Warrior (United States, 2011)September 01, 2011
I don't know much about Mixed Martial Arts except that it appears to be an extreme form of regulated fighting, with combatants using a variety of tactics to bring their opponent to heel. In Warrior, Gavin O'Connor's surprisingly elegiac drama about a quest for a MMA title, familiarity with the sport is unnecessary because, ultimately, this movie is more about the dark, bloody conflicts within the human heart than it is about what transpires in the cage. Most sports films (and fight films in particular) are, to one degree or another, about winning. Warrior illustrates that there can be loss in a win and victory in a defeat. It's not what happens during the final bout that defines Connor's picture, but what occurs immediately afterwards.
It would be disingenuous to argue that Warrior doesn't try to stimulate testosterone, but O'Connor doesn't overplay his hand. The annoying tendency of an overreliance upon handheld shots aside, Warrior's production values are high and there's plenty of MMA action to keep fans engaged and to inject an element of action into the proceedings. Still, Warrior is closer kin to Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, and The Fighter than to Rocky and its ilk. The three central characters, all badly broken, leave a deeper impression than the arena in which their redemptive quests play out.
The narrative focuses on three men: estranged brothers Tom and Brendan Conlon (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) and their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tom, a taciturn marine, has come home to Pittsburgh to train for a spot in "Sparta," a winner-takes-all MMA tournament to be held in Atlantic City (the "Superbowl of MMA"). He is willing to put aside (if not forgive) his father's coldness and abandonment in return for the Old Man's help in training. Paddy, a recovering alcoholic with 1000 days of sobriety on his calendar, leaps at the opportunity to re-connect with his son, even though Tom makes is clear that their relationship will be purely one of trainer and fighter. Meanwhile, across the state in Philadelphia, former UFC fighter and current high school teacher Brendan finds himself in need of cash in order to save his home from foreclosure. Against the wishes of his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), he becomes involved in low-level MMA contests. The school board suspends him when they discover he's moonlighting in a cage and he begins to pursue entrance into Sparta by using a past connection to trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), who is well-respected within the sport.
One would have to be hopelessly naïve not to recognize that this is all going to come down to a match between Tom and Brendan with a torn Paddy on the sidelines. That dynamic, in and of itself, is interesting. Most sports/fight movies establish a clear "good guy/bad guy" situation and let them pummel each other until the inevitable occurs. Movies like Rocky, in which the hero loses, rarely happen. In Warrior, however, we are presented with the dilemma of two well-rounded characters squaring off against one another. And the question of who gets the $5 million dollar purse is secondary to how they handle the situation. This battle is as much about redemption, reconciliation, and putting demons to rest. O'Connor does not dispense with sports movie clichés, but he elevates them.
Warrior is bolstered by four strong performances, two of which are standouts. Tom Hardy, who redefined his career with his screen-searing work in Bronson, is tremendous, radiating chained anger and barely controlled bile in every scene. Yet, as Tom's backstory unfolds, we see the deeply rooted pain that lies at the core of it all. The word "volcanic" was often used to describe Hardy's work in Bronson; it applies here as well. Nick Nolte, who has received his share of accolades over a long and prosperous career, provides a noteworthy turn as a world-weary father who is desperate to re-connect with the sons he abused and neglected. It's a storyline many (perhaps too many) fathers will relate to, and Nolte is note-perfect in essaying Paddy. The portrayals of Joel Edgerton (a character actor with a fair number of TV credits) and Jennifer Morrison (best known for her supporting role in House) have less flashy but no less important roles.
O'Connor gives the film a dark, moody look, which is the best choice for so many roiling emotions. This is not a traditional stand-up-and-cheer fight movie; the undercurrents are too strong and deep. If there's a negative to the filmmaker's style, it's that, in an attempt to promote intimacy and immediacy, he overuses the hand-held camera. While this might be fine for the fight scenes, it spills over into many of the "everyday" moments and the shaking is at times disorienting (and may result in nausea for sensitive viewers).
Warrior will undoubtedly be compared in many quarters to The Fighter, but this is in some ways a more powerful and disturbing motion picture. It offers a catharsis but there's something bittersweet about the way in which Warrior concludes. And, unlike the recent Oscar nominee, this one is not constrained by the "based on a true story" label. MMA may be a comparatively new form of fighting but Warrior demonstrates that it's as fertile a field for drama as older and more venerable sports.
Warrior (United States, 2011)
Cast: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn
Screenplay: Gavin O'Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorman
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate