Film Review: Warrior (2011)
Move over The Fighter (2010), Warrior (2011) might be the new boxing/fighting champion at the cinema. You do not have to be a huge MMA or even sports fan to like this movie. The trailer misleads audiences into believing the movie is a simple crowd-pleaser with no depth or heart, but that is not entirely true. While it does indeed have an action-packed, crowd-pleasing second-half, the film prioritizes its focus on the characters and their broken relationships with one another. Doing so makes the fights much more thrilling and meaningful; we may know who will fight for the title and prize, but the journey is wonderful as well. Perhaps the greatest punch the film lands is that the audience has two protagonists to sympathize with; viewers may struggle to root for one over the other, even through the final match. Without setting up the story this way and concentrating on the drama, the movie would just be another generic, cliché-ridden sports flick. Although clichés and melodrama riddle the plot, Warrior triumphs with or despite them to become a terrific, albeit flawed, film due to its hardcore yet immersive action, timely and relevant story depth, and remarkable, emotionally engaging performances. In fact, if it shows unwavering endurance in the months to come, the movie might take home a few prizes come awards-season.
Warrior, which is not based on a true story, follows the lives of two estranged brothers and their regretful, broken-down old man. The film begins with Iraqi War veteran Tommy “Reardon” Conlon who returns home to Pittsburgh for the first time in decades. To his surprise, his father Paddy Conlon became a believer in Christ and has been going on nearly 1000 days of sobriety. Yet, Tommy is not back to reconcile with the man who did horrible, unforgivable things to him, his brother, and their late mother. Instead, he simply wants Paddy to train him to become a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter for an upcoming Sparta tournament where the winner takes home $5 million; Paddy jumps at the chance to spend some time with him.
In Philadelphia, Tommy’s older brother Brendan had become a well-respected and content high school physics teacher with a wife and two daughters. However, three jobs between the two of them cannot support their family and their house becomes threatened by foreclosure. To earn a little more cash, Brendan, a former MMA fighter, returns to the ring, albeit in low-risk events. Unfortunately, his moonlighting “job” leads to an even more desperate situation: his suspension without pay. His wife, Tess, is more than willing to take a few steps back and adjust to a lower standard of living for a bit so that Brendan does not have to get beat up for a living; Brendan, though, refuses to lose their home. He reconnects with his old friend and coach Frank Campana, who he wants to train him so he can compete in more dangerous, higher-paying fights. Eventually, he has the opportunity to enter into the same Sparta tournament in which Tommy has entered as a major dark horse contender.
Despite brotherhood, Tommy and Brendan have just as strained of a relationship with each other as they do with their formerly despicable father. The film focuses on how the three deal with each other and whether or not they can overcome their resentments toward one another. Paddy deeply loves his sons and will put up with any verbal abuse from them, because he knows he deserves it and wants more than anything to resolve their issues with him. Brendan, who has not even allowed Paddy to meet his younger daughter, seeks reconciliation with his younger brother Tommy for reasons that will remain unspoiled here. Tommy, on the other hand, is full of anger and resentment, coupled with survivor’s guilt and pain from losing many of his Marine brothers. His motivation for entering into the tournament, other than to take out all of his rage, remains a secret until the climax. So while the MMA fights are quite brutal, as with any film of the boxing, etc. genre, the most devastating blows and hardest-fought battles happen outside the ring/cage. These relationships are typical of such movies, but the performances, layered story, and powerful direction make the formula not only work but soar.
If anyone has any doubts about whether Tom Hardy is the appropriate size/choice to play Bane in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming The Dark Knight Rises (2012), they simply need to see this movie or Bronson (2008) – he is an absolute animal here as Tommy Reardon/Conlon. Besides, despite his relatively shorter or average height (5’10”), a clever cinematographer or editor can creatively shoot and select angles that create a more imposing size; still, he apparently does not need much help looking powerful in this movie since he is as physically fit as he can be and commands the screen anyway. Furthermore, his performance has drawn some incredible comparisons to the brooding Marlon Brando of the 1950s because of Hardy’s more dramatic scenes in the film. Although his character is very introspective and a bit disagreeable at times, Hardy adds so much perceived depth and sympathy to Tommy. He demonstrates why he has become one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading men with his unbelievable acting abilities.
Most viewers do not know Joel Edgerton by name and might recognize him on-screen, but for the most part he remains unknown to most American audiences – this is about to change as he earns more leading parts in Hollywood and viewers witness his touching turn as Brendan Conlon. Coming off of a short but solid appearance in the great Australian crime thriller Animal Kingdom (2010, full review here), Edgerton’s status should be on the rise after Warrior. Hardy and Nick Nolte overshadow him a bit, given their star power and stunning performances, but Edgerton holds his own and makes Brendan a compelling underdog easy to sympathize with.
Best of all, Nolte completely owns the screen with his award-worthy poignant performance as the broken father Paddy Conlon, repeatedly tearing the viewer’s heart apart. If anyone should get an Oscar for this film, Nolte deserves it. All he has to do is show up on screen to convey the gruffness of his character. What separates his performance in Warrior from the myriad of his other films is the amount of heart he brings to Paddy. Although you realize he truly loves his sons, he remains a volatile character and you really do not want him to regress. Both Tommy and Brendan often reject his attempts to earn their forgiveness and build a new, healthy relationship. Even though no punches are thrown, their words cause him more pain than any physical assault, and Nolte nails every ounce of anguish. He portrays his character with such decency that you feel for him the most, despite the alluded horrors of his past.
