Mixed Martial Arts Drama Scores a Winning Blow
Image courtesy of imdb.com
Thanks to its brutal honesty and well-developed, sympathetic main characters, "Warrior" hits closer to home than most fight films.

Fight for your family. Fight for your country. Fight for your home, your job, your life. Fight the banks, fight the bureaucracy, fight the war. Fight hard. Fight on. Fight back.

This nation is grappling with itself. Unemployment, foreclosures, the national debt, education, health care, conflicts abroad: day in and day out, people are struggling over issues that, for a long time, we took for granted. We are uncertain, insecure; we have been hurt, and don’t want to be hurt again. We are tired, and we are angry.

And so there is a very unexpected poignancy to “Warrior,” the latest encounter in Hollywood’s long-standing love affair with the boxing picture (okay, so they’re not boxers, they’re mixed martial arts [MMA] fighters, but whatever). The film’s dual protagonists lash out in the cage for a number of different reasons, but the unifying thread is dissatisfaction: something is wrong, something has always been wrong and they’re not sure how to fix it. I think many in the audience will be able to understand that frustration, even if most choose to express it in a less brutal manner.

Right from the start, “Warrior” pushes the unease and instability of its characters. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic, returns to his working-class Pittsburgh home to find his son, Tommy (Tom Hardy) waiting for him on the stoop. The two men haven’t seen each other in at least 10 or 15 years. Paddy’s abusive alcoholism drove his wife to run away from Pittsburgh, taking Tommy with her. Paddy is clearly repentant and quietly eager for reconciliation, but Tommy’s motivation for returning is unclear. He cuts his father down with bitter words, old wounds gutted again in the man’s presence; but why did Tommy come back in the first place?

It is a near-perfect scene, instantly establishing the deep rifts that run through the Conlon clan, as well as setting the gritty, remarkably understated tone of the film’s family drama. We are soon introduced to Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s older brother, a former UFC fighter-turned-public school physics teacher who shares Tommy’s resentment towards the old man. Yet the two siblings are hardly chums; when Tommy and their mother fled, Brendan elected to stay behind, for the sake of his girlfriend (and later wife), Tess (Jennifer Morrison). A sense of betrayal has had years to fester in Tommy’s blood, and at this point it seems like the Conlon family is irrevocably broken.

But wait, the brothers do have another thing in common: MMA. Tommy, an ex-marine on top of everything else, uses fights to vent his rage, taking down his opponents in a furious, unstoppable onslaught. Meanwhile, Brendan, in over his head with a post-housing bubble mortgage, is forced to return to the amateur ring. His wife, friends and trainer all call him insane, but despite his age Brendan can somehow survive intense beatings, staying calm and just waiting for his opportunity. Before you know it, both fighters are competing in the biggest MMA tournament in the country, with five million dollars on the line.
If you couldn’t guess that Tommy and Brendan will end up meeting in the tournament’s championship match, pounding out their fury and disappointment on each other like the protagonists of some ancient Greek tragedy, then you have clearly never seen a movie before. But director Gavin O’Connor has a penchant for making suspense out of the inevitable (his film “Miracle” is an extremely diverting and at times soaring depiction of the U.S. men’s hockey team’s victory over the U.S.S.R. in the 1980 Olympics), and the movie’s unique conceit of having two extremely sympathetic leads keeps the ending wonderfully murky until the last minute: has there ever been a boxing film where the audience wanted both fighters to win?

Even the relatively inconsequential lead-up fights have an extraordinary tension, because by the time the tournament rolls around, O’Connor has made sure that we are thoroughly invested in these characters. Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half-hours, “Warrior” refuses to short-change the more intimate drama of the film (contrast that to last year’s “The Fighter,” which conveniently brushed aside all its emotional conflict in time for the climactic bout). The camerawork stays tightly focused on its subjects, spurning the medium-shot monotone that usually defines such films. That gives plenty of close-up opportunity for the film’s three main stars to work their magic, turning the film’s dialogue-sparse but emotionally rich screenplay into an evocative depiction of regretful, haunted men.

Edgerton is the most earnest of the trio, and fittingly carries his character’s underdog persona with a permanently hangdog expression. Nolte, meanwhile, is extremely convincing as the remorseful Paddy; though most critics will probably emphasize the veteran’s performance during a painful-to-watch lapse in sobriety, I was most impressed by an earlier scene in which Paddy agrees to train Tommy, Nolte’s gruff demeanor just subtly hinting at the man that once was. But it’s Hardy who runs away with the show. Tommy is barely more eloquent than Sylvester Stallone, mumbling his way through conversations, clearly trying to reveal as little of himself as possible, but Hardy tells us volumes in the way he carries himself. Outside the cage, Tommy mostly keeps his head down, but in a fight, he becomes a terrifying force of nature, and Hardy’s incredible physicality makes the transformation riveting to watch.

The film’s title, “Warrior,” is intriguing, since it appears to refer to both brothers simultaneously, despite Tommy being the actual war veteran. The MMA referees begin each match with a cry for the fighters to “go to war,” but the notion that these men are “warriors” seems to stretch beyond their chosen profession. By grounding his characters in the difficult realities of contemporary America, O’Connor delicately offers a tribute to the working class. Like so many who are unemployed or otherwise troubled these days, Tommy and Brendan do not wallow in self-pity or ask for charity. They fight for what they have.

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