- Vancouver, British Columbia - Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is not something that I particularly like, nor am I very curious. From what I have seen of it, it looks like a brutal and unforgiving physical competition, leaving permanent external scars on its competitors as if memory aids of each fight. Nor am I huge fan of boxing, but at the very least with boxing, the physical trauma is not always as obvious as it is in MMA. When the film Warrior was announced, it seemed like a film that simply wanted to capitalize on the rising popularity of the sport. A variety of films have tried this before with other sports and they generally turned out to be flops, because most of the fans of the sport were more interested in the action of the sport, rather than a manipulated back-story to the action. Also, choreography of sports action can tend to look just like that...choreographed.
Warrior is the story of two brothers, who through very different paths end up in a grand tourney of MMA fighters for a $5 million grand prize. The two brothers have led very different lives, but both find themselves turning to MMA after problems arise in their lives. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher trying to make ends meets, as the mortgage on his home is about to foreclose, thus potentially kicking him and his family to the street. Before teaching, however, he used to be a MMA fighter on the UFC circuit. Tommy (Tom Hardy), meanwhile, has returned to Pittsburgh to the home of his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), though he seems to have no use for him. Paddy is a reformed alcoholic, who wasn't there for Brendan or Tommy when they needed him, but he was Tommy's trainer when he was a very successful wrestler. We don't quite understand why at the beginning, but Tommy needs the prize money for something that looms over him, haunting him throughout the film.
Before I saw this film, someone commented to me that it was merely a MMA version of Rocky, but this isn't entirely fair. Rocky as a story is very relatable to so many people, as he rises up from the position of the underdog to become the champion. Many of us feel like the underdog throughout our lives, thus when we see Rocky fighting his way to the top, we appreciate his struggle. Still, at least for me, as a person, I don't really identify with Rocky. Warrior is a little different in that for one, it isn't set in the 1970s, but a much more contemporary setting, when all too many today are struggling to keep their homes. Secondly, there are more characters to connect with, and each of them shares elements that are so common to the human experience. It is not simply the story of an underdog prevailing against all odds, but one of people responding to the overwhelming conflicts in their lives, and only overcoming those pains and hurts through the power of sport.
In 2005, The Contender, one of the few reality TV series that I ever enjoyed premiered, featuring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard as series hosts. The series had two teams of eight boxers, each seeking the $1 million prize and title of the Contender as champion of the Contender tournament. Each week, two of the fighters would face off against each other after a challenge allowed one team to select the matchups between the teams that they figured suited them the best. Previously to The Contender I had little to no interest in the sport of boxing, but unlike many sports fans in reaction to sports movies as I stated earlier, the human drama behind these boxers drew me to the sport, since boxing was not simply a sport that these men loved, but one that they must do to support themselves and their families. They had no other real options. In the same way, while I had almost no interest in MMA or UFC, a film like Warrior has done a similar thing to me with MMA that The Contender did with boxing. That's not to say that I'm going to subscribe to the next Pay-per-view UFC event, in fact, I probably won't. What I mean to say is that Warrior brings a human drama to the sport that makes it appreciable, garnering a connection between the fighter and us, even if we are repulsed by the brutality and violence of the sport that he competes in.
The scripting of this drama was wrapped together in an interesting manner. Throughout the film, we're given glimpses of the fighters that we know the brothers will eventually have to face in the ring, while being done in a manner that it didn't feel like poorly executed exposition that was simply being inserted among significant plot details. All the while, it was penned in a manner that didn't make us impatient for the bouts, but instead ready for them when they came. There were aspects about the relationship between Tommy and Paddy that drove me nuts, and I questioned the wisdom of dragging out their conflict, but in its climax, I came to see how it truly became more powerful. There are few actors today who can convincingly portray a reformed alcoholic like Nick Nolte without coming off as overacting the character. The struggle within that he manages to bring to Paddy is both heart breaking and compelling.
The performance of Tommy by Tom Hardy was also a strong one, shedding his English accent to become a washed-up American wrestler. Again, at times I found him infuriating, but in hindsight, I felt that this might have been because he had been written in a manner that didn't form with the cliché of wrestlers in film. The final transition in Tommy comes when we can no longer stand to see him tormented by his demons, reducing him to the point of utter weakness both mentally and physically. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, ditched his Aussie accent to play a man on his own quest for the American Dream, leaving behind all of the obstacles that might have wrestled a weaker man away from success. Occasionally, it is a little difficult to believe that someone like Edgerton's physique or personality could realistically be considered a contender in a tournament like the Sparta Championship, especially considering the film's feared Koba (Kurt Angle), a Russian MMA fighter appearing for the first time on American soil for a fight. However, again, in hindsight, it is easy to see that this simply plays up the underdog role more.
The choreography of the bouts was quite entertaining for me, as a non-fan of MMA, and strangely enough, I found my heart racing during several key moments in the fights. Sports films rarely make me care about the end result, but Warrior did. Also, the result was not entirely predictable, but very satisfying. I'm left with touching images of the final moments of the film, which I can only describe as epitomizing what brotherhood is about.
The film itself isn't perfect, but it does a mighty fine job of coming very close. Warrior is a compelling human story about MMA, which I fear will be passed over by many who are turned off by the brutality of the sport. In this film, however, we're spared the excess. The story and the characters are both written splendidly, bringing a breath of fresh air in story telling. Warrior exceeds expectations, which is just fine by me.
Rating: 4.5/5 Sour Grapes