A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2011

Rank:  #20 

WARRIOR jjj
½ 

2011, R, 139 mins.

 

Tom Hardy: Tommy Conlon / Joel Edgerton: Brendan Conlon / Jennifer Morrison: Tess Conlon / Frank Grillo: Frank Campana / Nick Nolte: Paddy Conlon

Directed by Gavin O'Connor / Written by O'Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman

If there were a weakness to WARRIOR then it would be that it contains many of the conventions of so many other pugilist dramas that we've seen innumerable times before.  Yet, at the same time, it miraculously manages to subvert one of the genre’s biggest clichés: the obligatory “big fight” at the film’s conclusion, which typically culminates in a black and white, “good” versus “evil” showdown between two Herculean titans where we have our rooting interest in one over the other.  WARRIOR absolutely refuses to cater to such rudimentary, been-there-done-that impulses; instead, it offers us up two combatants who have an equally valid reason for winning and, most crucially, we really have no idea who to cheer for on the road to ultimate victory.   

Make no mistake about it: WARRIOR is sometimes smitten with fighter-drama formulas, which do come fast and furious at times.  I made a mental checklist while watching it: we have the down-on-his-luck underdog looking to gain some much needed self-respect by rising above all odds; the fighter’s grieving and nagging wife that does not wish for him to fight anymore and refuses to stand beside him at ringside, but predictably does; the financial imperatives for climbing back into the ring for a quick payday after a long sabbatical (i.e. – the house will be foreclosed in three months and a child has a litany of life-saving and costly hospital bills); the cantankerous ol’ coot of a trainer that has the obligatory standoffs and differences of methodology with his student; and so on and so on.  Superficially, WARRIOR is just as transparently predictable as any of the latter ROCKY films. 

However, the clichés that riddle the film don’t tend to hurt it overall, primarily for the way co-screenwriter and director Gavin O’Connor (no stranger to sports films; he made the terrifically immersive hockey biopic MIRACLE) grounds the film in a gritty, lived-in, and emotionally honest and potent sheen.  The film also greatly assisted by a triumvirate of lead performances that are so unflinching natural, raw, and convincing that you almost want to turn a blind eye to the film’s dutifully ordained nature.  Best of all, WARRIOR is less about its sport and its third act contests than it is about the damaged souls of the men involved: it’s concerned with a deeply fractured family unit that comes together under very odd circumstances that use athletics as a form of therapy to treat their deep harboring pains.  WARRIOR will, no doubt, elicit obvious parallels to last year’s THE FIGHTER.  O'Connor's film, though, almost feels more dramatically ingenuous, not to mention that it packs a more resounding emotional punch at its conclusion.   

The story – sincerely, patiently, and observantly told – is about two estranged brothers and their former alcoholic father, and perhaps the only thing that the two siblings share in common is a proficiency in Mixed Martial Arts and an intense hatred for their papa.  The one Conlon brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton, a gifted performer who co-wrote and starred in one of the best films of 2010 in THE SQUARE) is a high school physics teacher, loved by his students and sometimes criticized by his superiors, that has been hit with the news that his home will be foreclosed on in only three months.  Even worse, his daughter has had a series of costly medical bills due to a heart defect.   

Brandon does have one ace up his sleeve: he was a former MMA fighter and – primarily for the dough – he decides to step back into the ring at a seedy outdoor venue next to a strip club.  He is victorious, but when he returns to class the next day, badly banged up and being seen by students at the unsavory after-school location, he is summarily suspended without pay.  His wife (Jennifer Morrison, genuinely affecting in an otherwise perfunctory wife role) confides in her husband as to a course of action, to which he decides - without her blessing - to get back into the octagon and train to compete in an event humorously called “Sparta”, which is hailed as the "Super Bowl of MMA" in Atlantic City.  So begins his Balboa-esque journey. 

