- We've seen an abundance of underdog fight movies over the last few years, and admittedly it can be hard to get excited about yet *another* entry in the already-crowded genre. But, there's no denying that boxing lends itself to high drama, and that many a great movie has been mined from the intense, drama-filled, and high stakes world of championship fighting. Now, along comes Warrior, and the first thing that it does is that it modernizes the concept a bit by ditching old-school boxing for the currently-hot world of MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting, which for several years now has eclipsed boxing in terms of popularity and cultural relevance. Now, I am not a huge MMA fan, though I occasionally follow it, but I get the impression that MMA is viewed both by its fans and by the public as grittier, more brutal, and less regal than traditional boxing. The biggest star in MMA seems to be the promotions themselves, like UFC, and the personalities like Dana White who run them. I don't know that MMA has yet had a fighter who truly transcends the sport like others have done in boxing or even professional wrestling. And so I have to admit, when I first heard of an MMA-centric movie like Warrior, I imagined less of a Rocky-style drama and more of a Bloodsport-style violence-fest. Something a little less AMC and a little more Spike TV.
But here is where WARRIOR defies expectation and probably where the marketing went a bit wrong -- Warrior is indeed a Rocky-style melodrama. Not only is it in the style of Rocky, but it generously apes that franchise in terms of plot points and character types. But Warrior goes a step further. It literally throws every fight-movie cliche, and the kitchen sink too, and creates a sort of ultimate hybrid of Rocky, The Fighter, The Wrestler, and countless other greats of the genre. But wait ... don't dismiss the movie yet. Because somehow, through sheer force of will and persistance, Warrior makes it all work. Even as you begin to roll your eyes at the over-the-top melodrama, you'll find yourself caught up in the movie's go-for-broke exuberance. This one defies the odds, and lo and behold - it's a damn good movie.
Aside from being perhaps the first major movie about professional MMA, the other big twist in Warrior is that it's not merely about one underdog fighter, but two. Hey, you can't fault the movie for lacking ambition. Because man, it really shoots for epicness. Warrior introduces us to two men, and not just any two men, but two *brothers* - brothers who each, for their own reasons, are considering entering a major MMA tournament called Sparta, despite each having a number of factors working against them and limiting their chances of success.
The first brother is Brendan, played by Joel Edgerton in what is most definitely a break-out role. Brendan is a guy who had dabbled in MMA when he was younger, and who appeared in UFC, but who was more of a midcarder even in his prime. Now, he's been retired for five years and has taken a job as a high school teacher. But finances are tight, and Brendan's taken side jobs doing small-time fights for extra cash. When some of his students discover that he's still a part-time brawler, Brendan gets suspended from his teaching job and becomes desperate for cash. He's got a loving but frustrated wife (Jennifer Morrison) and a young daughter with a history of medical problems, and more and more it's looking like a full-time return to the octagon is his one hope for a big payday. The trick will be working his way back up through the ranks and gaining a spot in the elite Sparta tournament.
The second brother is Tommy, embodied with psycho-stoicism by Tom Hardy. Tommy was a high-school wrestling champ, but never fought professionally. Instead, he joined the military and, eventually, went AWOL, abandoning his troop in Iraq and changing his name to avoid prosecution. Tommy is a brute, and a hell of a brawler. He's also sworn to provide for the widow and son of his fallen army friend, and therein lies his motivation to enter Sparta.
The connective tissue between Brendan and Tommy is their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). Paddy was a fighter himself, and trained both of his boys to fight from a young age. But he was also a drunk and an abusive dad. When his kids were teenagers, Paddy's wife and his boys' mother left him, and Tommy went with her and became completely estranged from his father and brother. Brendan, reluctantly, stayed behind. He hated his father, but was in love with his high school sweetheart (and future wife) and didn't want to leave her. Thus formed a family rift that kept brother, brother, and father at odds for years. Only now, with both brothers entering Sparta - and Tommy coming back home to recruit his hated father to train him - does the family finally come together.
It's a hell of a story, crafted for maximum melodrama, and designed from the start to manipulate our emotions. It might not have worked, except that - whoah boy - Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte turn in career-best performances that completely elevate the film beyond what it might have been otherwise. Edgerton is fantastic - he's the level-headed teacher desperate for cash, the guy who was never considered great but just might have been underrated. Edgerton plays off of Morrison, off Nolte, off Hardy extremely well. This to me was a star-making turn for an actor I wasn't that familiar with, but who I now can't wait to see more of. And Hardy - wow - he turns in a monstrously great performance in this one that is just hard-hitting, scary, and intense as all hell. He plays Tommy as unstable, violent, and unshakeably badass. After this performance, there's no question that he's the right guy to mix it up with Batman in the sequel to The Dark Knight. This guy is just scary-good. Meanwhile, this is just a classic performance from Nick Nolte, and it's one that I think should warrant legitimate Oscar-buzz. We've all seen this type of role before - the volatile mentor, the washed-up trainer, the drunk father trying to make amends for his abusive past. But man, Nolte brings something extra to it here. And yes, there is an added poignancy in seeing a man who's had his share of problems bring some of those real-life struggles to the screen. Nolte is phenomenal in the film, a scene-stealer. And this feels like a reminder of what he's been, and an exclamation point on a career. There are some nice supporting turns as well - Morrison as Brendan's concerned wife, Frank Grillo as his old friend and trainer ... wrestling superstar Kurt Angle even shows up as a jacked-up Russian grappler (which is sort of weird, to be honest - the All-American gold-medalist as a sinister Russian? Um, what?). Again though ... a lot of the characters in this film *could* have been one-note and cliche, but the acting on display here, particularly from the three leads, is just off-the-chain awesome.
I found Warrior a lot of fun, and it's just a great audience movie. People were clapping during the climactic fight scenes, and the overall emotion and intensity of the movie were really ratcheted up to eleven during key moments. If anything, I think the movie almost packs in too much into its running time. Somehow, the novelty of two estranged brothers competing for the world title isn't enough - we get enough supplemental subplots to fill five other movies, from Jennifer Morrison's arc (predictably going from unsupportive to her husband's biggest cheerleader), to the school principal who suspended Brendan slowly coming around to support his new star teacher. The movie just barely manages to glue everything into a cohesive whole, but I do think some things end up getting skipped or glossed over. One of the biggest holes in the film, to me, was the overall lack of explanation of how Brendan and Tommy were able to come from nowhere and each do so well in the Sparta tournament. Movies like Rocky Balboa and the recent TV series Lights Out did a nice job of explaining some of the technique that allowed their underdog characters to perform so well in the ring. I wish Warrior had gone a little more in-depth in that regard. Tommy at least comes off as an unstoppable brawler, but Brandan's winning streak is a bit more puzzling and random-seeming, especially given his age and lack of previous success in UFC. The movie barely delves into the various clashing styles and techniques that make MMA unique, which left me a little frustrated - as I was hoping for more explanation of Tommy and Brendan's improbable success. I also felt that, again, the movie just felt rushed in some key moments. The revelation to the public and MMA community that Tommy and Brendan were, in fact, brothers - that should have been huge. But the reveal felt underplayed, undercooked - nowhere near as dramatic as it should have been, as the movie seemed rushing by that point to get to the big finish. Similarly, I actually thought the film ended too quickly. I would have liked some additional closure with regards to Tommy, Brendan, and their fractured relationship with their father.
Overall though, Warrior was a superbly entertaining film that most definitely had a big-fight level of drama, intensity, and emotion. With three outstanding performances at its center, thrilling fights, and involving family drama, WARRIOR is certifiable championship material, and up there with the best fight films of the last few years.
My Grade: A-