We expected something,
something better than before.
We expected something more.
Do you really think you can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave?
Walk away now, and you’re gonna’ start a war.
The soulful Johnny-Cash-esque lyrics of the song “Start a War” by The National play out over the opening prologue, and we cut to a sixty-something man leaving his AA-meeting to go home. When he arrives there, he is greeted by a thirty-something man sitting on his doorstep, waiting for him: his son. The son offers the father a drink, the father refuses: he is coming up to 1000 days’ sober; the son looks more confused and frustrated than pleasantly surprised. The son asks whether the father wants to know about where he’s been for over a decade. The father says he knows; he employed a private detective and found out that the mother, his wife, died a short time back, and that the son joined the Marines. The son asks whether the father knew that the mother died on her knees coughing out blood. The father says he’s sorry. The son says he preferred the father when he was a drunk. Then the son slumps into a drunken stupor, and falls asleep in an armchair, while the father sobs to himself in the other corner of the room.
One thing’s for certain: this is not Rocky.
Warrior is the tale of two fighters, two estranged brothers, who grew up under very different circumstances, and who both enter a winner-takes-all Mixed Martial Arts tournament for very different, but equally valid, reasons – one wants to provide for the widow of a fallen comrade, the other needs the winnings to keep the roof over his young family’s head. Aside from being naturally talented MMA fighters, the two only have one other thing in common: an equal hatred for their previously drunk and violently abusive father.
“Let me explain something to you: the only thing I have in common with him is that we have absolutely no use for you.”
Marketing is everything, and Warrior was definitely marketed as the Rocky film of Mixed Martial Arts, with billboards promoting black and white photos of the stars in perfect fighting shape, only vaguely hinting at the fact that the two characters were a flipside to the same coin. No, I think the promotion of this movie was all wrong, narrowing the target audience down to mostly the same males who have the Rocky Anthology sitting on the shelves, running the film out of the cinemas before its time, or at least ensuring that it was playing at an unfriendly time. The result? It made less money at the Box Office than its modest $25 Million budget which, taking into account the costs of advertising, makes it something of a flop – it’s only hope perhaps to recoup some of those losses on the home format.
I wish I’d seen Warrior at the cinema; I wish it had played for more than 2 weeks at a reasonable hour, before shifting to the midnight slot every weekday until it disappeared. It is so much more than a modern take on Rocky: it’s a story about loss, hatred, bitterness, estrangement, alcoholism, domestic violence, redemption, reconciliation, unconditional love, and the strength of the human spirit. It’s a true hidden gem in 2011’s fairly alternative year of movies (where the standout efforts were more independent fares like Drive and, to a certain extent, Tinker Tailor), an underrated drama which excels as much – if not more – when its characters aren’t in the ring.
Driven by a trio of commendable performances, viewers will be perhaps most surprised by what upcoming star Tom Hardy brings to the table. The future Bane of Batman, Hardy here has the same brutish physique that he will sport in 6 months’ time when The Dark Knight Rises is released, but it’s his character portrayal that stands out even above his pure muscle thuggery. Not only does he gives us one of the few decent American accents that a Brit has pulled off in recent history (sounding so effortlessly like Vin Diesel that you could close your eyes and wouldn’t have a clue that he was the same posh Brit from Inception or rough cockney from Bronson), but he provides a truly amazing performance as the estranged, long lost son of an abusive drunk; a heroic Iraq veteran who has seen so much hurt, felt so much loss, that he is now just a pent-up killing machine. Hardy manages to imbue the character with one of the first genuine portrays of PTSD, completely avoiding the all-out psycho cliché that is bandied around in Hollywood productions these days, and instead seething with pain, haunted by memories that he simply does not know how to process.
“So you found God, huh? That's awesome. See, mom kept calling out for him but he wasn't around. I guess Jesus was down at the mill forgiving all the drunks. Who knew?”
It’s a testament to the actor that he can take a character who is so relentlessly and unremittingly vicious (both verbally and physically) to all those around him – including his own family – and make the audience actually care for him; we sympathise with him even if we can’t empathise with the horrors that he has been through, and root for him right through to the end. We may not want him to beat everybody else to death to win some prize money, but we want him to win his life back, or at least redeem a little bit of his lonely soul – which is a hell of a lot for an actor to bring out in the audience when his character, particularly in the ring, behaves more like The Terminator than any other fighter ever depicted (including Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Draco!). I mean, to a certain extent, you actually want him to win.
