Director : Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay : Gavin O’Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorfman (story by Gavin O’Connor & Cliff Dorfman)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Joel Edgerton (Brendan Conlon), Tom Hardy (Tommy Conlon), Nick Nolte (Paddy Conlon), Jennifer Morrison (Tess Conlon), Frank Grillo (Frank Campana), Kevin Dunn (Principal Zito), Maximiliano Hernández (Colt Boyd), Bryan Callen (Himself), Sam Sheridan (Himself), Fernando Chien (Fenroy), Jake McLaughlin (Mark Bradford), Vanessa Martinez (Pilar Fernandez), Denzel Whitaker (Stephon), Carlos Miranda (Tito)
It’s a shame that Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior isn’t doing better at the box office, because it is easily one of the best sports dramas in recent years. A frequently powerful, consistently engaging, and unexpectedly honest depiction of the decades-spanning impact of alcoholism and familial abuse, the difficulties of true forgiveness, and the challenges of facing down one’s own demons, Warrior is never an easy film even as it takes us step by step through a familiar, rousing dramatic template. This is partially because the dramatic arc is complicated by the presence of not one, but two dramatically compelling protagonists. Just like virtually every sports drama ever made, Warrior builds to a climactic bout of athletic competition, but unlike most of its predecessors, we are genuinely torn in deciding for whom we should cheer.
Like Rocky (1976), the patron saint of all gritty underdog sports movies, Warrior has its roots in the working class milieu of Philadelphia. The screenplay, which was penned by O’Connor, first-timer Anthony Tambakis, and Entourage staff writer Cliff Dorfman, centers on the three members of a decidedly broken family: two brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy), who have long since gone their separate ways, and their recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former bruiser whose legacy of drunken rages and violence have left more scars than 12 steps can handle. Brendan has chosen the explicitly straight-and-narrow path to escape his past, ending his short and generally unmemorable career as a UFC cage fighter and marrying his high school sweetheart Tess (Jennifer Morrison), fathering two children, and working as a high school physics teacher. All is not well, though, as their combined three jobs are not enough to pay the medical bills for their daughter’s heart problem and the bank is mere weeks away from foreclosing on their house, which for Brendan is the symbol of all their accomplishments. The path chosen by Tommy, a former high school wrestling champion and Paddy’s protégé, is something of a mystery, although it somehow involves military service in Afghanistan and feelings of guilt about a fallen comrade.
Both brothers end up competing in Spartan, an international mixed martial arts tournament in Atlantic City that promises a $5 million payout to the winner. Tommy, who is again being trained by Paddy despite his unwillingness to forgive his father’s past actions, has deeply personal reasons for wanting to win the tournament, and he goes about it with a ferocious concentration and sense of purpose that is both frightening and exhilarating in its stripped-down intensity. Brendan is also fighting for personal reasons, specifically to save his family from the kind of financial ruin that has come to define the middle-class experience in recent years (when the banker nonchalantly suggests that he consider bankruptcy, he refuses the idea with a simple, “That’s not how we do things”).
In other words, both brothers are putting themselves on the line for something other than their own personal glory, so when they meet in the final competition (which we know they must, even if we haven’t seen the trailer), it goes completely against the grain of the sports movie formula that clearly marks who deserves to win and therefore should be victorious in the final reel. There is no hero and villain here, only two flawed men trying to do what they think is right. Granted, Brendan is more conventionally acceptable as a Hollywood protagonist (the blue-collar teacher fighting to save his well-earned piece of the American Dream) while Tommy has shades of villainy (the depths of his anger and resentment are staggering, and he refuses all attempts to bridge the pains of the past, whether from Brendan or Paddy). Yet, both characters are equally compelling, if for different reasons, and their end goals are equally honorable, which challenges our emotional alliances and makes the film’s outcome impossible to predict.
O’Connor, whose previous film was Miracle (2008), a real-life sports drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s upset victory over the heavily favored Soviets, demonstrates an impressive dexterity with the material, shifting ably from tense interpersonal conflict, which always considers with compassion the deep wells of pain from which the characters are operating, to the extraordinary physical violence inside the cage. The fight scenes are impressively choreographed and edited such that we feel every blow and are consistently shaken by the intensity of the competition, which is heightened substantially by the emotional stakes previously established. O’Connor deftly interweaves the film’s thematic thread about the persistence of past trauma into the blood, sweat, and rancor of the fighting; when Brendan and Tommy finally face off, you literally feel the past three decades hovering in the cage with them, and each punch, kick, and body blow carries their accumulated weight (every time a body comes smashing down on the floor, we are reminded of Brendan teaching his students how force equals mass times acceleration).
The film’s emotional wallop is also owing to the three central performances by Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte. Edgerton, who has a Russell Crowe intensity about him, conveys Brendan’s determination to rise above his past, while Hardy is all glowering, coiled up rage seething beneath a seemingly impenetrable shell. Perhaps most impressive, though, is Nolte, whose heavy layers of guilt are accented with just the right touch of internal loss and external frustration with others’ unwillingness to give him the second chance he feels he has earned. All of the characters, in fact, have worked and earned the right to lay claim to something more than what they have, which is what makes Warrior such a viscerally devastating drama both inside the cage and out.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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