Film Review – Warrior
Everyone loves an underdog film. Not only that, but everyone loves a sports/underdog film. They come about nearly every year, and they usually follow the same pattern: a person down on their luck, financially unstable, with a family in disarray and a life on the brink of disaster. Through hard work, dedication, and perseverance, they rise out of the ashes to become the champion of their sport and magically fix everything about themselves in the span of a few hours. Cue the heavy emotional music, add a couple of tears, a pinch of sugar, and bam! You’ve got yourself a finely made sports/underdog story with all the trimmings you can ask for! Warrior (2011) follows this outline pretty much step by step, and does it well. The twist here is, instead of one person’s journey to redemption, you have a pair of brothers. Two underdog stories for the price of one.
I have to confess that I’m not the biggest fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I’m more of a boxing enthusiast myself, but there’s no denying the popularity and appeal that MMA has at the current moment. This film is probably the best showcase of the sport so far. Brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) look very convincing as seasoned fighters. They punch, kick, throw, and slam with hardened authenticity, as if these two have been doing this for years. Comparisons will undoubtedly be made to last year’s The Fighter (2010) in the look, the feel, the style, and tone, along with the familial tension that is frequent in both. While I don’t believe that director Gavin O’Connor’s work matches the quality that David O. Russell infused into his great film, this is still a very good and emotional movie. We get a good sense of how these two men ended up where they are and how their ways of living would bring them to start fighting. It focuses highly on the development of the characters, so that by the end, we find ourselves rooting for them both to come out victorious.
But let’s start at the beginning. While Brendan and Tommy are obviously the central figures of the film, the emotional center belongs to their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). Paddy was their wrestling coach and trainer, and from what is revealed, he was pretty good at it. Another thing that Paddy was good at was being an alcoholic, and through his destructive ways, he pushed everyone out of his life. Tommy escaped with his mother only to see her die of illness, and Brendan went on to become a failed MMA fighter turned school teacher. As the film begins, Paddy approaches his 1000th day of sobriety, but that does little to change the minds of his sons. Some of the recurring scenes that we see involve Paddy begging his sons to let him back in to their lives, with both steadfast in their resentment of him. This is a return to form for Nick Nolte. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him in a role where he really gets to spread his acting wings, and his performance here is a memorable one. He has the easy ability to depict a man clutching at the very last strings of hope, and fears that at any moment of weakness, he could fall back into his old ways.
Brendan is a husband and father, and has a family that is happy and normal. Unfortunately, he has fallen on hard times. Bills have been stacking up, his job as a teacher isn’t paying enough, and in a few weeks his family will have to move out of their house. He turns to taking small-time fights in strip club parking lots to make a buck. Tommy ended up in the military, has gone overseas and done things that still linger in his mind. He returns back with an agenda that he doesn’t care to tell anyone, and only reconnects with his father because he needs a place to sleep before he can make some money, and perhaps let out some anger that has been boiling up inside of him since he first left. Both resent the other brother for what they’ve done in the past, both need money, and both see an opportunity for it in the MMA. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are both excellent in their portrayals of their characters. Edgerton (who very startlingly looks like a buff Conan O’Brien) is more of the underdog, fighting only as a means to an end. He has a weathered and tired look to his face; he knows fighting is something that won’t last forever. Hardy is the more unpredictable, loose-canon brother. Hard as rock with a look on his face that borders on insanity, he feels like a ticking time bomb ready to go off at any given moment, and during his fights lets loose in a tremendous and powerful way. They balance each other out in both their similarities and in their differences, and I appreciated the fact that the film took its time to focus on each of their backgrounds evenly.
In a film that features two brothers who enter the fighting world at the same time, it’s almost inevitable that they would be headed on a collision course toward each other. This brings up an interesting complexity. Since we learn about and have built sympathy for both of them throughout the film, we find ourselves torn, wanting both to win, and neither to lose. In theory, this idea is both unique and fascinating. After seeing it, though, I’m not so sure the film really hit that element directly on the head. I found myself happy to see one come out on top, but let down that the other wasn’t able to go the distance, and in the end felt a little unsatisfied. It’s unfortunate that the brothers’ animosity for each other couldn’t be resolved before the fight started, and while I was watching it I felt sorry that their relationship had dissolved to them facing off against one another. But that isn’t to say that the film doesn’t accomplish the excitement and tension of the fights to full effect, because it does. Each match the brothers go through is suspenseful, physical, and aggressive, as if every fight in the movie is a climactic battle all put in together in a row.
I wish the fights were not shot in the quick cut, shaky cam style of filming. For a sport that appears to be so technical and detail-oriented, the editing and camera movement really took away the intricacies of the fight scenes and never showed them in full display. But like all good sports films, the best parts about Warrior were not in the ring, but outside of it. The family dynamic between Brendan, Tommy, and Paddy is really what makes this work shine. The acting between the three of them (along with the supporting actors) is what I took away from it, because everyone did their jobs very well. Yes, this film does follow the same kind of path that many others have drawn out before, but I appreciated the fact that it was daring enough to present a climax in which I—for once—didn’t know what would happen, even if it didn’t completely work for me. And in that way, the film is a success.
Final Grade: B+