Saturday, December 24, 2011


I wasn't quite sure what to think about Warrior, which got good reviews but just sort of sounded like a rehash of The Fighter with a less respected sport. It was quite good though, and is honestly probably my favorite sports movie since Raging Bull. Like all great sports movies, Warrior is not about sports. It is about the trauma that can break a family apart, and the hope that someday it can be put back together again. It is a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve, and while a lot of the elements are familiar or obvious, they're executed so damn well that it's hard to care. It's a movie that is thrilling, cathartic, devastating, and uplifting in the best ways.

Nick Nolte is a broken old man, a former alcoholic who saw his wife leave him with their two sons many years ago. The family was splintered yet again when Joel Edgerton's character, the older son, left his mother and brother for a woman. Tom Hardy is the younger brother, tormented by abandonment issues, the death of his mother, and whatever happened to him while he was a soldier in the Middle East. One thing the two brothers share is a skill for mixed martial arts, though they have both been out of the game for a while. Hardy has been off being a solider, and Edgerton agreed to give it up and become a teacher to support his family. But circumstances bring them both back into the sport, specifically to enter a winner-takes-all tournament with a huge purse. Obviously it is their movie fate to both get into the tournament as underdogs and eventually fight each other in the final match. The only mystery is what will happen once they get there, and if it will have a payoff for all of the emotional turmoil they go through to reach that point.

I think it's a sign of a good sports movie when it can make you enjoy that sport, even if you're predisposed not to. I've never been very interested in UFC or MMA in general, because I don't really see the appeal of watching men hurt each other that badly. But I'll admit to being caught up in the bouts in this movie, which show a lot of different sides of it, from the brutality of the hits to the technique of pulling off a crippling submission to the perseverance it takes not to give in. The fights are very well shot, and also do a great job of giving insight into the two brothers who fight in very different ways. Despite being older, Edgerton is definitely the physically inferior one, looking quite cut for a normal guy but puny next to the other fighters. He has to rely on his toughness and his knowledge to survive the beatings he takes long enough to sneak by with a tricky sleeper hold. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is a brick shit house and demolishes his opponents with scary efficiency. Eventually you realize that it's not exactly a double underdog story, but an underdog story with one of the best developed and most sympathetic antagonists ever.

The two don't get a lot of screen time together since they're estranged, but we do see effectively the pain that they share as well as the shreds of family that still remain. Nolte might actually give the best performance, incredibly remorseful over his complete failure as a father but unable to break through the walls his sons built up after they left him behind. They're three very damaged men, and their performances are good enough to make them seem real without any of them seeming like jerks despite their animosity. It builds to a conclusion that is pretty obvious but still feels totally earned. I thought there were some weird elements to the script - by having the tournament take place over a 24 hour period, there's a lot of time spent on training and not a lot of time left for character interactions once the fighting actually starts in earnest. It also kind of forces a lot of late-story revelations and developments to be explained through match commentary and news stories on TV, which works but isn't as natural as what came before. Still, the work done beforehand was strong enough to carry the film through to its end. I was surprised by how much I loved this movie, but there's not much you can do when it touches you in your manly emotional parts this well.

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