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Warrior (2011)

 WC9V4530.tifDIRECTOR: Gavin O’Connor

CAST: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

I don’t know much about MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting, but that doesn’t matter here, because Warrior is less about the sport itself and more about the fractured family drama that plays out both in and outside the ring. MMA is the vehicle used to convey this story, but not the core of it, and even for those both unfamiliar with and not particularly interested in MMA fighting (including myself), Warrior is an engaging and sometimes powerful drama about universal themes of regrets, resentment, and forgiveness. Comparisons some reviews have drawn to Rocky are like comparing apples and oranges; while both Rocky and Warrior were critically highly-regarded sports movies, their tones are markedly different. Warrior is not—for the most part—a stand-up-and-cheer sports movie, but a broody, edgy drama that uses a sport as its storytelling medium, a closer cinematic cousin to the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull, and The Fighter than the Rocky series.

The plot sets up two parallel tracks on a collision course. In Pittsburgh, troubled ex-Marine Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) comes back to town to seek his estranged father Paddy’s (Nick Nolte) help training for “Sparta”, a high-profile MMA tournament in Atlantic City. Paddy, a former trainer and recovering alcoholic with 1,000 days of sobriety under his belt, tormented by remorse for his abuse and neglect of his children and desperate to reconnect with them, accepts even though the bitter Tommy makes it harshly clear that the only relationship they will have is fighter and trainer. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Tommy’s estranged brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a mild-mannered teacher and family man and former fighter, gets back in the ring to make some extra cash to save his home from foreclosure, starting out fighting low-level bouts in a seedy strip club. When the school board disapproves of his extracurricular activities and suspends him, he gets fully into the game, pursuing entry into Sparta with the help of an old friend and well-respected trainer (Frank Grillo) against the wishes of his wife (Jennifer Morrison).  Soon, Tommy and Brendan are both headed for Atlantic City, where a $5 million prize awaits the victor.

 The overall most basic plot trajectory of Warrior is predictable. One would have to be hopelessly naïve to not see it coming that Tommy and Brendan are going to end up in the ring together. That’s okay, because the route getting there, and what’s going to happen when we do, is not as easy to guess.  It’s also forgivable that it’s a tad contrived that the two brothers, neither an experienced MMA fighter on a professional level, both prove underdog success stories enough to end up squaring off against each other in the championship match.  The characters are strong enough, and their dynamic compelling enough, for us to accept the storytelling clichés to get them where they need to be.  While most sports movies, including Rocky, have a clear hero we’re meant to root for, Warrior presents the dilemma of two opponents without a real “villain”.  The closest we get to a central antagonist is Tom Hardy’s Tommy, a surly, abrasive man with a massive chip on his shoulder who heaps scorn on both his father and brother at every turn, but the softer side he shows a flicker of in a phone conversation with the widow of a war buddy, and his motivation to win the $5 million to help take care of her and her children makes it clear that Tommy is not really a “bad” man, just a hurt and angry and troubled one, and the inevitable climactic fight generates conflicted feelings.  Some—perhaps many—viewers will no doubt be rooting harder for the more likable Brendan, but the final fight makes it hard to have completely one-sided emotions.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of the depiction of the MMA fights, which there are enough of, especially in the second half, to engage fans of the sport, but the fight scenes are presented with convincing brutality.  Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton underwent a rigorous diet and exercise regimen, took extensive fight training in boxing and various forms of martial arts, gained between 20 and 30 pounds of muscle, and sustained injuries during filming (Edgerton tore a major knee ligament and Hardy suffered broken ribs, toes, and a finger).  The English Hardy and Australian Edgerton also worked with a dialect coach to adopt East Coast American accents.  The handheld cameras give the film a gritty, almost docudrama-style feel. Gavin O’Connor has a tendency to overuse the shaky cam filming style, especially during the fight scenes, but things are never as disorienting as in, say, the second and third Jason Bourne movies.  Most notably, those going in expecting a mere MMA actionfest may be in for a surprise.  While there is plenty of MMA fighting, at its core Warrior is a family drama with the sport as the backdrop, not the other way around, and some—though not all—of the movie’s most memorable scenes take place away from the ring.  While Warrior undoubtedly drew many audience members by appealing to their testosterone, some may have been taken by surprise at not leaving the theater with dry eyes.

tumblr_ls35yhSoXV1qde7iyo1_1280 The acting is an essential component in this kind of heavy character-based drama, and Warrior features three strong performances.  A beefy Tom Hardy (who vaguely recalls a young Marlon Brando) proves that his tour de force performance in 2008’s Bronson was not a one hit wonder.  The ferocious intensity Hardy showed there has been redirected inwards but not eliminated; Tommy is a bottled-up powder keg of bitterness and resentment, quietly seething until he unleashes his demons in the ring by thrashing his opponents with brutal ferocity.  Joel Edgerton, an Australian actor with a few international credits (Star Wars fans might recall he had a small role as the young version of Luke’s Uncle Owen in Episodes II and III), solidly counters the brooding Hardy, keeping the more mild-mannered, arguably less complicated Brendan from ever being overshadowed.  Brendan is fairly simple and straightforward, but Edgerton’s performance is strong enough to keep that from translating into blandness.  A haggard-looking Nick Nolte is painfully convincing as an aging alcoholic with a lifetime of regrets desperate to grab onto any sliver of forgiveness he can get from either of his sons. Considering Nolte’s real-life alcohol-related troubles, it’s tempting to speculate that there may be some art imitating life here and adding authenticity to Nolte’s portrayal of Paddy, which was nominated for an Academy Award.  As good as Hardy and Edgerton are, Warrior‘s best individual acting scene belongs to Nolte.  Jennifer Morrison (best-known for her recurring roles on the TV series House and Once Upon a Time) and Frank Grillo are fine in supporting roles, and a couple other familiar faces pop up, including Kevin Dunn and Noah Emmerich.  Director Gavin O’Connor himself steps in front of the camera in the bit part of Sparta’s billionaire fight promoter.

The inevitable climactic fight of Warrior packs lots of literal punches and also an emotional one. It’s been called one of the most powerful endings of any sports movie, and it’s possible to see why.  Ultimately, it’s not who “wins” that matters, but what is resolved between the characters in the process.  It leaves us with torn emotions and is decidedly bittersweet, but the close leaves things with a level of catharsis and a note of hope. That note is a somewhat limited and ambiguous one, but it’s still welcome, because little leading up to it can be described as “feel good”.  The movie doesn’t make it easy to pick “sides”.  Paddy’s past abuse of his sons is vaguely alluded to rather than described in detail, but a couple sharp verbal jabs from Tommy say a lot without spelling it out.  At the same time, while we can’t completely blame his sons for their resentment of him, Nolte imbues Paddy with such haunted sadness that we feel for him as well, especially in a late scene where he tries to have a father-son moment with Tommy, who throws it back in his face with scathing derision.  But nor can we completely vilify Tommy, who is as eaten alive by his own inner pain as his father.  Brendan seems comparatively well-adjusted, but is not left unscathed, physically or emotionally, by the events of the film.  One going into Warrior with accurate expectations will lead to a greater appreciation. Rather than a rousing sports flick, it’s a somber, broody drama telling the story of a badly broken family that leave bigger impressions than any of the various fight scenes. Fans of MMA action will find enough to maintain interest, but fans of conventional drama will also find a well-acted and sometimes powerful film.

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