MOVIE REVIEW: Warrior
WARRIOR-- 4 STARS
It's a shame that mixed martial arts, MMA for short, is commonly misunderstood as a mindless, heartless, brutal, and sick sport. It's a shame that people don't get how hard those fighters work, how athletic they are, how disciplined they are, and how technical the sport itself is. All some people are going to see are the tattoos and the cage and call them modern animals and cockfighters. Let's hope an exciting, dramatic, and inspiring movie like Warrior can change those preconceived notions, stereotypes, and perceptions. Go ahead and anoint it a double-headed Rocky for a new generation, because that level of praise is more than deserving. They're really got something here.
Warrior sets this course out with an over-arching story about a detached Pittsburgh area family. Joel Edgerton (soon to be seen in The Thing remake) is Brendan Conlon, a well-liked high school physics teacher who married his high school sweetheart, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), and raises two darling daughters. He and Tess work several jobs just to make ends meet and keep their house out of foreclosure. To his wife's dismay, one of Brendan's sources of income is fighting in amateur mixed martial arts events at seedy local bars and clubs.
Brendan's father, Paddy (Nick Nolte, perfectly cast, in all seriousness, despite the sarcasm that one could make of it), was a hard drunk who adamantly trained his two sons in high school-style wrestling when they were younger. That younger brother is the troubled Tommy, played by rising star Tom Hardy (Inception and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises). Years ago, he was the son that left town with their mother to get away from Paddy and never looked back. He has spent that time away in the U.S. Marine Corps and mysteriously shows up on Paddy's doorstep after years away.
Not seeking forgiveness, redemption, or reconnection, Tommy is purely interested in getting his father to train him again in fighting. For reasons all his own, Tommy begins to train in MMA at a local gym and shows up (to the world's pleasure on YouTube) the top middleweight contender in the world in a sparring match. This surprise success gets him a shot at competing in Sparta, an upcoming international winner-take-all tournament of the best fighters in the world taking place in Atlantic City.
On the other side of town, once the school principal (Kevin Dunn) and school board get wind of Brendan's not-so-upstanding side-job, he is suspended from teaching without pay. This only forces Brendan to compete more for the kind of money it's going to take to stave off foreclosure from the bank. He too enlists an old friend, prominent MMA trainer and manager Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), to get him back to peak condition at his 30+ age. When Campana's top fighter goes down to injury, Brendan earns his spot in the Sparta tournament, where the top prize would more than save his house and family.
As you can tell, especially if you've seen the trailers, this sets up a collision course of brothers in the world of MMA, with separation and father drama mixed in for good measure. Much like last summer's The Karate Kid remake, where you know what's on the horizon all movie, the journey the characters take to get there sucks you in and melts the inherent predictability away. This build-up of solid storytelling from director Gavin O'Connor (Disney's Miracle) makes the action and suspense that culminates at the end so much better and more meaningful.
The usual cliches and trappings of sports movies, fight movies, and stories of competitive brothers are still part of the movie's formula, but bulked up, so to speak. You get your training montage, but this time there's two very different ones going on at the same time and no "Gonna Fly Now" song is needed to build the drama and suspense. The implied and unseen family drama does that for you.
O'Connor and his fellow writers brilliantly and wisely resist the typical cliche of flashbacks and monologues to overtly tell the entire hard back-story of the Conlon household. We, the audience, have to build that vision ourselves using only our observations of Paddy's behavior and the subtle/not-so-subtle mannerisms of the brothers when they are around their father or each other. Once the cage doors start closing, the bells start ringing, and the fists fly, Warrior hits an even higher gear. The matches and fight scenes generate thrills, chills, cheers, and even some tears. True and sharp-eyed MMA fans might find the scenes overblown and overly dramatized by Hollywood, but those viewers new to the sport will be nothing short of impressed by the sport's physicality, pace, skill, and suspense.
Like Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter last year, Edgerton and Hardy make believable fighters, look the part, and work the heck out that action. However, those two men are far deeper than their gritty physiques and sweaty brows. Their equally good non-fight acting in this legitimate family drama is what really lifts the movie above the muck like 2008's Never Back Down or anything fantastical Jean-Claude Van Damme fighter movie of a generation ago. It goes to show that you just can't look the part, but you have to be the part too.
LESSON #1: THE UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BROTHERS AND FATHERS-- This type of lesson shows up in a great many movies and the very complicated and unique relationship between the Conlon family men earns its rightful place here. One impressive fact about Warrior is that all of the dark alcoholic times that clearly scarred the sons and soured their adult relationships are merely suggested and told entirely off-screen, yet still carry immense power.
LESSON #2: THE LENGTHS TO WHICH DESPERATE MEN WILL DO-- As hinted before, both Tommy and Brendan have their own dire and personal reasons for trying to win the big purse of the Sparta tournament. Their reasons are legitimate and they drive their training, determination, focus, and competition, honorably so, in fact.
LESSON #3: THE TRUE DEFINITION OF FORGIVENESS-- All three of our Conlon men seek the redemption and cleared conscience that comes in forgiveness. However, seeking it and earning it are two different things, which our men learn the not-so-nice way and for good reason. It's this push by each of the three Conlon men, done in their own unique way and for their own personal reasons, is what gives Warrior its poignancy beyond its competitive action and suspense.