Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Warrior" (2011)

Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte
Written by Gavin O'Connor, Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tombakis
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Rated PG-13: Violence, language, mature themes
Running Time: 140 minutes

My initial response to the trailers for "Warrior" were thus: "meh."  When the film was released, it received warm reviews from critics, so I was intrigued and decided to add the film to my Netflix queue, but didn't make the effort to catch the film in theatres.  #mistake (that's right, I just used a hashtag in a blog post).

Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a former UFC fighter who has turned his back on the sport and is now a high school physics teacher who is much-loved by his students.  Unfortunately, if he doesn't come up with a large sum of money in 90 days, the bank will foreclose on his home, putting Conlon, his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two children out on the street.  As a way to make some extra cash, Brendan begins fighting in "smoker" events - small fights usually staged in the parking lot of a local strip club, and he lies to his wife by telling her he got a second job as a bouncer.  Unfortunately, when Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn) finds out, he must reluctantly suspend Brendan - without pay.

Meanwhile, Brendan's father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) returns home one evening to find his other son, Tommy (Tom Hardy) drunk and waiting for him on his doorstep after years apart.  Clearly running from something, Paddy offers his long-lost son shelter in his home, but Tommy is consumed by anger and hatred over his unhappy childhood suffering under his father's alcoholism.  One day while training at a local gym, Tommy trounces a well-known MMA contender and a video of it ends up on YouTube.  Soon enough, the gym owner thinks Tommy has a shot in the fights, and Tommy convinces Paddy to help him train.

Brendan goes to an old friend, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), who owns a gym and is sponsoring his own fighter in an upcoming MMA tournament called "Sparta" which has a $5 million prize for the champion.  When Frank's fighter is wounded, Brendan convinces Frank to give him a shot at the title, putting Brendan and Tommy on a collision course that will force them to confront not only their own separate problems, but years of resentment regarding each other and their family.

The setup of "Warrior" is relatively simple, and it even unfolds in a relatively simple manner, at least in the case of Brendan's storyline.  For Tommy, things are a little different as his backstory is kept mostly in the dark, revealed slowly over time until we finally understand exactly what it is that is tearing him up inside.  Tommy's story isn't told through flashbacks, but rather, as he becomes more of a public figure, other people dig into his past, and we learn various revelations about him through television interviews with the people he's known over the last few years.  As such, we still never actually see Tommy's past, leaving it up to our own imaginations to complete the picture.

Probably because of this, Tommy's story is the one that resonates more and seems so much more heartbreaking than Brendan's.  This is not to say that Brendan's half of the story is bad or doesn't work, but Brendan is the well-made family man.  He has financial troubles, but he is a happy man who lives with his beautiful wife and loves his children and enjoys his job.  He's the opposite of Tommy, who is a flat-out broken man who unleashes his anger and rage in the ring.

The cast is pretty excellent.  While Joel Edgerton does a fine job, it's really Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte who steal the show.  Hardy hides his native British accent perfectly, and also gives quite a compelling performance as a man who doesn't quite seem to know what to do with himself, and who suffers from serious emotional trauma.  Likewise, Nick Nolte captures a man who is both tired and deeply regretful of his past and the suffering he inflicted on his boys.  His performance got him an Academy Award nomination, which was quite deserved.  The way Nolte, almost pathetically, cheers Brendan on from the sidelines, is heartbreaking as each time Brendan practically ignores him - and the pain Nolte feels from being on the receiving end of hatred from both his sons is palpable.

Aside from a fine though sometimes obvious script and great performances, "Warrior" also features some really riveting fight sequences.  I have very little interest in real MMA fights; I've seen a few UFC specials, and they're just not that entertaining.  Movie fights, on the other hand, are usually shot and cut in a way that emphasizes things and here "Warrior" makes MMA look cool.  Brendan and Tommy both take severe beatings in the ring (..."cage"), and the film isn't afraid make it look really brutal.

"Warrior" is a winning package.  Great performances, great fights, great movie.

See Also
Star Trek: Nemesis