Tue 9 Aug 2011
It’s easy to draw a number of parallels between 2010′s “The Fighter” and the upcoming “Warrior” (opening Sept. 9 nationwide).
Both involve underdogs trying to beat the odds. Both involve dysfunction families, including a central plot about two brothers trying to mend their broken relationship. Both employ every convention of their genre in order to facilitate their story. However, the similarities pretty much end there.
Rather than center itself on the sweet science, “Warrior” places its competitors in the world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). It’s like boxing … if you allowed kicking, grappling, and submission holds of nearly every kind. In the film, a wealthy fight promoter (played by director Gavin O’Connor) decides to hold a one of a kind tournament: 16 of the world’s best MMA fighters competing in a 2-day, bracketed tournament where the winner takes home the entire five million dollar purse.
For former MMA fighter turned high school chemistry teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), the tournament is an opportunity to get out of a financial hole that threatens to kick him and his family out of their home now that their mortgage is upside down. For his brother Tom Conlon (Tom Hardy), the money could fulfill a promise made to a fallen Marine comrade. In the course of pursing victory, both are forced to re-confront their recovering alcoholic of a father (Nick Nolte), whose past transgressions broke up their family and has left both sons full of anger and anguish.
The acting all around is superb. Tom Hardy isn’t yet a household name but anyone who’s seen “Bronson” knows the power his performances can carry, and the range shown in a completely different role like that of Eames the forger in “Inception“. As Tom Conlon, Hardy is rage personified; every movement and look, no matter how small, tells volumes to the audience. How he’ll ramp up the aggression any more as Bane in next year’s finale to the Dark Knight series or handle filling the shoes of Max Rockatansky in the “Mad Max” reboot is anyone’s guess but I can’t wait to see him try.
Edgerton is even more unknown to American audiences, but this Aussie may also be on the cusp of breaking through here (especially after the critical success of two films last year: “Animal Kingdom” & “The Square“). He’s the real underdog in the story, having to strategize and outwit his opponents because he lacks the sheer power of his brother. His more measured, but equally desperate, approach to everything going on around him is beautifully handled.
Now we come to the third main player, Nick Nolte. At first the thought of enduring his raspy voice for over two hours seems unbearable but as we learn more about the family’s downfall, the character suits him to a tee and it makes all the more sense that he was cast. His scenes with Hardy in particular are electric and help to maintain the constant tension of the film.
The supporting cast also do a fine job but what’s perhaps the most impressive aspect of how O’Connor develops the story (being also a co-writer of the script) is that the last couple of fights could have gone in any direction. There’s no clear assurance that either brother, rather than some of their top competition, will come out on top. Getting to know each brother’s story, there’s also the feeling that no matter who might win, the audience will still feel some sense of loss. It’s a very delicate balance but one which O’Connor handled quite well.
Any complaints that could be made are the by-product of making sure no “Rocky”-esque cliché is left on the cutting room floor. Kevin Dunn portrays Brendan’s high school principal and is left to provide some of the only comic-relief as he must back the school board’s decision regarding a teacher who participates in the sport but also cheers him on like every other fan. You need this break in the tension but it’s also acutely obvious why his character is there. There’s also some loud and cheesy music played over the closing scenes which blatantly try to steer the emotional tone of things that seemed excessive but I’m really beginning to nitpick here.
The bottom line is that MMA fans and filmgoers who aren’t going to be put off by the violence inherent in the sport now have a film in 2011 that really should be seen on the big screen. Like other sports films, this almost begs to be seen with a crowd, mimicking the real life atmosphere being presented.
“Warrior” showcases some of the year’s best acting performances and the only true surprise is that Lionsgate didn’t hold this for a later release in order to highlight it as an awards contender. Without a bit of the emotional steering and one or two fewer clichés, this would have earned an even higher rating but at a 4 out of 5, this isn’t something to be missed. It manages to tell a deeply intimate family drama while also delivering intense action, sacrificing little of either to tell the complete story.