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USA 2011
Directed by
Gavin O’Connor
140 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
2.5 stars


Synopsis: Two estranged brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) battle their own demons and those of their estranged father/trainer Paddy (Nick Nolte) in the octagon of Mixed Martial Arts.

A good fight movie is not about the fights, but the way the fights reveal character. Or, like a musical, the fights give expression to emotion that cannot be expressed openly. A perfect example of this is Rocky. Rocky knows he can’t win his fight with Apollo Creed, but he’ll “go the distance”. It mirrors the way he grows from a man willing to waste his talent as a standover merchant to a man with a sense of self-respect. Warrior understands this idea, but unfortunately the character work expressed within the octagon isn’t matched by what happens outside it. The wobbles begin in the opening frames, as Tommy shows up at Paddy’s doorstep and the two talk around their issues while the camera screams a bunch of exposition at us with illustrative photos and snippets of fill-in dialogue. Paddy was a violent drunk, he trained Tommy as a wrestler, Tommy ran away with his mum and she died later on. Tommy has issues with this. Paddy is going to AA. He wants reconciliation. Tommy just wants to torment him. The dialogue is poor and the scene stilted, which could be forgiven as normal for an awkward reunion between two emotionally-stunted men, but even so, it’s painful to watch. The quality of the scenes doesn’t really pick up for either of them.

Where things do pick up is when Joel Edgerton enters the frame. The only person with character development, a clear goal and well-explored motivation, he makes a foolish man very sympathetic. Always living in the shadow of his younger brother, Brendan became an MMA fighter to get the attention of his drunk father. It didn’t work. He was only ever a mid-range fighter, better than most but far from the best. Now he has a wife and children, and teaches physics at the local high school. But when the bank threatens to foreclose on their house, he takes to underground fighting to pay the bills.

Enter the Sparta competition, a Five Million Dollar Prize and you know that the brothers are somehow going to fight each other. There’s a lot of bad blood there. Brendan didn’t leave with Tommy and his mum, he had a girlfriend (now his wife). Tommy doesn’t care. So they’ll sort their differences out in the ring. At least, that’s what’s meant to happen.

The problem with the set-up is that, unlike Brendan, we don’t get much in the way of character for Tommy. As played by Hardy, he’s a ball of anger who’s watched Brando films a few too many times. He gets his father to train him, in some kind of emotionally-taunting ploy, but he’s never really articulated his anger and by the time they attempt to paint motivation on him late in the piece, you just don’t care.

But back to that point about a fight revealing character. This much Warrior gets right. It’s the brothers’ characters ably expressed. Tommy never letting anyone get close, Brendan getting hurt but overcoming in the end. The fights, especially once we get to Sparta are excellently staged, and fully express all of this, even if they frequently stretch credulity. Fair warning too, MMA isn’t boxing, this is nasty stuff.

But outside the fights there’s very little going on here. The family dynamics are full of wasted potential, and Paddy’s constant listening to Moby Dick on tape is just embarrassing. Yes, we understand obsession and hate can destroy more than yourself. Surely the better way to express it is to use the material RIGHT THERE in the family dynamic. Paddy is paying the price for his obsession, and Tommy is currently living his own. It really is disappointing they couldn’t think of a more interesting way to engage the audience in this little emotional journey. Especially since that’s about all there is of it, making the “resolution” between Tommy and Paddy unconvincing. (And giving Nolte’s self-satisfied final shot in the film a puzzling “what the?” quality.)

In the end, Warrior is less the raw blood and guts of MMA and more the staged theatrics of WWE. It’s not an awful film, and with the exception of an awful montage sequence it warrants the claim that anything with Edgerton is decent. Overall it’s diverting entertainment but judging from the giggles in my audience the attempt at serious drama went the way of Ahab.




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