Conor McGregor: Notorious review

Notorious is a documentary about UFC icon Conor McGregor. But does it pack the right sort of punch?

I went into the press screening of the new documentary Conor McGregor: Notorious with only a vague knowledge of who the eponymous chap is: an Irishman, a fighter, and a bit of a shouty person. I didn’t really quite know what to expect. A bit of a mix, as it happens.

The film opens with Conor bopping about in the back of a fancy car. Hip and happening music is playing, and the iconography of Las Vegas is spliced in between Conor’s in-transit dance moves. It feels like one of those little montage thingies they show before a sporting fixture. This sense, that you’re watching the preamble to an event rather than an actual feature film, recurs throughout Notorious. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

However, after this little pre-credits sequence, we jump way back into Conor’s history. Before he was snapped up by the UFC and made into a global slug-fest superstar, Conor was a very relatable bloke: unpaid are bills piling up, and he fantasises about earning enough dough to properly support himself, his girlfriend, and their hypothetical future children and grandchildren. These early scenes include some really touching vignettes, with the threat of poverty looming in the background as Conor trains and practises, and dreams about the UFC.

Access is the film’s biggest strength, but also one of its weaknesses. Documentary-maker Gavin Fitzgerald captured some really sweet stuff during Conor’s development, and an unwavering depiction of his rise to prominence would be really engaging to watch. However, in Notorious, too much stuff is missing. We seem to jump, in the blink of an eye, from Conor’s first proper fight in Ireland to him being a UFC newcomer. We miss the life-changing days in the middle when he must have been approached, interviewed, and signed. Presumably, the UFC isn’t keen on letting cameras into those sorts of negotiations. The lack of coverage of this time period hacks away at the personal feel of the film, reducing the possibility of emotional engagement.

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Once Conor is in the UFC, the film’s central flaw begins to show. They’re trying to cram so much stuff in – from the earliest footage of Conor in the ring, right up to his recent boxing match with Floyd Mayweather – that nothing is given enough time to resonate. The film has a brisk 90-minute running time, yet it endeavours to squeeze in each of Conor’s major fights from the last four years.

We see glimpses of Conor at his most vulnerable: an injury the public didn’t know about; a broken man after his first big loss; and, towards the end, a father holding his first child. In these moments, the film is at its most interesting, showing that there are depths to Conor’s persona beneath the public bravado of screaming down the camera and slagging people off. There’s a sense that, if the edit had gone a different way, we could have got a gripping insight into his psyche.

But, instead, the film cuts away from all of that stuff after a couple of seconds, because there’s always another fight to get to. The UFC has shared highlights from Conor’s biggest bouts with the Notorious team, and this footage is liberally doused all over the movie. These scenes do get the blood pumping, and watching Conor in the Octagon is incredibly engaging to watch. But it’s not particularly cinematic when you’re cutting in and out of a new fight every couple of minutes.

With so much to fit in, Notorious just feels like a montage. The distracting electronic score pulses throughout, thrusting the viewer from scene to scene with little regard for storytelling or character inspection. Instead of doubling down on the intriguing introspective material – which teases the possibility of seeing Conor in a whole new light – Notorious embraces the tone and pacing of a pre-game preview.

Conor’s fans and anyone with a passing interest in martial arts will probably find this very watchable. Indeed, it’s an hour and a half that flies by: the fights are brutal and well shot; Conor is impossible to take your eyes off; and, at points, the film is quite funny. There’s even a cameo from a beloved movie icon. However, Conor’s enigma is never properly unravelled, and instead of a feature film, this just feels like a highlights reel.

Conor McGregor: Notorious is in UK cinemas from November 1st.

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3 out of 5