Thursday, December 22, 2011

Warrior


Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Noah Emmerich, Kurt Angle, Kevin Dunn
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Not exactly Rocky, but not quite The Fighter either, Gavin O'Connor's mixed martial arts drama Warrior failed to make much of an impact at the box office when it was released in September, despite some surprising critical acclaim. Now, only two months later the film gets a second chance on DVD and its defenders are proven right. The movie definitely deserved better. Fully embracing genre cliches while also subverting them, it's the rarest of competitive sports movies, telling its story with intelligence and restraint. It's preposterous to believe a schoolteacher and marine could enter a mixed martial arts tournament with professional fighters and make it past the first round, much less to the finals. It's even more preposterous to believe that both could. And it's downright implausible that those two men would be estranged brothers with a grudge. But Warrior makes you believe. I never doubted any of it for a second because the film's so upfront and honest about its intentions. It doesn't cheat or play games, supplying instead the kind of implausibility we hope to experience when watching movies.

Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlin (Joel Edgerton) are two estranged brothers who share certain similarities, but mostly seem to be cut from a different cloth. Their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a recovering alcoholic who physically abused their late mother and neither are ready to forgive him for it. Now sober and seeking redemption Paddy returns home one night to find Tommy on his doorstep back from the Marines and in Pittsburgh to train for Sparta, a winner-take-all single elimination mixed martial arts tournament taking place in Atlantic City. He asks his father to train him under the condition that their arrangement remain strictly professional and he makes no attempt to reconcile their fractured relationship. In Philadelphia, older brother and retired UFC fighter Brendan is barely scraping by as a high school physics teacher, facing foreclosure on his home despite he and wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) working three jobs to support their two daughters.  Much to his wife's chagrin Brendan starts fighting again and hires his old friend Frank (Frank Grillo) as his trainer to come out of retirement and enter Sparta, knowing the winning purse could get them back on their feet. It's not a spoiler to reveal that the two brothers will clash in the finals and settle their differences in the ring. The most welcome aspect of the script is how it makes no attempt to hide that. It just builds and builds, raising the stakes until we finally arrive at the inevitable confrontation. And what a confrontation it is.

The movie is remarkable for just how little is revealed about what exactly happened to this family. At some point there was clearly a major sibling rift with Brendan eloping with Tess at a young age and Tommy staying to clean up their parents' mess and take care of their ailing mother. They never forgave each other, or their father. Something happened with Tommy in the Marines, the details of which become clear later. Details are unimportant here and other than a brief, heated argument on the beach the brothers are kept apart the entire film and little is actually discussed. There's too much pain in this family to even try that. They do all their talking in the cage. Tommy, the former high school wrestler, is a silent monster. No entrance music. With a single blow he knocks his opponents out and it's over within minutes. Brendan's the scrappy underdog. Beethoven is his entrance music. Every fight is a struggle, taking a brutal beatings until somehow finally squeezing out a submission victory. The dichotomy of their fighting styles couldn't possibly differ more and tells more about them as individuals and their past than any line of dialogue could. Director Gavin O'Connor knows this, wisely holding back to let the matches tell the story. And we do see a lot them. Arguably so many that you'd think you ordered a pay per view. With appearances from real life MMA fighters like Nate Marquardt and Anthony Johnson and pro wrestler Kurt Angle the movie seems like it should be watched with friends at a bar instead of at a theater or on DVD. And if any sport is prone to upsets and shockers it's this one, making the far-fetched scenario of the central premise actually work in the story's favor.

Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton look like they belong in the cage with them, especially Hardy who looks to have bulked up beyond belief for this part and could step in and challenge Brock Lesnar right now. Both he and Edgerton bring an intensity that perfectly compliment and inhabit their characters. Nick Nolte is given his most meaningful role in ages, a performance highlighted by an emotionally uncomfortable but riveting scene in the film's third act that's bursting with sadness and regret, showing the toll this entire situation has taken on him. Jennifer Morrison turns in above average supporting work in what's usually the very average, thankless role of a disapproving wife. But the film's smarter than that. Far from the screaming nag or shrinking wallflower we're used to seeing sports wives depicted as in movies like this, it never feels like she's around for the convenience of the plot. She legitimately fears her husband could be killed and intelligently argues why. And she's right. He could. Even the principal (Kevin Dunn) at the school Brendan works is presented and portrayed with an intelligence uncommon to the genre. He suspends a good physics teacher because it's his job, not because he wants to. And with each victory Brendan racks up, he's cheering as loud as anyone. Who wouldn't think it was cool their teacher's an ultimate fighter? All the little details are spot-on.

If someone told me they couldn't keep it together and tears flowed in the final minutes I couldn't say I'd blame them. All the emotion is earned. O'Connor expertly stages the final fight, where the built-up tension finally comes to a head and explodes like a powder keg when the two brothers face off. It's a prime example of how you tell a story with action. Every move and blow means something and besides being legitimate doubt as to who will win, we're not even sure who to root for. The film takes the well-worn cliche of the "big game" or "final fight" and flips it on its head, presenting a contest between two combatants equally deserving of a victory. How often does that happen? Like Moneyball, the other successful sports film this year, the actual outcome is irrelevant. These guys just have to just get out this out of their system, expressing themselves the only way they can, and with that comes the possibility of moving on. Warrior couldn't be a more accurate title, and the movie lives up to it.