Warrior (2011)

Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorfman

Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, has been a cultural phenomenon of sorts in the last decade or so. The growing popularity of the sport, principally UFC, has been somewhat astounding to watch. At a time when boxing, a sport which is marked by its class despite its brutal nature, popularity has waned, the extreme, backyard brawl type MMA has taken hold if the population’s attention. In the old day of Hollywood, when boxing was much more popular mind you, boxing was a popular topic for a film, so it only makes sense that MMA, with its popularity high, should finally get a major Hollywood movie. Personally, the sport appalls me, but I was determined to not let it effect my judgment of this film, and I don’t think it did.

Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) has been estranged from his father (Nick Nolte) for some time, but when he turns up on his doorstep one night, an ominous bond begins. Tommy is a mysterious man, taking up the maiden name of his mother, who died shortly after fleeing her drunk of a husband with Tommy. Once a prized wrestler, on his way to Olympic stardom, Tommy’s life has not turned out as planned. His brother, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), feels the same way as Tommy towards their father and, after a stint as a UFC fighter, is now a high school physics teacher. But when the bank threatens to foreclose his house, he is forced back into fighting, and enters the “Super Bowl” of MMA, the Sparta tournament, which also features Tommy, after he became an internet sensation when he beat up the world’s #1 Middleweight contender in a sparring bout, with their father as his trainer.

Just trying to write a concise plot synopsis makes me realize that there is quite a bit going on in this film, but in reality it is all so connected and well thought out on paper, that it is not nearly as over-wrought with plot details as one might imagine. At the heart of the film is the family drama, which works like a triangle. The father is trying to reconnect with his estranged sons who hate him for what he did to their mother. Meanwhile, after Tommy’s return, Brendan tries to reconnect with Tommy, but after a stint in the military, and not forgiving Brendan for choosing love, Brendan’s wife Tess, instead of his family when Tommy and his mother fled, Tommy has chosen another brother, fallen Marine Corps comrade Manny Fernandez. Throw in on top of that Brendan and Tess’ struggle to keep their house and the family drama is certainly supercharged.

But Gavin O’Connor handles it well and much of that has to do with the actors under his employ. Nick Nolte tries as he might to channel his inner Hooisers-era Dennis Hopper, but fails. He has some really marquee scenes and he just does not suffice, but I can’t help but imagine that might be because he has to act opposite the greats Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, who fuel the film to success despite its many questionable plot choices. Hardy is great as the mysteriously broken, yet bulky and extremely tough, Tommy. But Joel Edgerton is really the star here. With all of the fight scenes, especially nearer the end, there is only so much time for any actor, but Edgerton shines brightest. He evokes the passion and determination required of such a man. The commentators in the film dub the Sparta tournament the way to find out who the toughest kid in the world is, and Brendan has the experience and wherewithal to prove his critics wrong.

I was unsure as to whether I could overcome my dislike of MMA, but O’Connor does a good job of making it about the people and their struggles outside of the cage the center of the story. But what surprised me most was the actual fight scenes. Despite the close quarter, shaky camera and quick edited scenes, I was not only able to follow the action, but I enjoyed it immensely. The fight scenes were actually the best part of the film, even if they were somewhat unrealistic. They were fueled with such adrenaline and emotion because of what O’Connor had established with the stakes outside the cage. I was on the edge of my seat every fight and genuinely concerned and nervous for our heroes, even when I knew how it all must end. It will certainly be compared to last year’s best picture nominee The Fighter, and I’m not sure the comparison is apt or not, and I’m not going to reach a verdict in this review as to my preference, but Warrior is a film that overcomes its flaws, of which it has its fair share, and stands as one of the better sports movies I have probably seen.

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