This review is for the UK release of Warrior. My Tapout buddy, Cas, is providing in-depth ringside coverage for the better packaged US edition. So, here we have two of Avforums' heavyweights going toe-to-toe in the cage for a Mixed Martial Arts smackdown. I have a feeling this bout will be a draw, though … as, quite simply, both of us love the movie.
“You ready? Let's go to War!!!!”
For two alienated brothers, the cage-fighting arena becomes the province for an epic showdown of reunion, redemption and rebirth. Even with $5 million up for grabs if they can go the distance against the best in the business, the biggest battle they face is against one another. And if the haunted affection from their estranged and disturbed father can’t bring them together, then maybe only the sweat and pain of mutual aggression can do the trick.
Warrior joins the ranks of celebrated fight-movies such as Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, The Wrestler, The Fighter and, of course, Rocky to tell of that acutely masculine need to prove oneself by turning somebody else's face into mush. For all its clichés and studies of alpha male testosterone, it understands that two essential foundation blocks must be true and accurate. Thus, there must be absolute realism when it comes depicting the visceral world of MMA, and a heaving welter of true-life fighters take up roles in front of and behind the cameras, supplying the meat and potatoes of the sport, from the actual myriad of moves and strategies employed in the cage to the vernacular and hype of the pundits sniping from the outside, and the trainers inspiring their troops, prove that this angle is well and truly covered. And, beyond this, there has to be a strong emotional reason for us to invest in the characters and their head-bashing quest for victory. So, with two of the best, yet most understated actors doing the rounds at the moment in Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, I would say that director Gavin O' Connor has the odds stacked in his favour.
O'Connor, who even appears in the film as the promoter of the huge international Tapout Tournament, co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, and it nods to all the usual sports movie conventions – the winning of hearts of minds, the earnest motivations for engaging in such joint-busting antics in front of a crowd baying for blood, the set-piece training sessions, the battling up through the ranks and, inevitably, the final cathartic bout for the title and for glory with the good lady and several devoted fans cheering from the sidelines – but it also subverts a whole bunch of them as well. For a kick-off, we have two heroes to root for, two estranged brothers, and there are different, though still perfectly valid reasons for backing either of them. We follow the two as they make it to the Tournament, and then on through various bouts and media-whipped revelations, and we get to share in their failings and fears as well as their victories. In the process we gain an understanding of the turmoil that has brought them to the brink of familial and personal catastrophe. If Rocky was an engagingly humble take on the Nietzschean ideal, then Warrior is its Old Testament throwback cousin. With Biblical vehemence, the two siblings have left the fold with seemingly irreconcilable differences. Their mother has long since died away, their father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), is a curmudgeonly dinosaur whose values have been eclipsed too often by the blur that the world becomes when seen through the bottom of a bottle. Together, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) have become his prodigal son.
And it seems that it will take more than a few words and an apology to sort this lot out.
With supreme fight choreography that pits the actors, full of their own unmistakable fury, against genuine members of the sport as well as each other, and real-life MMA pundits and commentators, as well as noted referee, Josh Rosenthal, who is here playing himself, there is the all the authentic sweat and canvas-crawling stink of ripped tendons, bashed teeth and crushed joints about the plethora of pugilistic punishment that whirls around the screen … although it is pertinent to remember that there is nothing here that threatens that box office pleasing lower certificate. O' Connor doesn't shy away from the violence in the way that Christopher Nolan does, but you won't see blood on the canvas here. Nor does he over-emphasise the impacts with the sort of elaborate tree-felling crunches that the Italian Stallion was so enamoured with. But, to me, the action still feels hard enough and raw enough to have you swerving about on the sofa as you watch it unfold.
Both brothers are diametrically opposed to one another, in practically every single way.