Joel Edgerton’s co-starring contribution may not even come close to being as noteworthy as Hardy’s, but the young Australian actor – who you may remember from the TV drama The Secret Life of Us, or, more prominently, in bit parts for the Star Wars prequels (as well as starring in the recent The Thing prequel) – is nevertheless a solid underdog performer who tries his best to roll with the flurry of clichés that the script throws at his character. If we were dealing with Channing Tatum from the awful Fighting then nobody would give a damn if he even survived, let alone won the tournament, and so it’s a credit to Edgerton that, despite the well-trodden steps his character takes – perhaps the most overt Rocky tribute – we still like the guy and, to a certain extent, support his plight. After all, he is the obvious underdog; he is the man who is fighting for his home and, in more ways than one, for his family. It’s just a shame that a few tweaks here and there might have left him an unquestionably more rounded character, rather than just an interesting character who is skirting the edge of cliché.
“You don’t knock him out; you lose the fight. You don’t knock him out; you don’t have a home.”
However the real Award-worthy performance – in my opinion – is actually from supporting actor Nick Nolte. Long gone is the grizzled, wise-cracking blunderbuss of 48 Hours and Extreme Prejudice, and, although he has sprinkled his acting career with a few underrated performances in gems like Hotel Rwanda and The Good Thief, and come close to exceptional in the Terrence Malick masterpiece The Thin Red Line, here he totally hits the target as the father of these two estranged warriors, getting his turn to shine much like Mickey Rourke did in The Wrestler, with what is clearly a very personal performance about a man with serious demons.
A once proud man; a once violent drunk, now the father’s just a toothless dog, whiling away his time on TV dinners and church services, listening to audio books of Moby Dick wherever he goes, waiting patiently for the Devil to come and collect his due. He’s such a tragic character: you feel so sorry for this wretched old man who is verbally abused and mistreated by his own flesh and blood at every turn – and yet you know that whatever he did in his past life must have been truly unforgiveable for him to get this treatment. He may have changed but, as the characters often reflect, does that actually change anything? Such is Nolte’s performance that we hope that, somehow, one day, it might.
“You’re trying? Now? Where were you when it mattered? I needed this guy back when I was a kid. I don’t need you now. It’s too late now. Everything’s already happened.”
The peripheral characters are also brought to life in a way you wouldn’t normally expect from this kind of movie (or at least, the kind of movie that this has been promoted as), with House’s Jennifer Morrison having a brief moment of happiness before she plays the same worried, earnest and occasionally self-righteous partner that she previously played in that excellent TV drama, and Transformer’s Kevin Dunn just about managing to break free of his ‘standard performance’, here giving an extra human dimension to the principle of the school that one of the brothers works at.
Written and directed by relative newcomer Gavin O’Connor (whose mediocre 2008 Edward Norton / Colin Farrell crime drama Pride and Glory was buried by the Studios and consequently flopped without a trace), his latest, generally critically praised and well-received, though disappointing-at-the-Box-Office, production is certainly not perfect, in spite of its trio of excellent performances and often stunning characterisation (I mean, how often does a movie about a Mixed Martial Arts tournament cover the kind of themes you would expect to see in a film like Malick’s The Tree of Life?!). In fact it’s both a compliment and something of a veiled criticism that you actually watch Warrior wanting less fighting and more time spent with the characters in their human conflict. Sure, O’Connor does a great job at cramming in so much character into so few scenes – it only takes a single short scene between the dad and the son to show audiences exactly where these characters are at, and what has come before; and similarly the brothers share just one scene, and yet manage to convey over a decade of animosity, resentment, bitterness and pain, painting an overview of their entire relationship in just a matter of minutes, if not seconds – but the writer/director’s undeniable efficiency comes at the price of us not having quite as much time as we’d like with these characters out of the ring.
“You ain’t no brother to me. My brother was in the Corps.”
