Saturday, September 10, 2011

Warrior

WARRIOR

** SPOILERS **

Warrior is astounding. An improbable tale of two estranged brothers, both Mixed Martial Arts fighters, both nursing lifelong trauma by their alcoholic father, both entered in the same MMA mega-tournament but for different personal reasons, Warrior carries its heart on its sleeve. Fearlessly evoking the ancient Greek fighter Theogenes, Moby Dick, its spiritual predecessor Rocky, and even Beethoven as inspiration, Warrior's unique one-two punch of surprisingly moving character drama juxtaposed against the bone-crunching brutality of MMA taps out your cynicism and leaves you cheering for the battlin' brothers Conlon.

Tom Hardy is Tommy, the younger brother, a jacked ex-Marine and Iraq war vet hooked on booze and pills and hardened by a lifetime of seething resentment. He returns to Pittsburgh to the home of his now-1000 days sober father Nick Nolte (heartbreaking and gunning for an Oscar nod by playing... well, Nick Nolte). Tommy begins training in a local MMA gym and, after being taunted by Mad Dog, "the number one middleweight contender in the world" ("Hey Rocky, did you leave Mickey and Paulie at home?" Heh.), Tommy gets in the ring, ostensibly to spar, and knocks Mad Dog out in seconds. This gets Tommy a free ride to Sparta, the "Super Bowl of MMA". In the most finely crafted personal tug of war moment in the picture, Tommy belligerently asks his father to train him. Nolte turns the tables and lays down the rules for his son, who was his protege in his youth when he was a championship amateur wrestler.

But Tommy is not the hero of Warrior. That honor belongs to Joel Edgerton, Tommy's older brother Brendan. A beloved high school physics teacher with a beautiful wife, Jennifer Morrison, two daughters, and serious financial problems (the bank will take their house in 90 days), Edgerton is a rock of honor, responsibility and masculinity. Not since Mr. Kotter or Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World has a school teacher been so admired by his students, who plead with their principal to let them watch "Mr. C" fight. The principal, Kevin Dunn, sticks to his guns as a responsible administrator, but cheers Brendan on from the comfort of his living room on pay per view, deeply impressed he personally knows such a bad ass.

Brendan is the perpetual underdog, whereas Tommy is an overbearing beast. (In their heated confrontation, Brendan rightly accuses his father of always choosing Tommy and never caring for the underdog.) Suspended by the school board for being caught MMA fighting in a strip club ("It wasn't in a strip club, it was the parking lot of a strip club."), Brendan, years retired from an undistinguished career as a UFC fighter and "on the wrong side of 30", has no choice but to try to fight professionally once again, in hopes of saving his home with the $5-million prize for winning Sparta.

Warrior's story is a stockpile of fight movie cliches. Here are just a few: The wife who refuses to see her husband fight but shows up at octagon-side cheering him on for the climactic fight, the unstoppable enemy fighter from Russia (Olympic gold medalist and pro wrestler Kurt Angle), the sober father falling off the wagon after one-too-many confrontations with his bitter son, the tearful reconciliation between father and son(s), the improbable come-from-behind victories (three of them by Brendan) when all seemed lost, and how Brendan is somehow not seriously injured or crippled after a succession of prolonged, brutal fights over a 24 hour period.

The verisimilitude with which Warrior presents MMA is questionable even to a layman unfamiliar with the sport. Tommy is able to enter the Sparta tournament despite having no professional fighting background; a YouTube video of him knocking out Mad Dog is his only claim to fame. Tommy refuses interviews, no-shows the weigh in, and doesn't allow his photograph to be taken for the Sparta program. He storms to the octagon cage with no music, wins in seconds by knockout, and then storms out of the cage before the customary hand raising, interviews, etc. No one running the Sparta tournament ever seems to want to speak to him about any of this.

When it's revealed that Tommy, fighting as "Tommy Riordan", is Tommy Conlon and is AWOL from active service, the MMA authorities and the Marines both allow him to main event against his brother before arresting him for court marshal. In that very fight against Tommy, Brendan snaps his brother's shoulder. One would think that would end the fight since Tommy can't defend himself - Brendan sure thought so - but a sideways glance by the referee dismisses that notion, and the fight continues for two more rounds before Brendan finally forces Tommy to tap. I did like how Tommy wouldn't stop punching Brendan, no matter how soundly he was being beaten. The two brothers leave the cage together; the MMA people seemingly having given up any sense of maintaining their sport's rules and traditions.

And yet, none of that matters. Warrior is blisteringly entertaining and crowd-pleasing from beginning to end; powered by electrifying performances by Hardy, Edgerton, Nolte, and Morrison, who delivers lovely, layered work as Tessa Conlon. Nolte is a rumpled bundle of heartache, pathos, and regret. Hardy, a scene-stealer in Christopher Nolan's Inception and about to upend Batman's world next year as Bane in Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, proves himself a ruggedly charismatic leading man. But it's Edgerton who shines brightest in Warrior as the brother we wish we had, the son or father we wish we had, and the physics teacher we all wish we had in high school. Edgerton is so good, why isn't he starring in every movie?

Like Brendan Conlon's own underdog story, the odds were against Warrior succeeding. Warrior shouldn't work, and yet it does, spectacularly. Why, the hardest part of seeing Warrior may be resisting the urge to tap out the person you're seeing it with, because you love them.

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