Giovanni's Movie Review: WARRIOR
Published: August 25, 2011 - 9:42pm
Another summer is coming to an end in Hollywood, and we all know what that means. Movie theaters will be trading in their superheroes and robot reels for emotion-packed dramas stuffed with big performances. Yes, that’s right; it’s Oscar season! And studios are wasting no time getting right into the more compelling side of the cinematic year. Specifically, Lionsgate appear to be the first distributor out of the starting gate with Warrior.
Written and directed by Gavin O’Connor, the filmmaker behind Miracle, Warrior actually shares quite a bit in common with last year’s best picture nominated sports movie, The Fighter. Both are intense family dramas centered around two brothers involved in the art of professional fighting. Though, instead of boxing, Warrior takes on the fascinating world of mixed martial arts. Set around the UFC’s Sparta tournament,—16 men enter, one man leaves $5 million richer—the story is a dual-narrative, following two brothers who, unbeknownst to one another, land on a path towards the tournament. Brendan Conlon, a former fighter turned buff physics teacher, (Joel Edgerton) needs to get in the ring to save his house, gaining enough money to keep a roof over his family’s head. His little brother Tommy’s (Tom Hardy) motives are concealed at first, but one thing is clear right away; he has something to fight for.
It’s not just UFC middleweights that they’re facing off against. The main event is really between the siblings, who grew apart after their parents divorce and mother’s death. The only thing the two share anymore is a deep-rooted anger towards their recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). At this point, there’s no reason to go further into the plot. Before the first act concludes, it’s easy to figure out exactly where things are headed. That’s an inherent problem with sports movies; there’s not a lot of ways to tell them. Or perhaps, screenwriters just don’t want to tell them any other way. And who can blame them? It works. Watching a working-class underdog rise to fame and work out their personal demons is encouraging, giving viewers hope that anyone can be a champion. Even with a familiar plot, the film will likely still have you rooting for its heroes the whole way through.
The key to success in films like this isn’t so much the story as it is performances. Honestly, there’s nothing particularly stunning about The Fighter. But the acting, specifically Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, is what keeps the story engaging, presenting characters that real, flawed human beings can relate to, instead of larger-than-life celebrity athletes. Both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are perfect examples of this, bringing tremendous emotional charge to their roles. It’s their dynamic that makes this story stand out. Here, you have not one, but two equally compelling underdogs whose commanding screen presences invite a viewer’s support. Yet, only one can succeed. That constant conflict between the brothers is what keeps things fresh. The real fight between them could be at this year’s Oscars.
Hardy and Edgerton may grab nominations, but Nick Nolte—who sounds like he’s auditioning in a role for a Tom Waits biopic—is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor (He’s been nominated for Best Actor twice now). Right from his tearful opening scene, he goes straight for the heartstrings with his weakened voice and often-wobbly face. It doesn’t feel forced, mind you, which one may expect from a character so deliberately written to make eyes misty. Instead, Nolte brings sincerity to the role, giving a performance that feels deeply personal for the actor. There’s a difference between a performer simply pretending to be someone else, and truly putting every bit of themselves forward. If the latter somehow isn’t the case with Nolte, then he’s an even better actor than I already think.
As effective as the actors are, the overlong story becomes tiring after a while. O’Connor keeps piling on the drama as high as he possibly can, and while he structures it all flawlessly, there’s a point where it’s too much. In addition, there’s a sense that the writer set out to make the film as socially relevant to Americans as possible; Brendan’s financial woes are just in time for the current economic panic, Tommy has an unnecessary connection to the Iraq war, and there’s even a random 9/11 joke thrown in for good measure. Commenting on current events isn’t a bad thing, but here it all feels forced in.
Fortunately, the film does recover in its final act with the payoff of seeing a boatload UFC fights. The more intense the sport, the more exciting it’ll be to watch on screen. And O’Connor tackles possibly the most thrilling spectator sport with ferocity. The fights are brutal, both in choreography and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s break-neck shooting style. The camera jerks with each jab, keeping the matches heart-pounding right up to the final bell.
The epic, satisfying climax may make viewers forgive a lot of the dragging they had to do to get there. And forgiveness is exactly what the film is about. People make mistakes; it’s inevitable. But rather than simply harping on past screw-ups, we have to learn from them and try our hardest to not make them again, coming to peace with one another and ourselves. Warrior is flawed, but as long as O’Connor’s next film doesn’t simply rehash the same formula, I’m willing to excuse the problems and label this a genuinely gratifying sports movie.
Two brothers face the fight of a lifetime – and the wreckage of their broken family – within the brutal, high-stakes world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting in Lionsgate’s action/drama, Warrior.
An ex-Marine haunted by a tragic past, Tommy Conlon (Hardy) returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh and enlists his father (Nick Nolte), a recovered alcoholic and his former coach, to train him for an MMA tournament awarding the biggest purse in the history of the sport. As Tommy blazes a violent path towards the title prize, his brother, Brendan (Edgerton), a former MMA fighter unable to make ends meet as a public school teacher, returns to the amateur ring to provide for his family. Even though years have passed, recriminations and past betrayals keep Brendan bitterly estranged from both Tommy and his father.
But when Brendan’s unlikely rise as an underdog sets him on a collision course with Tommy, the two brothers must finally confront the forces that tore them apart, all the while waging the most intense, winner-takes-all battle of their lives.