For Tommy (played by the man-who-will-be-Bane), the fight has become his one lifeline. Psychologically scarred not only by his experiences as a Marine in Iraq, but by the fracturing of his own memories of a distant home-life, he has become a pillar of smouldering anger and violence, isolated from the world in general, and from his family specifically. His once impregnable code of honour has been cracked and he exists now in a realm of muted-out pain and isolation, steroids and bag-pounding his diet of bitter salvation. Tommy may appear to want little more than to lash out against everything, but this colossal, yet carefully focussed animosity masks someone who has lost his way and simply needs some affection back in his life. He feels betrayed by his father and his brother and despite nurturing an incredibly altruistic desire to win that five million dollar purse that is only revealed later on, his real war is with his own demons. Words and gestures slide off his bullet-proof hide, so the road to rebirth will have to be fought within the soul-bearing circumference of the arena.
“Give the guy a break. At least he's fought in the UFC before. He's fought real fighters. I remember him.”
“I remember him too. I remember him being very unmemorable.”
Brandon is the older of the two. He’s mellowed-out considerably from the fighting spirit of his youth and sought to make something of himself in a fulfilling career as a physics teacher. His more easygoing nature has nevertheless instilled in him a determination to see a job through to the end. But even if he has all the necessary courage to take on all-comers, he lacks the killer instinct that Tommy has in spades. Instead, when he grapples with adversity he employs tactics that he is forced to continually alter on-the-hoof. Outside the cage, he is affable, quiet and surprisingly humble. Fighting is just the one thing he can do that actually makes any money – and the Sparta championship is the potential ticket to saving his house and his family from the breadline once debts and a suspension from work take their toll. In the cage, however, he is a chancer, forever punching above his weight and his league, and only winning because he won’t back down, and because he waits for that one opportunity that will spin his luck around. He might not floor his opponent with the devastating Kong-like ability of his war-torn brother, but he can certainly wrap them up in knots when he gets that crucial split-second opening, and then hang on like a pit-bull until they have nothing left in the tank. Winning by attrition.
“I'll tell you what – you do that to someone on the street, they lock you up and throw away the key. Break out the yellow tape, Sam. Tommy's walking away from the cage like he's leaving a crime scene.”
Even given the sheer number of actors we’ve seen going through the chango-body routine in order to bulk-up for a role, there is something different about how Tom Hardy goes about it. Whereas people like Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Tom Cruise and even Brad Pitt, who buffed-up for Achilles in Troy, tend to come out the other side of the endless cycle of chicken/broccoli/protein-shakes and arduous workouts looking very suitably heroic in that symmetrical comic-book way that we all envy, Hardy seems to resist the girl-wowing factor and opt, instead, for the intimidating Cro-Magnon look. His neck grows out like that of a true-born mesomorph, his head lowering down into the morass of swollen beef that dominates his upper back. His shoulders become hunched like two wrecking-balls welded together. It is not the physique of the chiselled poser … it is the body of a super-powerful thug. Swirling tattoos that accentuate the shape of his musculature complete the image – Bronson and Bane fused into one. No matter how short a time, comparatively speaking, he may have spent training, and how little sporting experience he has under his belt (in actual fact - none), he damn well looks the part of a savage, all-in brawler. The actor, himself, has become absorbed by a exoskeleton of working muscle. You look at him as Tommy and you don’t see someone merely playing the part of a cage-fighter, you see someone who could destroy virtually anybody flung into the arena with him. Or willingly die in the process.
After solid turns in Chris Nolan’s Inception and Tomas Afredson’s adaptation of Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Hardy clearly has the goods to go the distance in this game, maturing steadily with each new role. At the time of writing, I still await the expected combination of riotous villainy and game-changing grandeur that is promised by his interpretation of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but he does magnificent work here. The blokes will all want to buff-up like him, of course, but there is something about the bruised lone-wolf psyche that possibly appeals even more, registering on a deeper, more personally nihilistic level. With the grievances and emotional damage that he carries with him like yet more primitive stone-etched tattoos, Tommy is the brooding 80’s adolescent addicted to ballads of doom and consumed with melancholic revulsion over severed loyalties. He finds hate everywhere, although it is all a smokescreen that hides his own sense of self-depreciation.
