Warrior (2011)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

  

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn, Maximiliano Hernandez, Bryan Callen, Sam Sheridan, Fernando Chien, Kurt Angle, Erik Apple, Noah Emmerich, Vanessa Martinez, Dan Caldwell, Timothy Katz, Anthony Johnson, Nathan Marquardt, Jake McLaughlin, Gavin O’Connor, Capri Thomas, Lexi Cowan.
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Director: Gavin O;Connor
Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2011
Home Video Release Date: December 20, 2011
Box Office: $13.7 Million
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Mimran Schur Pictures, Solaris, and Lionsgate.

Written by: Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman; Story by Gavin O’Connor and Cliff Dorfman.

 

“So you found God, huh? That’s awesome. See, Mom kept calling out for him but he wasn’t around…” – Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy).

Surprisingly avoided and ignored in its September 2011 theatrical run, I finally had the chance to catch up with Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior upon its release on home video and I kick myself for not experiencing it in theaters.  A flawed but impactful film, Warrior is a rather novel and refreshing sports drama, opening up the world of Mixed Martial Arts to a fictionalized story of two brothers, lost in the maelstrom of abuse and family tensions, who are reunited in the most improbable of ways – by competing in a $5 million MMA star-making tournament known as Sparta, the likes of which has never been seen before.

The lives of brothers Brendan and Tommy Conlon (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, respectively) collided headfirst with a brick wall when deplorable abuse, perceived nepotism, and alcoholism destroyed their family from within.  While we are not privy to flashbacks of what actually transpired, we learn in disquieting fashion the basic details of what led Brendan and Tommy to extricate themselves from their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte)and his control.  Brendan met a girl in high school and pursued those avenues, while Tommy and his mother fled.  They went North and then detoured West, never revealing their locations to Paddy or Brendan, after Brendan refused to travel with them and stayed with his girlfriend’s family.  Paddy dove back into the bottomless sea of alcohol, Brendan fell in love, and Tommy enlisted in the Marines, leaving his mother to try and survive in Tacoma, Washington.

All of this is revealed after the initial beginnings of Warriorintroduce us to the brothers as they exist in present-day life.  Tommy drinks from a paper bag on the doorstep of his father’s house, catching Paddy stunned and struggling for words to accentuate what he is seeing before him, after 14 long years.  Paddy offers to Tommy that he is nearly 1,000 days sober and Tommy responds by taking a healthy swig of whatever drink he has masked in his bag.  Paddy lets him in and works the peripheral of his home, carefully allowing Tommy to reacquaint himself with bad memories and the baubles of his past.  Tommy verbally retaliates and Paddy sits crumpled in a recliner, listening to it all, agreeing, and internalizing his shame.

Across town, Brendan is now married to Tess (Jennifer Morrison), and they have two young daughters, one healthy and one battling a recurring heart ailment.  Medical costs and untenable surgical bills have hobbled the progress Brendan and Tess have made as a family.  Brendan supplements his daytime work as a high school physics teacher and stays in excellent shape to take the occasional odd bouncer’s job for money.  Tess is a waitress and distressingly, Brendan learns that his family is faced with the likelihood of foreclosure as Brendan’s friend and banker (Noah Emmerich) reveals that there is little else that can be done to assist the young Conlon family.  Drawing on his momentary and fleeting success as a middleweight fighter with the UFC, Brendan seeks out a strip club which is hosting a low-rent MMA tournament for a purse of a few hundred dollars.  Brendan wins the tournament and, in turn, angers Tess not only because he lied to her about where Brendan was at, but also because she remembers all too well that Brendan’s UFC career came to an abrupt end with a frightening scare in the hospital, which likewise forced Brendan to hang up his gloves for good.

Tommy revisits a training facility from years long past and shockingly, after a minimal sparring season with a punching bag, decimates a nationally known and recognized MMA fighter known as Mad Dog Grimes (Erik Apple).  Tommy’s fearlessness, stunning power, and talent lead the facility owner, Colt Boyd (Maximiliano Hernandez) to sign  Tommy in an effort to ready him for that upcoming Sparta tournament.  When faced with the opportunity to compete for the $5 million purse, Tommy surprisingly turns to his father, Paddy, and wants his assistance in training him as under his tutelage in high school, Tommy went unbeaten as Pennsylvania’s best amateur wrestler of all time.

