THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Warrior is proof of the theory that, for the length of its running time, a good movie will make you care about things you don't care about. The film is set against the backdrop of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, a particularly brutal sport that I routinely flip past whenever I come across it on television. For a little over two hours, though, I was completely invested in it because the story's characters are so compelling, and so much hangs in the balance for them. The most obvious film I can compare Warrior to is last year's The Fighter. Both movies involve violent sports you may or may not have any particular interest in, and both suck you in by exploring the family dynamics of the athletes who participate in those sports. If you pass on seeing Warrior simply because you don't like MMA, you're denying yourself the chance to see a solid, well-made, emotionally gripping movie.
Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) and Tom Hardy (Inception) play the Conlon brothers, Brendan and Tommy. They were raised in a dysfunctional home where their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), drank excessively and abused their mother. He was also a dogged wrestling coach to both boys. As adults, everyone is estranged. Paddy has gotten sober, but neither of his boys accept that as a reason to forgive him. Brendan is a married high school physics teacher in danger of having the bank foreclose on his home. Unbeknownst to his wife (Jennifer Morrison), he fights in cage matches to earn a few extra bucks. Tommy, meanwhile, is on the run from a painful secret. Needing money, he too decides to get into the fight game. After learning about an MMA competition with a large financial payout to the winner, he turns to the only person he trusts to train him: his father. Brendan also signs up for the competition, and when the three Conlon men arrive in Atlantic City, old family resentments are brought to the surface.
Warrior draws some intriguing parallels between MMA fighting and dysfunctional homes. Brendan and Tommy are tough guys because they've been brought up in a tough environment. Fighting is, at some level, a way of working out the aggression they have toward their father and each other. And while they get pummeled in the cage, the physical pain they feel is nothing compared to the emotional pain that lingers inside of them. Director/co-writer Gavin O'Connor (Miracle, Pride and Glory) deliberately establishes the psychology of the characters so that we always understand their motivations wherever and whoever they are fighting.
The performances are really stellar. Edgerton gives Brendan a slow burn anger. He's a committed husband and father, with an ethic that makes him prefer risking bodily injury to losing his home. When he taps into his inner rage (i.e. his feelings about his dad, his estrangement from his brother), he becomes perhaps not the strongest fighter, but the most resilient one. Hardy, on the other hand, makes Tommy all outward fury; he hits as hard as he can every time. I like how we slowly get to see the things that made him this way. There's a vulnerability he masks beneath his powerful, intimidating exterior. Tommy claims he wants Paddy to train him but doesn't want to mend any fences. Thanks to Hardy, we can see this isn't entirely true.
Both these guys are Oscar worthy, but the real standout performance comes from Nick Nolte. You probably know a guy like Paddy Conlon: drank too heavily, did terrible things, got sober, had to find a way to deal with the shame of the things he did. Nolte gives Paddy a desperate, longing quality, as though earning the forgiveness of his boys is the thing that will allow him to finally forgive himself. At every moment, you feel the man's anguish. Nolte has never been finer.
Warrior builds to a conclusion you might see coming, not that it matters. The resolution of this family's problems plays out in an absolutely riveting fashion, full of tension and catharsis. This is why I say I cared about MMA while watching. The movie does such a good job of showing why these guys are in the cage that it transcends the sport; you're not watching an event, you're watching life unfold for these men. The final five minutes could have been cheesy if done incorrectly, but the acting and the direction are so precise that the finale instead turns into the sort of rousing, lump-in-the-throat entertainment that sends you out of the theater on a high.
The only thing I didn't like about the film was its over-reliance on a few lame sports movie cliches. During the big event, we have to listen to the constant yammer of the commentators. When will sports flicks learn that if the drama playing out is strong enough, we don't need the “authenticity” of color commentary? There are also way too many cutaways to Brendan's students watching the fight back home. Every time he starts to get knocked around, we see them yelling ooh and ahh. Whenever he gets ahead, we see them cheering and pumping their fists. Again, this is unnecessary stuff, and O'Connor goes back to it more often than he needs to.
Still, Warrior is affecting stuff. Made with great skill, it tells a poignant, emotionally-charged family story that just happens to involve mixed martial arts fighting. Prepare yourself to be blown away.
( 1/2 out of four)
Warrior is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material . The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.