WARRIOR – The Review
WARRIOR is the iconic “Rocky” film of the MMA generation, brutal, beautiful and emotionally extraordinary. For the scarce handful of those unfamiliar with the rapidly rising new sport, MMA is mixed martial arts, the next level of skilled combat athletics, combining any and all forms of hand-to-hand fighting styles. Yes, the film contains violence. How else do you tell a story so crucially centered on what will ultimately replace boxing, without depicting it as realistically as possible? The violence of the competition is exhilarating, but serves as a welcome and climactic payoff for the brutally honest, often gut-wrenching human drama that unfolds as the soul of the film.
The story follows two brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brandon (Joel Edgerton), both of whom have histories as trained fighters. Tommy was an undefeated high school wrestling marvel who wound up a Marine himself, trained by their father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a Marine veteran with a violent, drunken past. Brandon also caught the wrestling bug, but followed through to become a mediocre UFC success as a professional fighter, before retiring and becoming a high school physics teacher, married with two girls. Both Tommy and Brandon, as we discover entirely separate of each other, have one thing in common, a deep-seeded and passionate anger toward their estranged father Paddy, now sober, now desperately struggles for nothing more than to somehow reconnect with his boys. This right here, more than anything else in the film, this relationship and how it plays out, is what sets WARRIOR apart from similar films.
Writer and director Gavin O’Connor has created his best work of cinema since 2004’s MIRACLE, and I believe surpasses the beloved and inspiring hockey film. The film as a whole is powerful and magnetic, grabbing hold of the viewer’s very spirit and never letting go. The way in which O’Connor isolates the two brothers’ stories builds suspense and empathy for both characters equally, creating not one, but two heroes for us to encourage and follow. Tommy and Brandon need no external antagonist, as they serve that role for themselves, fighting inner demons, both past and present. O’Connor takes the camera in close, maintaining an intimate relationship between the characters and the viewer. This intimacy is especially strong during the moments when Paddy attempts to make amends with his boys, showcasing the incredible trinity of masterful performances from these three actors.
Nick Nolte (AFFLICTION, OFF THE BLACK), no stranger to the bottle himself, is brilliant on screen, selling his character with such a flawless certainty that translated into moments when I literally forgot I was watching a movie, and not a real human being experiencing such tragically exhausting personal conflict. Equally mesmerizing was Tom Hardy (BRONSON, INCEPTION) as Tommy, filled with a quiet rage that seethes from his very aura. Hardy is a hulking, brooding menace, confined within his own self-pity, waiting for the perfect moment to unleash his emotions in a mushroom cloud of pent-up anger toward his father. Opposite of Tommy, is Joel Edgerton (THE SQUARE, ANIMAL KINGDOM) as Brandon, an externally calm and peaceful family man, hiding the traumatic influence his father has had on his life.
WARRIOR is compelling, drawing as much on the viewer’s capacity to summon compassion for a fictional character as it draws on the adrenaline glands to heighten the thrill of the experience, succeeding at both. While the fights themselves are clearly not accurate to the reality of how the majority of MMA fights play out, the fight choreography itself is stellar. Hardy and Edgerton have clearly done their homework, convincing me to never piss either one of them off in real life. What WARRIOR does is to reduce the vastly diverse world of MMA down into a carefully constructed collage of the key elements of the fighting arts, showcasing the essence of MMA as a fine chef would rely on reduction to create a quality red wine sauce. What we see in WARRIOR are the most flavorful bits of MMA, reduced down to a perfectly executed dish. With that said, you would rarely ever see the shear quantity of perfectly executed moves on display in a single event as are seen in the film, but that’s what we expect to see. O’Connor delivers!
Rounding out the film are substantially effective performances from the supporting cast, including a stand out role for Jennifer Morrison (HOUSE M.D.) as Brandon’s wife and Kevin Dunn (TRANSFORMERS) in a small but welcome, humorous role as the high school principal. Making a cameo appearance is the Olympic-turned-professional wrestler Kurt Angle as Koba, the massive and intimidating Russian fighter that all other fighters fear. The director himself even supplies his own extended cameo as J.J. Riley, the wealthy Wall Street tycoon that bank rolls the Sparta MMA competition that Tommy and Brandon both endeavor to champion.
With a film done so well, I would be remiss if I were not completely honest and point out the one flaw in WARRIOR, being a montage constructed of multiple training shots floating simultaneously across the screen, intended as a creative juxtaposition of Tommy and Brandon’s paths merging. The result became the only moment I ever found myself pulled from the story, but is minor enough to be overlooked.
Where ROCKY fails to deliver any realism in the fights, WARRIOR succeeds. Where CINDERELLA MAN set the bar for emotional attachment of the audience to the hero has been raised, triumphantly. What THE FIGHTER managed to achieve as a lasting impression on the viewer has been overshadowed by WARRIOR, which I believe is one of the best films of 2011 and most certainly should reward both the seasoned Nick Nolte and the relatively new and rising star Tom Hardy with Oscar nominations, perhaps sadly leaving Edgerton ever so slightly under-appreciated for his equally stunning performance.