Nolte’s performance exemplifies what critics call an “explosive” one. He maintains a reserved, sorrowful temperament for the majority of the film, but when he breaks out in one particular scene, he is absolutely captivating and heartbreaking. Moreover, for a man who has acted in rough-around-the-edges roles his entire career, his gentle nature adds so much emotional depth to Paddy, all of which climaxes in a single tear in the final scene. In short, no other actor could have portrayed Paddy so well, and Warrior would die without Nolte.
The rest of the cast members fit into their respective roles with ease. Jennifer Morrison (House, How I Met Your Mother) plays as Brendan’s wife Tess Conlon. She depicts her reluctance, anxiety and joy fine. Frank Dunn gives a convincing turn as nonconventional MMA trainer Frank Campana. Kevin Dunn is ten times as funny in this film as he is in the Transformers movie; he provides the audience with much-needed comic relief as Principal Zito. Almost any time the film cuts to him in the second-half, my audience roared. Lastly, Noah Emmerich makes a brief cameo appearance (one scene) as banker Dan Taylor; either his role was considerably cut or the filmmakers simply needed a credible supporting actor for the part. All of the cast members make the movie into a highly enjoyable ride and rewarding journey.
Warrior not only entertains but also speaks to audiences on contemporary issues. It deals with the scarred Iraqi War veteran, desperate mortgage crisis, and has a somewhat relatable family drama. It does not offer in-depth analyses or realistic solutions to them, but the film handles the concerns well without becoming preachy or political.
Fortunately, Gavin O’Connor cleverly directs the film and raises it above the tired genre. Much like one of his rousing hockey flick Miracle (2004), Warrior fits into the mold of inspirational sports flicks. The soundtrack, by Mark Isham, is not the kind that works that well without the movie, except for the film’s bittersweet final song, but the score is exciting with it, though not on the level of the utterly exhilarating one for Rocky (1976). The MMA fight scenes are extremely raw, heart-pounding and surprisingly immersive; kudos to the cinematographer and editors. Viewers may forget they are watching a movie and will feel like they are in the audience of the event or watching close coverage of a fight on television. As mentioned before, the fights actually have greater significance than claiming the title or simply winning the prize money – the brothers fight for their own redemption, reconciliation with each other, as well as for loved ones’ sake. Moreover, O’Connor uniquely handles the point-of-view of the two protagonists – viewers will hesitate to throw their favor into one corner of the cage or brother over the other one, even amidst the final fight. Both are rather sympathetic.
Then again, the two-protagonist POV is both a blessing and a curse. Without someone to fully support, some viewers may feel unfulfilled by the end. In other words, the ending is not entirely satisfying because of its bittersweet feeling; you want both to “win,” but one brother must lose and suffer some consequences. Yet, the ending is more pleasant than not with just enough resolution; this is no Darren Aronofsky take on the fighting genre (see: The Wrestler, 2008).
Still, Warrior has a polarizing ending for a few reasons. First, many viewers have complained it is pretty unrealistic given how they portrayed the fighters up to that point in the film. Or as another related comment, such critics have questioned who should have fought who in the final four; those who have seen the movie will understand better, but simply said if the competitors had switched places, one might more easily believe the losing brother would have been too tired to win the final round. My only counter-argument without totally spoiling it is that they mention anything can happen in a given fight and that strategy is important. Second, the story quickly ends with only subtle resolutions; it has no epilogue scene or title cards (which could have been major cliché traps). The viewers must pay close attention to the performances to come away with a satisfied feeling. Third, as a related criticism, some viewers may wish the film explored more of the family’s past, to show how the relationships soured. Instead, it only alludes to what Paddy has done to his sons and late wife, which for some viewers will be enough as they let their imaginations run wild. Nonetheless, the polarizing effect of the ending should not hinder one’s ability to enjoy the film or turn it into a bad one; the criticisms are minor in the grand scheme of things.
So where does Warrior rank in the boxing or fighter genre? Although it has a reference to the Rocky series with professional wrestler Kurt Angle’s cameo role as the unbeatable Russian fighter Koba, this movie is of a different kind or feeling than straight up underdog-inspiring story. It is more like Raging Bull (1980), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and The Fighter, all of which focus more on the drama outside of the ring than the brutality inside of it. It is not as complete in its character developments or original in many ways as Raging Bull, but it is more comparable to The Fighter (my full review here). Christian Bale and Melissa Leo were phenomenal as Dicky and Alice Ward, but Hardy and Nolte at least rival their performances. Warrior might not have the same star-studded cast or true story tag to elevate it, but it is just as rousing and entertaining if not more so for some reasons. For instance, this film may work for a wider audience and has less of a predictable outcome; despite knowing where it is headed, the fights still put you on the edge of your seat. No matter your preference, you will find it hard to deny Warrior is yet another great addition to the genre.
Warrior is one of only a handful of many movies that have lived up to the hype of my Most Anticipated Films. In fact, it somewhat surpassed above average expectations to throw itself into the category of best films of the year (thus far). It has undeniably gripping performances, a powerful family drama and redemptive story, and exciting, meaningful action sequences. Its flaws and clichés are easy to bear and overcome. If you can stomach the fights, which are largely bearable except for one crack of a bone, go watch it in theaters for full effect – Warrior is an early awards contender worth full admission price (of course see it as a matinee if you can to save some money).
Warrior – 9/10