Warrior is best when it’s exploring the characters in the same way that The Fighter and The Wrestler so effectively did, and the fighting comes in second place to these moments (at its worst, it crescendos to a sort-of twisted take on the climactic scene from The Karate Kid, and not in a good way). However, in terms of actual fighting, you have to understand that the filmmakers were working within the confines of a PG-13 movie here, and that the two lead actors – up against a bunch of real-life MMA, often UFC, fighters – did their own fight sequences, and with both of those facts in the forefront of your mind, you will likely have very little to complain about in terms of the fight scenes. As a movie lover, rather than an MMA lover, this film has got some of the best fight scenes in it that I have ever seen, and in presenting a 16-1 tournament where each fighter has to take on four different opponents, it’s unsurprising that, at least in terms of fighting, there’s literally all the Rocky movies rolled into one here.
Of course the reality is that both MMA experts and avid fans of UFC were probably always going to find some fault with the combat depicted here; the almost unbelievably short one-hit rounds, the unsustainable amount of damage that some of the fighters take, and the implausibility of the results as the narrative, necessarily, twists and turns its way through the various fight rounds – and also take umbrage with the way in which O’Connor captures the fighting; often cutting out large chunks of the action so that we can sometimes only see elbows being raised and not actually connecting, or panning out and around to distract from the real on-screen violence that some viewers would have been looking for. Unfortunately this simply isn’t that kind of movie. There really aren’t that many films out there which have any decent MMA fighting in them (oddly enough, Van Damme’s recent Universal Solider: Regeneration arguably sported more brutal moves from real UFC fighters) and Warrior is more like David Mamet’s Redbelt in that, whilst it is ostensibly a mixed martial arts production, it’s actually a very different film at its core. For those who are prepared to accept this fact, there is a whole lot more to discover in Warrior than just Mixed Martial Arts; but that doesn't mean that the fighting is neglected: Warrior is still a rare beast in that it not only shows a fair few fight sequences, but also actually manages to make you care about not one, but two of the lead fighters. You want them both to win.
“I’ll tell you what: you do that to someone on the street and they’d lock you up and throw away the key! He’s walking away from the cage like he’s leaving a crime scene.”
That said, the entire production does still suffer slightly from its earnest attempt to be consistently dual-purpose: the fighting is supposed to by authentic yet suitable for wider, PG-13 audiences; the characters are designed to be more interesting than most, but still often constrained by the, again audience-friendly, format of a ‘boxing drama’; the seemingly inescapable training montage sequence attempts to be different in its split-screen, narrated format, but only vaguely succeeds; and the movie tries valiantly to eschew predictability yet also deliver a satisfactory conclusion – failing distinctly in one regard. Hell, even the score drifts from excellent alternative usage of tracks like The National’s “Start a War” and “About Today”, which perfectly bookend the piece, to a supposedly rousing but actually somewhat jarring rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9 in D Minor (commonly known as being the theme from Die Hard and Die Hard with a Vengeance) - even if the percussive scoring itself, particularly during the fight sequences, is excellent.
Warrior is most certainly a conflicted production, which marries Rocky with The Wrestler to largely successful effect (a little bit like Rocky Balboa), but which will still leave some audiences yearning for one element more than another, and, in my opinion, just loses out on true perfection by hedging its bets and sitting on the fence. Still, how many movies these days are? Certainly Warrior deserves high praise for coming damn close.
“C'mon, it's not as bad as it looks.”
“Are you being literal or figurative? Because literally: it looks bad. And figuratively it looks even worse!”
At the end of the day, Warrior is not only one of the better films of 2011, but also one of the most underrated, undervalued gems of that unusual year in filmmaking. Right from its melancholy opening track and poignant, cut-to-the-core opening scene, through to the undeniably powerful conclusion; driven by its core of stunning performances, given momentum by its entertaining fight sequences, but made exceptional by its below-the-surface look at emotional conflict, if you missed it during its theatrical run, or were put off by its mis-marketed promotion as a wall-to-wall fight movie, then now is the time to rectify the situation. Highly recommended.
Today you were far away,
and I didn't ask you why.
What could I say?
I was far away.
You just walked away,
and I just watched you.
What could I say?
How close am I to losing you?...