His first meeting with Brendan in years takes place on a stark Atlantic City beach, lit only by the Moon and the fakery of cheap neon. It does not go down well, but both actors resist the temptation to unleash vitriol, instead searching in tentative sparring manoeuvres whether they have anything left that resembles a connection. It is a quiet and deliberately unfulfilling scene, but Hardy still manages to bring in some menace, leaning in close to virtually sniff out traces of cowardice in his long lost older brother as they trade barbs about the past. Later on, Hardy beautifully underplays a breakaway pitch from Nolte, delivering put-downs that he most certainly means on the surface but you know taste like poison to him underneath. Hardy can also produce moments of silent intensity that would probably be ruined by dialogue, and it is in one of these that we witness the compassion he still has at the bottom of that deep, dark well of loathing – a dutiful and caring act that actually wrong-foots us after the turbulent scene that has immediately preceded it.
“He ripped the door off a tank!”
But in spite of all this alpha-male dominance, Hardy does not steal the show. In fact, because he plays the more brooding, sulky, introverted and just plain difficult character, Edgerton, who possibly gets the lion’s share of screentime, is our most obvious and downright accessible hero-figure, and the man we find the most engaging. Edgerton suddenly seems to have “arrived”. Although Warrior didn’t exactly explode at the box house, and The Thing 2011 was met with mixed reactions and vanished into the Antarctic blizzard, the Australian actor has built a solid body of work behind him and has a surprising number of projects lined-up, possibly including playing Dr. Ilya Kuryakin in an upcoming movie interpretation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. As Brendan is the family man, the potentially symbolic teacher, Edgerton gets a more restrained, yet somehow fuller range of emotions to bite into. He may not explode as much as Hardy’s Tommy does, but then he is not as highly strung and, in many ways, his problems are not as deep-rooted. Even so, Edgerton doesn’t go for the typical beats that such a rags-to-riches affair might seem to demand of him. It would have been far more commonplace to have seen Brendan arguing with his wife about their financial woes and then, after a sobbing outburst, having to win her around to the idea of him climbing back into the cage – but Edgerton keeps the emotional storms totally reined-in and, as a result, much more believable and natural. He simply tells her that he is going to the Sparta Tournament … because it is the only chance they have left. No need for hysterics, just get used to the idea. We know he’s a good guy … and this is totally embodied by his continual “win-against-the-odds” desire to just survive. And it is great the way that his change of profession isn't allowed to inform his attitude towards his brother, which could easily have been used in a condescending fashion. There is the look of apology and forgiveness in his eyes, yet also the tired resentment at having to feel this way. Edgerton's face rarely shows much emotion, but he is a master of subtle eye movements that open up the thoughts going on behind them. He was more animated in Animal Kingdom, but he is more sensitive and nuanced here.
Both actors are brilliant in what, in lesser hands, have turned into a straight-to-DVD slug-it fest. You totally buy into them, and understand what drives and motivates them. And you root for them both. How often does that happen in this genre?
“Ahab, you Godless sonofabitch! You stop the ship, you Godless sonofabitch!”
Performance wise, the real heavyweight of this three-way tag-team is the hulking, ever-grizzled Nick Nolte. Paddy Conlon is approached by Tommy because even if he cannot stand his old man, he respects his back-to-basics, no-nonsense training methods, although he makes it emphatically clear that this arrangement “changes nothing.” Looking as though he just got washed with sandpaper and growling like next door's cantankerous old fleabag, you would be forgiven for assuming that Nolte has been saddled with the Burgess Meredith role, but this just isn't the case. A recovering alcoholic with a passion for audio books, the Vietnam Veteran (those clichés are just racking up, aren't they?) continues with this subdued, words lost, internalising of personal agony. Picking over the wreckage of his family with unskilled hands, you can see how Nolte chips away at the character's granite exterior from the inside, rediscovering the devotion and love that he'd been forced to hide away from two sons he no longer knows. He has a couple of grandstanding scenes, and they couldn't be more different. The first is an addled tirade, made all the more galvanising by the subversion of quotes from Moby Dick, that is possibly even more intimidating than anything Tom Hardy could muster and must surely come from somewhere intensely painful in the star's life; and the second is the complete polar opposite – a simple, resigned nod at a crucial instant that, in itself, has the power of a knock-out punch. Again, there is so much hurt and remorse churning up within the performance that you think Nolte is on the screen much more than he actually is. He's how Quint could've turned out if Amity had refused him a fishing permit.
