THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN UPDATED
Sports movies are hard to make fresh in any significant way, due in large part to the simple formula that most of them follow. You ultimately come down to one of two endings for your protagonist or protagonists. Either they win and it’s a great victory, or they lose, and it’s bittersweet. Both endings have been played out numerous times, and in almost any sport you can name. So why do filmmakers continue to return to this genre?
The answer, I believe, is the same reason people watch real sports knowing there are only a few possible outcomes. There is something within us, some key piece of what makes us social animals, that makes it important to us to invest in this sort of event. We want to see someone win. We want to see someone lose. We want to root for our favorites and hiss at our opponents. We love the narrative, the combat, the emotional rush that comes when we hand ourselves over to the contest. And in good sports films, the contest is really just a metaphor for some grander struggle in the lives of the characters we watch. And in the case of Gavin O’Connor’s film “Warrior,” he’s attempted something I can’t honestly remember seeing before in a sports film, and he’s pulled it off in spectacular fashion, creating one of the year’s most rousing pieces of emotional entertainment as a result.
So often, I approach a film from a writer’s point of view, and when something bothers me for reasons of logic or character or narrative convenience or genre convention, it can ruin a film for me. With “Warrior,” we’re asked to swallow a few huge coincidences and near-impossibilities… and it never once occurred to me to be upset by it or to reject the movie as a result. Why? Because the film is crafted with such precision, and the performances in it are so raw and genuine and heartfelt, that the script issues that might bother me rolled right past. I bought into it early enough and completely enough that by the time the film reaches Atlantic City for Sparta, the giant UFC tournament that is the goal for both Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), I was invested and found myself reacting as if it were a real fight, as if the stakes for these people were real. That is not an easy thing to do to me in this genre. Gavin O’Connor has worked this side of the street before with his hockey film, “Miracle,” another example of how to do this well. “Miracle” was a very straightforward thing, though, a true-life tale that was incredibly well-known before he made the film. It’s hard to believe this is only O’Connor’s fifth theatrical, one of which never really got an American release, because this is expert, careful, beautifully nuanced filmmaking, and he pulls off a few minor miracles along the way.
First and foremost, god bless him for casting Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlan, father to both Tommy and Brendan. Nolte is the lynchpin that holds the film together, and it is one of his finest hours, especially in recent years. Considering his last three films before this were “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore,” “Arthur,” and “Zookeeper,” anything would feel like a step up, but this isn’t just a case of lowered expectations. The film opens with Paddy coming home late and finding Tommy sitting on the front steps of his Pittsburgh home. Tommy’s been gone for a while, and there’s an immediate hesitancy between them. Paddy tells Tommy that he’s got 1000 days sober, but it’s obvious that 1000 days can’t erase a lifetime of abuse and bad behavior. Watching Nolte and Hardy dance around each other, both of them barely able to articulate the ocean of experience between them, there is a tone that the film sets right away. Yes, this is a movie about UFC fighting, but the biggest punches it throws are emotional ones, and it lands almost everything.
Paddy didn’t just ruin one son. He also left some fairly deep scars on Brendan. The difference is that Tommy and his mother ran away, while a teenage Brendan chose to stay with Paddy because he had fallen in love. He ended up marrying the girl, too, and now he and Tess (Jennifer Morrison) have a solid life they’ve built together. Tommy has learned to hate both Paddy and Brendan for abandoning him, never trying to contact him, never reaching out. He was the one who watched his mother suffer from a protracted illness. He’s the one who was there for her when she died. He eventually went to war, and the guy who came back is not the son or the brother that Paddy and Brendan remember. Not at all. And between the three of them, there’s enough resentment and anger built up to burn down all of Pittsburgh.
Paddy was a fighter in his day, and he raised both of his sons to be fighters as well. In high school, he was Tommy’s wrestling coach, and before the divorce, Tommy was on track to set some records for how many wins he racked up. In the years since, Tommy’s become hard as rock, both inside and out, and all he wants from Paddy now is training. He wants to be a UFC fighter, and he has a specific goal in mind. He wants to enter the Sparta, a special tournament that is purely an invention of the film, and he wants that $5 million prize. Why? That’s one of the things the film gets right. After all, the stakes are what get us to root in a character in one of these, and if you stack the deck right, you’ll get an audience cheering for a character, right? Well, what if you set up one of these films so that both of the characters we’re following are given stakes worth investing in, and both of them are portrayed as people we like? And what if you create a situation where we know those people are going to end up facing each other at some point, and by the time they do, the audience isn’t given one clear side to root for? To me, that’s the smartest thing about the way this is built, and it’s also a really canny move for the world of MMA, many major figures of which obviously co-operated with the production. It underlines the idea that every fighter has a story, and every fighter walks in there with someone rooting for them. We aren’t given the easy out of a “Rocky” movie where you have bad guys who are so blatant that they feel like Bond villains. That’s fun in a different way, because you want to see Rocky dismantle the giant Russian douchebag or knock Mr. T’s teeth down his throat. Here, there is equal emotional investment on both sides of the equation, and that makes the final fight feel almost electric, like anything can happen. Hats off to O’Connor and his co-writers, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman.
