Sports movies are basically the easiest things ever. There’s an easily definable plot, opportunities for a cast of diverse, interesting characters, action, drama, and always, always a climactic battle. They may be formulaic, but they work, and they work well. Gavin O’Connor’s previous sports film, Miracle, the story of the US Olympic hockey team defeating the Soviet team in 1980, is probably the best sports movie ever made. Warrior is his return to sports films after the disappointing Pride and Glory.
Unfortunately, there’s not really enough going on in Warrior to warrant the same acclaim as Miracle.
The Conlon family is as messed up a brood as you’ll find. Father Paddy (Nick Nolte, NOT playing his mugshot for once) drove his family away with decades of alcoholism. The youngest brother Tom (Tom Hardy) ran off with his mother and cut all ties to the family, eventually enlisting in the Marines, while older brother Brendan grew up to marry his high school sweetheart and raise a family on an inner-city science teacher’s pay. Brendan finds himself returning to the world of parking lot venue mixed martial arts when the bank threatens to foreclose his house, while Tommy returns to his father and demands to be trained to fight. Both men find eventually find themselves members of the Sparta tournament, an event likened to the Super Bowl for MMA, where they find themselves on a collision course towards each other, where they must confront the decades of issues that have torn them apart.
There’s an interesting story here, which is why it pains me to say that it’s not well told. The notion of two brothers, estranged for years thanks to a terrible family conflict, is always good fodder for storytelling. It’s basically a universal concept, and I think there’s not one person with siblings out there that can’t empathize, even a little. In Warrior, though, most of the back story is told to us with a complete lack of subtlety. We’re merely TOLD that the brothers have a bad history, and we’re TOLD that there was this big event that tore the family apart. Telling rather than showing can work some of the time, but not when it comes to one of the central conflicts of the story. It kind of removes the weight from whatever you’re doing if you’re just content to have someone explain whatever bullshit story your characters are supposed to have, unless you’re Shakespeare. The pacing is mostly draggy as hell, up until the last act, when we finally get to the tournament, and everything ratchets up to eleven.
Performances are solid, though nothing terribly special. Tom Hardy, probably one of the most talented actors of his age, walks a thin line between unrepentant thug and tortured soul with a heart o’ gold as Tommy. His performance becomes more interesting as we learn his reasons for why it’s so important for him to win the prize money from Sparta, but he walks this bizarre line early on, when we’re not supposed to know that he’s not such a bad guy after all, like he hasn’t read the rest of the script. Joel Edgerton basically just sits on screen and says his lines. The best I can say is that he was unobtrusive.
Nick Nolte, though, uses this movie to remind us all that he’s still an actor that matters. He spends more time internalizing the decades of pain and suffering he’s went through thanks to the hell he put his kids though than most actor spend actually reading the script. He’s a broken man trying desperately to do right, only to be rebuffed by his son. It’s tough to watch him on screen, as he’s being beaten up moreso than either of his sons without taking a single punch. There’s some not-too subtle metaphors going on with him, as he’s constantly listening to an audiobook of Moby Dick, but he doesn’t let it get int he way of a command performance.
Visually, the movie doesn’t really take off until the fight sequences. This is where the film’s real strength lies. The bouts in the film feature some of the best staged MMA fights on film I’ve ever seen. They’re visceral, as real-looking as houses, and filmed absolutely expertly. They have more tension and flow and conflict than every other part of the film combined. I’d almost say the film’s worth seeing just for the last act, when all of these amazing fights are going down.
At the end of the day, there’s just not a lot to Warrior. It’s a basically serviceable movie. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, though there’s the occasional flash of one that could have been, and I wouldn’t say that it’s awful, though it’s certainly not good. At the end of the day, it’s a lot like most other sports movies: mediocre, with occasional moments of good and shit. It’s ultimately just kind of limp.
Andres Bolivar: 62 – Okay. Before I watched Warrior, I thought the world of MMA was essentially awful t-shirts and two dudes wrestling and punching the snot out of each other. After watching the film, I still pretty much think it’s that, but damn it if it wasn’t entertaining. Warrior is chock full of ridiculous happenstance, cookie cutter characters and terrible pacing, but by the the last act of the film I was right there with the rest of the audience sitting at the edge of my seat and applauding at each victory. It’s a hard film to rate considering there’s so much wrong with it, but I must say I was charmed by Tom “my shoulders are swallowing my neck” Hardy and his animalistic calm and Nick Nolte’s broken and awaiting salvation-like performance. The film is easy in the sense that it drives on the fumes of daddy issues and sibling rivalry, but it’s still done well in the sense that it will speak to you. In no way is it worth the ticket price and you’re probably better off fast forwarding to the last act of the film when you rent it, but it’s still something that should be watched, even if it is in passing.