaffes, so much as contend that our brain is a team of rivals. The same McGregor that recently called Andre Fili a “fa—ot” is the same McGregor who was proud after Ireland legalized gay marriage. McGregor may not always signal to the world that he works internally to be a better man – but that’s not to say he doesn’t labor within it to correct those biases. Social media allows us to to feel more confident about judging the former, but it shouldn’t make us feel more confident about judging the latter.
Of course, Fitzgerald shouldn’t bear the burden of taking on themes of identity, or politics or philosophy. But he does bear the burden of an honest portrayal. In that respect, the film succeeds in some ways, but not others.
The film’s climax eventually settles on the Nate Diaz loss and subsequent rematch. McGregor’s win over Eddie Alvarez is practically an afterthought, and even the Floyd Mayweather bout (or at least the tour) becomes the equivalent of a Marvel post-credits scene.
Fitzgerald’s goal is to give people a bird’s eye view of McGregor’s life. If you’ve never watched an episode of Embedded, the film will succeed for you. For everyone else, there’s nothing you haven’t seen already. Wait – I take that back.
During the end credits, Fitzgerald shows high definition footage from the famous Paulie Malignaggi sparring match. I’ve seen the footage before but I don’t recall the following exchange ever taking place until this film.
“I’m trying to f—k you up!” Malignaggi blusters, who is at this point in the sparring contest a pensive collection of sweat and meat.
“Keep trying,” Conor laughs.