A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2011
2011, R, 139 mins.
2011, R, 139 mins.
Tom Hardy: Tommy Conlon
/ Joel Edgerton: Brendan Conlon / Jennifer Morrison: Tess
Conlon / Frank Grillo: Frank Campana / Nick Nolte: Paddy
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
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
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.