The cast sells it, though, and considering the “they’re also brothers” construct of the film, if any part of this played as false, the whole thing would fall apart. That’s such a huge jump to ask an audience to believe, but Tom Hardy continues to prove himself to be one of the most captivating young actors working. I find it impossible to believe that the skinny English weenie from one of the worst “Star Trek” movies ever has transformed into this charismatic, physically dynamic performer who manages to convey emotional anguish with every twitch of his monstrous trapezoids. He’s like if James Dean and Arnold Schwarzenegger got in the Brundlechamber from “The Fly,” a storm of angst wrapped in a gym-rat’s exterior. Joel Edgerton, familiar to some genre fans as the young Owen Lars in the “Star Wars” prequels, is rapidly becoming one of the more interesting Australian imports in recent memory. His brother Nash is a blisteringly talented filmmaker, and Joel emerges here as a gifted, nuanced actor who stands toe to toe, literally, with both Nolte and Hardy, giving as good as he gets at every moment. He is ripped enough to be credible as a UFC fighter, but there’s a warmth and a gentle spirit to him that makes the family scenes with Morrison work. He could easily erupt into a giant movie star with just the right project, and this could be it. I would imagine audiences are going to want to know who he is after this, and I get the feeling we’re about to see a whole lot more of him. After all, he’s playing Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” if it gets off the ground, and he’s in the new “The Thing” prequel this fall as well. From certain angles, he looks like what would happen if you shot a full course of steroids into Conan O’Brien, but it’s precisely that quality that makes him so interesting. He’s not a typical leading man at first glance, but the more time you spend with him in “Warrior,” the more winning his quiet decency becomes.
And then there’s Nolte. Good god. I’m not sure how much of himself he poured into this movie, but it feels like he held nothing back. One of my greatest fears is that I’ll screw something up with my kids and they’ll grow up resenting me, and if there’s anything that keeps me from indulging my own worst instincts and running off the rails, it’s that thought. I am no longer responsible for just myself. There are now people in this world who could be irrevocably damaged by my bad behavior. Paddy Conlon is struggling to simply be a decent man at this point in his life, and it is not an easy thing. There’s something about watching a character reach a breaking point that is difficult in any good film, but watching a big man break, an icon of machismo like Nolte, is just shattering. There are moments in this when it feels like the acting stops and we’re just looking into Nolte’s darkest heart, and it is harrowing, gorgeous work by a guy who I think is frequently underrated. Looking at this damaged, rumpled lion, all collapsed in on himself, eyes narrowed permanently, it is hard to believe he was ever the shining golden beautiful young man from “Rich Man Poor Man” or “The Deep.” But knowing that was him once, it makes it even harder to see the ruin he has become, and it makes Paddy hurt even more as a character. If he’s not in the race for the Oscars in the spring, it just further reinforces what I’ve always said about the arbitrary and pointless nature of awards. This isn’t a performance that needs to be awarded to be great, but it’s so great that not giving it awards would be a crime.
When people talk about great cinematography, they often are referring to something that looks pretty, and certainly there is no lack of great compositions and moody lighting in the work here by Masanobu Takayanagi. The thing that makes his work here really special, though, is the careful and considered way he and O’Connor approach the MMA fights in the film. We’ve seen fights stylized a dozen different ways in movies, and there’s almost a code for how you have to shoot them now. As the sport evolves from what boxing was to whatever this is, films are going to have to reflect that. Directors tend to push things into the fantasy realm in the name of drama, but here, O’Connor goes in the other direction, trying to make it all feel grounded and honest and captured instead of choreographed. He also starts with the early fights as far back as possible, a spectator. Gradually, over the course of the film, we get closer and closer, until that last fight, where it is personal and close-up, and the way that works on the audience emotionally is impressive and considered. There’s nothing about this one that is accidental, and to me, it really underlines just how good O’Connor is. He is not a director I’ve paid close attention to, but that changes now. “Warrior” is one of my favorite films of the year, nakedly mainstream, even absurd in the way it reaches for emotional weight, but the skill with which it’s executed absolutely clobbered me. I give it my highest recommendation.
ADDITION: I’ve been informed that I’ve used the term “UFC” in complete error here, and that they did not participate in the film, and that it is a league, not a sport, and that I should use MMA instead. I will correct this in the piece, but make note of the error here. I’d like to point out that the mark of a successful (in my opinion) sports film is when someone who has no interest in or knowledge of the sport can watch it and get completely swept up in the drama of it without any technical knowledge. That’s me in this case, and I totally cop to it.
“Warrior” opens in theaters everywhere September 9, 2011.