Details: (M), 140 mins, In Cinemas 27 October 2011, English
Synopsis: The youngest son (Tom Hardy) of an alcoholic former boxer (Nick Nolte) returns home, where he's trained by his father for competition in a mixed martial arts tournament – a path that puts the fighter on a collision corner with his older brother (Joel Edgerton).
Tough brothers make MMA bouts a family battleground.
Watching Warrior, a mix of urban mythmaking, Rocky and action movie, you get the feeling that co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor is a filmmaker who is both an apt pupil of macho cinema and a tough guy poet who wants to say something about working class masculinity in crisis. Set in east coast blue collar neighbourhood’s in what was once the US industrial heartland, Warrior looks sad and withered; the colour palette – all washed-out deathly greys – tells you straight away that any hope here is hard won. One of the admirable things about the movie is its sad and melancholy mood, which over the film’s two-hour-plus running time becomes a test case for one’s tolerance of glum. Still, in a way it’s a relief to find a filmmaker willing to by-pass that relentlessly nagging upbeat tone of so many sport-themed pics. This is, though, a feel good experience – one based on taking a punch and liking it.
Here, the contest in question – mixed martial arts cage fighting – is hard, near suicidal bloody work; it’s about taking and giving punishment. And O’Connor and his team fight hard to give the impression that these ‘gladiatorial’ contests have little to do with conventional sporting competitions. Based on the meat-grinding action on view here, there’s people doing hard time right now all over the world for the very things that the athletes do to each other in this movie.
That, in a way, is O’Connor’s point: it takes desperate men to want to do this. And if your mind runs to metaphors (and the lore and moral economy of old movies, and I confess mine does) there’s no time wasted in seeing past the Warrior’s gritty surface and tapping its mythic source; like the guys in the old gladiator movies, the characters here, brothers no less, get into this blood sport because they are left with no choice – they can be ‘slaves’ or they can fight to redeem their honour and be free.
This is lofty stuff, but O’Connor plays it all in such a low, though angst-filled, key, you hardly notice how pretentious it all gets until it’s over. It certainly helps that the actors are good and the film’s plot is rooted in domestic high stakes (as opposed to metaphysical questions). He knows his sports movie code, too. There’s training montages (in split screen no less), lengthy battles in the ring and a soundtrack that pounds as hard as a fist. O’Connor’s technique is to stay in close; it’s more character piece than punch up saga.
Essentially, O’Connor and screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman combine a number of different plots that recall On the Waterfront, Raging Bull and the Stallone fight pics to make up Warrior’s sprawling canvas, which in the tradition of boxing ends with a climatic bout that brings all the story elements together.
In one sense the film is a family drama. Nick Nolte is Paddy, the dad, a once fine fight coach, who is now tired, a heavy drinker and full of loss and remorse over the way he lost his family to violence and drink. Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) are his sons and they both hate him and each other. Tommy is an ex-marine and a war hero. Brendan is a family man, a school teacher who ‘moonlights’ as a cage-fighter in order to beat the mortgage.
How father and sons come to take part in the film’s great set-piece (a mixed martial arts bout with a $5 million purse set in Atlantic City) is a question answered by a plot that pulls on America’s national woes: an unpopular war, an economy in free-fall, and a sense that the country offers few chances, the way it perhaps once did.
I’m not sure, though, that O’Connor’s real interest is in taking a ‘temperature of a nation’. With his sweeping camera moves and images of gaga fans, O’Connor seems wrapped up in the operatic grandeur of sports movies as well as in the elemental conflicts of father vs. son and sibling rivalry and the opportunities they present to him in staging angsty, scenery-chewing moments of repressed male rage. He likes this stuff way too much to get seriously political. Like so much recent American cinema this movie’s real subject is not about redeeming the social through action, but the heart through the therapy of forgiveness and ‘letting go’.
O’Connor is a filmmaker that likes his symbols, metaphors and literary allusions too; well, he must because the movie is full of them. One character reads Moby Dick (a story of an insane quest, obsession, madness and cruelty) and even the plot puns on therapeutic language; it’s not spoiling anything to say that the brothers ‘face’ their demons and each other in combat (in a cage, whoah!). That’s not to suggest the movie is especially sensitive or complex. Indeed O’Connor and co. have been criticised for being corny, and emotive. But that’s the kind of thing that gets the heart going and it’s an important pleasure principle for sports films. What does finally give the movie a faint stench of retrograde machismo worship is its insistence that the blood letting is righteous, necessary, purifying and essential to manliness. Warrior isn’t an ironic title then, it’s a celebration.
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