And then there is Frank Grillo as Brendan's friend and trainer Frank Campana. Modelled on real-life MMA fight trainer and the film's technical advisor Greg Jackson, Frank brings Beethoven to the arena, honing his boys' skills to the sweet rhythm of the classics. With a naturalistic style that oozes charisma, Hank Azaria-lookalike Grillo becomes yet another character that we want to see more of. It is amusing to hear him shouting terrific words of encouragement when Brendan is getting his head bounced all over the place – words such as “Breathe!” I think he's great. He does seem a touch too nice to be a Mixed Martial Arts trainer, though. Grillo joins the wolf-harassed and frostbitten survivors alongside Liam Neeson in the awesome-looking The Grey.
Now, let's be honest about this, Warrior is hardly a film for the ladies … unless they like their men battered and bruised. But, defending their corner in what is undeniably a thankless task and an undoubted narrative aside, is the gorgeous Jennifer Morrison who plays Brendon's wife, Tess. The fighter's moll is rarely a role to be relished. Talia Shire knows that all too well. How often do they squeal and gasp and look to the floor in dismay as their heroic underdog bites into the canvas for the umpteenth time? Well, Tess is typically unhappy that her man is going to go back into the fight game, but then that's because she's grimaced through it all before, so she knows what woes could lie ahead. His commitment is all very noble, but it won't do them any good if they can't afford his hospital bills. But even so, once Brendan begins winning, her change from sit-at-home-on-tenterhooks to screaming ringside banshee is completely credible. And I'll tell you what, she looks insanely attractive once she's glammed-up for Sparta. I'd fight for her, that's for sure. And I love some of her reactions too – her screams of euphoria, her yell of condemnation for the cheap shot and, best of all, her look of awe, admiration and terror when one particularly renowned opponent strides indomitably towards her hubby.
So, the cast is awesome, the script is fine, with just the right amount of angst and tension, and you can't fault the actual fighting either, which has the sting and snap of wince-inducing realism coursing through each bout. With so many MMA personalities and experts involved, things just ring true. Going up against the likes of bonafide bone-crunchers Anthony Johnson and the great Kurt Angle would be daunting enough even for a professional, but Edgerton, who has to take on the both of them in successive elimination rounds, totally convinces in moves, technique and attitude. Angle, who plays the nightmarish Russian champion, Koba, brings pure excitement and dread to the cage. He has eyes like Vin Diesel's Riddick, which make him look inhuman and alien. Plus you can really feel the strain as those tendons pop, taut as steel cords, from the necks of locked-down fighters. Tommy's early sparring with Erik Apple's “Mad Dog” Grimes is a great foretaste of the sharpened ferocity that he will exhibit throughout Sparta. Watch for the swift leg-catch and battering-ram chin-snap that puts the mohawk on the deck. The follow-up match in the Tournament, itself, is blinding. Just don't blink or you'll miss it entirely – which is what can be said for most of Tommy's “no-messing, no showboating” fights. And you've just got to love the way that he charges out of the arena after despatching each opponent. Job done.
Spoiler ahead! Skip the next paragraph until you have seen the film.
There's been concern raised about whether or not a fight would be allowed to continue once a man's shoulder has been popped and he is clearly fighting with a handicap. Two things... First and foremost, at this stage in the game, we have become elevated from the painstaking realism that has been the mainstay of the brawls throughout most of the film and taken the fight to the operatic levels that the story requires of it. Essentially, it is necessary to deconstruct – or “kill” Tommy – in order for him to be reborn. Tommy, in all honesty, would probably go on fighting even if his head had been knocked off his shoulders, so I doubt that any injury would impede his furious determination to win at all costs. Secondly, I've heard it from a reliable source – an MMA fanatic – that there have been times when a fight has gone on even when one of the opponents has weathered a potentially broken arm, or other overt injuries.
End of Spoilerage!
