America loves heroes. More than apple pie, baseball, Elvis Presley, and pretty-boy vampires combined, America loves a winner. Drunk so much of the time on its own rose-tinted mythology America loves underdog stories. It loves the tale of the plucky Joe with nothing to lose, railing hell-for-leather against a world trying to deny him. It loves the ballad of the rugged washed-up veteran, putting it all on the line for one last shot at the brass ring. Warrior has all of the above and more, but thanks to writer/director Gavin O’Connor’s rich and layered screenplay, beefed up by a quite superb cast, it is much, much more than the mere sum of its stereotypes.
A sports movie with brains and a family drama with monstrous balls, Warrior tells the story of two working-class Pennsylvania brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tom (Tom Hardy). With each battling their respective demons encompassing their estranged ex-drunk father (Nick Nolte), their dead mother, and each other amidst the dismal streets of Pittsburgh, economically depressed Philly, and the blinding lights of Atlantic City, the story wears its heart on its sleeve and hoists its clichés aloft with pride.
Billed as an MMA movie – a sub-genre waiting for a breakout hit that can, on this evidence, stop waiting – Warrior’s ambition extends far beyond simple bruising, although there is plenty of it. Tom is the one-time wrestling-prodigy-turned-Marine-vet, returning home a coil of pent up rage with a secret to protect and a widowed friend’s family to provide for. Brendan is the noble high school physics teacher who gave up a middling career in the UFC for something less likely to get him hospitalized, now underwater on his mortgage. With both of them finding themselves on either side of the bracket for an once-in-a-lifetime MMA tournament with a $5 million purse put up by some hedge fund douchbag, it’s hard not to read this as an allegory for a country at war with itself over slices of an ever-diminishing economic pie.
As much as it’s about two embittered brothers coming to terms with the fractured nature of their relationship fourteen years after they last spoke, or a broken down old man whose only achievement in life is 1000 days sober, Warrior is about the impotent rage that comes with desperate economic hardship and the emasculating nature of recession. Both these guys chose to serve their country (albeit in different ways), both put family first (Tom quit wrestling to care for his ailing mother, Brendan quit UFC for his wife and kids), and both, by America’s own standards, did everything right. Yet here they are; broke, hurting, and staring into the abyss.
It’s not all blue-collar guys blubbing into their beanie hats, however. There is enough bone-crunching action and brutal beatdowns to satiate even the most demanding of fight fans. The truth about MMA (the stuff on TV that is) is that it’s not quite as spectacular as it sounds, with the most efficient way to win a fight often being to simply grab a limb and bend it the wrong way. But O’Connor realizes that this is cinema and action fans are far more used to seeing fights end with a flying roundhouse kick to the head and a pithy one-liner. Here he manages to find a happy medium somewhere between the viable and the visceral. The fact that the kind of primal rage on display here wouldn’t be tolerated in the UFC for a second is immaterial really.
Occasionally the clunky symbolism does hits harder than anyone inside the steel cage, and the contrivances do pile up thick and fast (Tom gets into the tournament after a video of him tuning-up some big deal fighter in the gym goes viral, while Brendan gets in as an alternate after one contender pulls out injured). But at a bulked up 140 minutes there is plenty of time along the way to get to really know these guys – understand their pain and share their hardship – so that we care a little something about what happens to them.
It’s a testament to O’Connor’s efficient pacing, that keeps the individual scenes lean enough, that Warrior never feels like it’s flagging. It’s also a testament to his commitment to telling this story properly that he kept the picture as lengthy as it is and put his own economic considerations aside (longer running time means fewer showings per day, meaning less tickets sold overall), although having your twin brother (Greg) firmly in your corner as producer certainly doesn’t hurt.
In the role of his namesake, Tom Hardy is a full-on force of nature – all primal rage and lightening strikes – and based on this evidence we are salivating in anticipation of his performance as Bane in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. Edgerton is more tempered, his Brendan a man more used to taking a beating than dishing one out, built for stamina and endurance. Nick Nolte is on fine form in the well-worn role of the drunken dad trying desperately to put the pieces back together. His showcase scene – a riff from Moby Dick – threatens ham, but never to the point where you feel like reaching for the mustard. The sole bum note is Jennifer Morrison in the role of Brendan’s wife, who does a 180 on the whole idea of Brendan fighting again so fast you will wonder if you blinked and missed something.
But here is the kicker – the film is called Warrior (singular), which means there can only be one victor. In America you get nothing for second place. Someone has to lose. But come the final bout – no prizes for guessing who it’s between – you will be completely torn between the two brothers, and left genuinely dumbfounded as to how the fight will ultimately end. And that is where this picture rises above formula, offering a little mystery for the misty eyes. Pound for pound, Warrior might just be the genre picture of the year.
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