After his strip club fight victory reached the ear of the school superintendent, Brendan has been suspended without pay.  Against Tess’ blessing, Brendan revisits Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), a longtime friend and trainer, and asks him to work with him once again.  Campana is hesitant, but after much convincing and assurances that Tess will not blame him for whatever comes of their sessions together, the two are back at work with Campana slotting him as an understudy to a highly touted new fighter he has focused his energies on.  Brendan could care less and is simply thankful for the shot.

Warrior‘s Blu-Ray and DVD covers essentially give away a huge, but all too obvious, reveal which is that **SPOILER ALERT** Brendan and Tommy eventually meet one another in the ring.  How they get there is a bit too impractical to be completely believed, but director Gavin O’Connor ratchets up the tension and anxiety with similar elements found in today’s UFC and WWE telecasts.  While UFC fights are not predetermined and WWE matches are, both organizations implement the same use of heels and babyfaces, inspirational good guy stories and crowd-hating bad guys to create a spectacle of sports entertainment that millions cannot resist.  Warrior recreates that same level of anticipation with its fictional Sparta tournament and enigmatic fighters named Midnight Le (Anthony Johnson), Karl Kruller (UFC fighter Nathan Marquardt), and the feared and undefeated Russian master Koba (Olympic champion wrestler and professional wrestling superstar Kurt Angle).  Gavin O’Connor nails the hyperbole and exaggerated salesmanship of these events perfectly.

Even if it is obvious at about the 30-minute mark or so where Warrior is headed, the film returns time and time again to a stunning and unexpectedly moving performance given by Nick Nolte as family patriarch Paddy Conlon.  I may long forget Brendan and Tommy’s individual stories, including a clumsily told and largely unnecessary military backstory involving Tommy’s past, but I will not shed the memory of Nolte’s performance anytime soon.  I have seen Nolte countless times and in his heyday he was a completely enjoyable and talented actor, able to maneuver his way through comedy, action, and drama with a great deal of ease.

Nolte however succumbed for a time to his personal demons, which became public, and he famously crashed and burned his career with an infamous mugshot and a debilitating addiction to drugs and alcohol.  As Paddy, Nolte relives all of that here and his character has very little to say when reminded time and again of how much his addictions and selfishness ruined the lives of those he cares the most about.  While one scene played for dramatic effect late in the film threatens to derail much of the good that has come before it with Nolte’s work as Paddy Conlon, the fault lies with the mawkishness of the scene as written and definitely not with Nolte’s performance.

Warrior is a galvanizing sports drama that, like many other great sports dramas, turns a blind eye to predictability and tries to deliver a rousing and inspirational overcoming-the-odds type of story.  Warrior meanders a bit too much, seems to repeat itself in key moments, but has a heart and awareness about it that makes a great deal of this work almost in spite of itself.  Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton foster a strong connection as brothers on screen (ignore the slipping British and Australian accents please…) and Nick Nolte, as mentioned, is phenomenal and humble.  I enjoyed Warrior immensely, and while I wish it had not made such a blatant effort to rip at my heartstrings, it remains a mystery to me that this film could not find a bigger audience.

Should I See It?

YES

Even if you know where Warrior is headed, it is a film very easy to get swept up in and invested in emotionally.  The fight sequences are well choreographed and (mostly) believable and Gavin O’Connor again shows that he knows how to tell an underdog story in a compelling manner.

Nick Nolte.  As described above, he may provide a supporting turn behind co-leads Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, but Nolte’s disgraced former trainer, coach, and discarded father is stunning and unexpected for a film like Warrior.  I have no idea if Academy voters will consider his work here, but they absolutely should.  Easily the best performance here and one of the finest of 2011.

Fans of MMA and sports films in general should swoon for this.  MMA fans especially will appreciate the fact that their sport is given a respectful and fair presentation and not made out to be a cartoonish spectacle, suitable for mockery.

NO

At times, especially in the scenes near the end, Warrior loses its punching power and will likely feel overlong and delayed to the most uninterested or unimpressed of viewers.

The details of the Sparta tournament make no sense and if you allow it to, will consume you something fierce.  How are fighters selected?  It would appear that people can petition or write to the promoter to allow them in, but then why does Colt Boyd land two fighters in the tournament if it is not a regional tournament?  A simple phone call is all it takes for Brendan to be included when Campana’s best fighter gets hurt?  Would the due diligence of the television networks and ringside announcers not clue in to Tommy and Brendan being brothers, both competing for a $5 million tournament prize?  Oops, sorry.  See what I mean?

The emotional moments will likely present to some people as manipulative and pandering.