I waxed lyrical about the superb marriage of image, mood and music that occurred with mesmerising alchemy in Refn's Drive, and O' Connor manages to do the same thing with the excellent inclusion and emotional smothering of About Today by The National, which dominates the soundtrack during the final bout. With lyrics that don’t sound too awkwardly shoehorned-in, the track becomes a searing, blue-collar lament for, and homage to, the spiritual artistry of facing one’s demons and swallowing one’s pride. Just as the dirge-like odyssey, Song for Bob, that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis brought to the pivotal last scenes of the elegiac The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the song A Real Hero by College that perfectly informs two stylishly choke-hold vignettes from the aforementioned Drive, this elevates the drama and the emotions felt by the two blood-bonded combatants and helps the entire sequence to transcend the trappings of such a genre standard. Coupled with the performances and the heightened emotional core they deliver, this track cannot fail to move you. Elsewhere, the score from Mark Isham has patches that are moody and darkly ambient, as well as specific sets designed to fuel the stamina and to build up to cathartic and uplifting crescendos. I initially believed Isham to be an unusual choice of composer for a strongly physical movie such as this, as his scores tend to err on the tonal stance of neon-nocturne, but he finds the fragile heart that resides beneath the brawn of the conflict, and brings terrific and earnestly constructed impact to the various fights, with special attention paid to the first couple of rounds of the climactic Brendan versus Tommy bout. Here, he commences the championship fight with awesome Celtic-style drums as the two brothers prepare to go to war, the film once again grabbing cliché in a headlock and kneeing it in the face. But we also have to mention the inclusion of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, which we hear as Brendan enters the arena for his first Sparta fight, which is a completely odd and anachronistic seeming choice that comes from Frank Grillo (or rather from Greg Jackson) who uses it like an anthem. Isham even gets to play with this in the glorious training montage sequence (which cunningly splits up the screen into various frame-outs just to make the Rocky-staple stand out a little bit more than the usual “no-pain, no-gain” devices) in his marvellous updating, entitled Listen to Beethoven on the actual score release.
Crucially, I think Warrior strikes a particular chord with me because of the notion of a family divided, of brothers with years of pointless resentment driving a wedge between them. Personally, I understand this in plain old emotional true-life terms … and to see the dark glimmers of doubts contorted by time, and the burning shadow of regrets and guilt in the eyes of both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton colliding, head-on, with the colder, more embittered rage of a never-forgotten grudge genuinely twists a knife in my heart over a sibling loyalty in my life that has, perhaps, been broken forever. Both actors carry this curse with them in the film as acutely as I feel it in reality … and the finale, as pulverising as it is, both physically and psychologically, has an undeniable quality of unspoken, heartbroken repatriation that I find extremely moving … and, for my own sake, sadly unattainable. For some the poignancy of the Conlons' tribulations will be soapish, but for many others, like myself, it may spike some haunted soul-searching.
The story never deviates from that well-trodden path of pure cliché, but this doesn’t matter at all. Warrior embraces the self-pride and hard-won nobility of those who savour the adrenaline of combat, and revels in the blinkered attitude it takes to rise to the challenge of physical confrontation, recognising the deeper primal code that makes these people tick. It is one half Rocky, one half Spartan valour. And somehow this raw ferocity and battle-honed bitterness adds an emotional core that never feels cheapened, or contrived by the mechanics of the genre. The plot, itself, may pander wholesale to formula, but that doesn’t mean that the actors do, and it is here that Gavin O' Connor’s celebration of machismo wins by a knock-out. Even if there is plenty of filmic license taken, we see the inner effect of each and every blow that lands, the brutish empowerment that they can bring, and the innate fragility and remorse that they inevitably wreak, also. It is also a hugely inspiring tale. You know that going in … but this knowledge doesn't lessen the cumulative effect, and when you see one of the most tender tap-outs in the business, there's sure to be a lump in your throat the size of Nebraska.
For me, Warrior was far, far better than either The Fighter or The Wrestler. I loved every minute of it and I believe it has the perfect one-two combination of action and emotion.
One of the best films of 2011, Warrior comes very highly recommended.