dir: Gavin O’Connor
Men. Manly Men. Beating the crap out of each other.
This is easily the most masculine film I’ve seen this year, in a lot of ways. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact it’s a very good thing.
This is also one of the best flicks I’ve seen this year. At the very least it’s one of the flicks I’ve enjoyed the most this year. There are only a few aspects that squandered the tremendous amount of goodwill and positive feelings I had about the film, and none of them have anything to do with the phenomenal performances put in by nearly all the actors involved.
And yet, it’s still a flick about a bunch of guys beating the absolute shit out of each other.
Soldiers fight for king, queen or country because they have to. Mercenaries fight for coin. Warriors fight because they live to fight. Warrior doesn’t really sit well as a good title for this flick, because the people fighting don’t necessarily want to fight.
But they have to.
There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to fight flicks. It’s a genre of sports film so well-trodden that it’s virtually impossible to say anything new. It can be said in a more contemporary way, but the themes are ancient, as are the beats and rhythms of the screenplays.
So, that having been said, it’s still possible to enjoy a flick even when it’s constructed from every other flick of its type that has come before. Underdogs, unbeatable machine-like opponents, a worried wife crying in the distance, issues with a father figure, alcoholics eponymous, Marines grieving their fallen comrades through violence, sick children. Mostly I wasn’t thinking about the commonalities, but eventually they couldn’t help but be noticed.
But Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton, yes, that Joel Edgerton, Australia’s Own Joel Edgerton, shine through even with this tired material.
A surly and brutish chap called Tommy (Tom Hardy) visits his grizzled father, taunting him continuously with the past. We know Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a Christian, and a recovering alcoholic as well. We know Tommy has no affection for the old man. The glimmers we get of their history from Tommy’s words are such that we can readily assume the father was a wife and child beating drunk, at the very least. It’s a safe bet. A safe, depressing bet.
For us, seeing this old man before us, destroyed by drink and age, we don’t know about the terror the child must have faced and endured at this man’s fists, as the ebbs and flows of his rages dominated and defined his life, but we can guess. It’s easy for us, because we didn’t have to live through it. We’re just seeing him at the apologetic / redemptive stage. It’s clear the effect this has had on Tommy was profound, profoundly negative. But Tommy is not a small, terrified child anymore. He’s a hulking, angry monster of a man. And he wants his father to help him by the only way he can, by helping him train as a fighter for a tournament, like they trained when he was a kid.
The very last thing Tommy wants is to forgive, or to have any kind of personal interaction with him beyond mocking his father with the past, and with his newfound sobriety.
The ties of family that bind and blind… And there’s another man this father Paddy calls son, who’s made a life for himself away from the violence of his early years. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher. He was a mixed-martial arts fighter, but now he’s a regular citizen. He has a life, a wife and two kids. It’s idyllic, surely. But the bank, the fucking bank, it’s threatening to destroy everything Brendan has worked for.
Up until here, this flick felt ‘real’. Like it had real people dealing with shitty things in the world, in their lives. Sure, it’s still a film, but it felt gritty and believable.
The set-up beyond that, though, feels anything but real. It requires, apparently, the contours and architecture of significantly more mediocre flicks. But we deal with what we’re given, not as well with what we’re not…
And see, the thing is, there’s this tournament, called Sparta, a completely made up tournament, where a bunch of fighters can brawl with each other in very brutal ways. Mixed martial arts is huge in the States (its preeminent organisation being UFC), I guess, so the existence of such a premise isn’t so outlandish. But the notion that anybody would be able to run a $5 million pot for such a wild card event is ludicrous.
It doesn’t matter, I guess, beyond the fact that we’re supposed to accept it the way that a lot of films have a premise where the kids have to put on a show in order to save the community centre at the very last minute before the evil developer’s bulldozers flatten it completely. We didn’t think we were in that kind of world, but that’s the one we’re in.
Tommy and Brendan both end up in the tournament, for very different reasons, but we can all suspect and dread what is coming. There’s a subplot regarding Tommy’s actions as a Marine in Iraq, which you would think wouldn’t matter to them or us any more than it does to the people of Iraq, but it still fuels Tommy’s rage. It also leads to the second tremendous conceit which took me out of the flick, which is a plot device I can’t articulate which would be more appropriate in a Jean Claude Van Damme flick from the late 80s, early 90s. Suffice to say it is fucking absurd.
But it still didn’t matter. The fights, the fights are incredibly well realised, and they’re harrowing to watch. So they should be. There’s no more brutal style of public, legal fighting that this contemporary developed world (ie. America) gets to see. So it’s appropriate, and hellishly difficult to watch sometimes, but it’s appropriate.
Tommy is a brutal machine in the cage, beating opponents unconscious within seconds of the round’s commencement. His personae in the ring / octagon / pit is the same as his personae on the outside, though, in one key scene, his words are even rougher than his fists. He’s just fearsome to behold.
Sure, you could argue that he did something similar in the Nicolas Winding Refn film Bronson a few year’s back, but it’s a very different, and more human, character.
It’s impossible to watch him here and to not think of Marlon Brando. In his On the Waterfront prime, of course. But it’s less from the performance itself as opposed to the physical presence, and maybe moreso aspects of his appearance. Those lips, which uneasily superimpose an aspect of sensuality over a brutish frame, they just add another layer, to what is a pretty simple characterisation.
Edgerton as Brendan has the harder character to assay. He’s more human, he’s got more to lose (I’m not just talking about his family, or his life), and he just seems, even as a brawler, more fragile. He steps into the ring without anyone, including his trainer believing he’s going to win, including himself, but he knows that he has to. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Tommy just wants to destroy everyone in his path, for various reasons. Brendan can’t go toe-to-toe with these tanks, but he still needs to find a way to defeat them.
The final showdown is inevitable. Two brothers, born into violence, to a bastard who hones their skills for his own prideful ends; how can they possibly redeem themselves? How can they stop themselves from enacting all the resentments, all the bitterness, all the anger that’s been welling up for decades, all the damage done to them by a father who now looks on crying, wondering how he could have fucked up so badly as a parent that his two sons are annihilating each other in the ring?
It’s powerful stuff. My heart was in my mouth with a lot of these fights, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried like a baby at the end. That final fight, or at least my reaction to it, is the pinnacle, the absolute fight pinnacle, cinematically speaking. They could not have gotten the ending more ‘right’, or more heart-breaking.
I thoroughly loved this flick, but it’s not perfect, of course, because it’s just a film. If Nolte hadn’t been acting in every scene like he was guaranteed an Oscar, maybe I would rate his performance and this flick even higher. As it stands, this is just a very, very, very good, solid flick, and easily one of the best of the year. It could have been better, though, but, jeez, I should be grateful for what we’ve got.
And I am. Warrior is a triumph.
8 times the Roman Coliseum is just around the corner if UFC is entertainment out of 10
“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.” - Warrior