 

 

The other brother in question is Tommy (Tom Hardy, the suave mind-manipulator in Chris Nolan’s INCEPTION and soon to be seen as the main baddie in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), an Iraqi war vet that left the service under mysterious circumstances.  He too, like his brother, is a MMA fighter that wants to get back into the ring, but he is almost a more hellishly vicious brute than an athlete that uses fighting as an outlet for his rage.  Perhaps he pounds his frustrations away in the octagon because of his upbringing: his father, Paddy (a rarely-been-better Nick Nolte), was a drunk whose constant inebriation destroyed the family years ago .  When Tommy returns home to see his dad after a 14-year absence, Paddy has been sober for almost 1000 days, but Tommy does not care.  He does not want to rekindle the lost relationship with his father; all he wants is a trainer-trainee partnership with his dad to help him prepare for – yup – “Sparta”.   

Hmmmm…I wonder if there is any possibility of a Brendan versus Tommy confrontation at the tournament's conclusion?

Does Rocky say “Yo, Adrian” a lot? 

If you think I am engaging in massive spoilers here, think again.  The film’s much publicized angle in the trailers all but showcases WARRIOR as featuring a highly unlikely, but completely possible (according to my MMA fanatic friend, who was with me during the screening) conclusion.  The climatic bout, as stated, is one of the more uniquely gripping that I’ve come across in quite some time, mostly because of the way the film develops the deeply rooted wounds that these men have gone through on their journey towards it.  There is a definitive reason for Tommy to hate Brendan (he and his mother abandoned their father when he was at his most abusive, whereas Tommy stayed back with him and took most of the burdensome load) and there is a legitimate rationale for Brendan to have his issues with Tommy.  Furthermore, both men have real issues with their father and both urgently need the purse money, which substantially complicates everything.  What’s crucial here is that the final bout is not about winners and losers and who will get the money; it’s not about heroes and villains; hell, it’s not even about athletic or monetary victory.  The film is about how victims in a once destroyed family unit come to grips with who there are and how they relate to one another.  It's thanklessly novel for a genre film like this to reformulate one of the most formulaic of all sports climaxes. 

The performances are as grounded, believable, and genuine as they get.  Hardy, a Brit, utterly transforms himself into his Pennsylvanian hulking brute that has a kind of caged animalism alongside a guarded vulnerability.  Edgerton, an Ausie, is plays perhaps the more decent minded and well adjusted role between the pair, but Brandon's quiet spoken nature and calm charisma is offset by his MMA ferocity.  Nick Nolte, though, gives one of 2011’s best supporting performances as the grieving lonely father that has found sobriety and God and yearns, more than anything else, for redemption.   It’s a soulful performance evoking intense sorrow and regret: Paddy is a man that has done great ills, but he’s trying to make up for it, even when it appears that his children will never afford him that opportunity.  Just watch a key scene when Nolte relays the hurt of Paddy catching a glimpse of his grandchildren that he has rarely ever seen before: it’s powerful and hauntingly melancholic. 

O’Connor deserves serious props too: he’s a proven and gifted director with great range (he also made the underrated police procedural PRIDE AND GLORY) and he casts a dark, grimy, monotone, and loosely improvised feel for his camera shots, which makes WARRIOR feel more persuasive.  He does stumble a bit in the fight sequences, where he shoots them with a propulsive energy, to be sure, but frames too many of them with tight close ups and staccato editing.  Still, WARRIOR emerges as a real shifty curveball for the sports genre: it’s impeccably constructed, patiently paced, brilliantly acted, and seems to understand its sport (as much as my limited knowledge of it affords me).  Yet, the world of MMA is just a cursory element of interest here; WARRIOR is uncommonly powerful and involving for how it tackles bigger issues of redemption and suffering, and the way it culminates those themes is refreshingly smart and contemplative.   

Very few fight-based films have taken such arduous pains to understand the fragile and tortured mindsets of both opponents in the ring at its conclusion, but WARRIOR is one of those highly rare breeds.  It's those very reasons that make it rise triumphantly above its more routine elements. 

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