BLOGS

Warrior: Gonna Fly Now

by Ethan Alter September 9, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Warrior</i>: Gonna Fly Now

It's no accident that the best sports movies are also underdog stories. While rooting for dominant winners -- whether it's the Yanks, the Pats or Pacquiao -- is an accepted and even encouraged practice in the real wide, wide world of sports, there's just more drama in cheering on the Rudy's, Rocky's and Bad News Bears' of the big screen. Warrior, the new mixed martial arts film from Gavin O'Connor (who knows a thing or two about rousing underdog tales, having previously directed 2004's Miracle, based on the epic American/Soviet hockey match at the 1980 Olympics) doubles our pleasure of rooting for the little guy by giving us not just one, but two underdogs, both of whom are facing off against each other in the final round of a high-profile MMA tournament hoping to bring home a million-dollar payday. In one corner, you've got Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former UFC fighter-turned-high school physics teacher that has climbed back into the ring in order to make the necessary extra cash (he's got a sick daughter, see) his public school gig isn't bringing in. And in the other corner, there's Tommy (Tom Hardy), a Marine recently back from the front who intends to turn his winnings over to the widow and children of his dead army buddy. But wait, here's the best part: these guys also happen to be brothers. How can you resist a set-up like that?

The truth is, you can't... or, at least, I couldn't anyway. And believe me, I tried. A Frankenstein's monster assembled out of bits and pieces of other iconic sports movies, Warrior unapologetically traffics in clichés and contrivances that often dare you to roll your eyes. Working class setting? Check. Alcoholic father figure? Check. Nervous wife and super-cute children? Check. Bouts against clearly superior opponents that these guys really shouldn't win? Big ol' check. And yet, the damn thing plays like gangbusters, largely because O'Connor (who co-wrote the script in addition to his directing duties) and his cast confront the clichés head-on without blinking. The word "gravitas" gets tossed around a lot, but Warrior has it in spades; it tackles its implausible premise with a seriousness and sense of purpose that proves as energizing as a three-mile run. If you aren't completely hooked by the time the brothers stare each other down in the ring, you're made of sterner stuff than me.

Part of the fun of the leads' star-making performances is watching them put their own spins on two iconic movie boxers. From the moment he enters the frame, hunched over and talking out of the side of his mouth, it's clear that Hardy is playing a version of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando's fighter from 1953's seminal On the Waterfront) before he picked up his one-way ticket to Palookaville. More a force of nature than a flesh-and-blood human being, Tommy's bottomless rage at the world often threatens to engulf him and Hardy expertly captures the character's ferocity, while also gradually allowing that mask to slip away, revealing the scared little boy -- the kid who fled his drunken, abusive dad with his sick mother, only to watch the illness consume and kill her -- inside the body of this hulking beast.

Edgerton, on the other hand, plays Warrior's resident Rocky Balboa, a kind-hearted family man whose chief weakness in the ring is a lack of self-confidence. It was love, specifically for neighborhood girl Tess (Jennifer Morrison) that made Brendan choose to stay behind when his younger brother and mom left. And while he eventually cut off all ties to his father and started a new life and family with Tess, he's never completely forgiven himself for that decision. Tommy certainly hasn't; turning back up in town after a tour of duty in Iraq, he grudgingly tracks down newly clean and sober dad Paddy (Nick Nolte) to help him train for the impending MMA tournament, but refuses to see Brendan. In fact, Hardy and Edgerton only share two scenes during the entire movie -- a charged nighttime encounter on a beach and the climactic title bout. It was a gutsy call on O'Connor's part to keep them apart for so much of the film, but it immediately heightens the tension whenever they do meet and keeps the audience invested in both of their stories, rather than rooting for one over the other.

The Rocky comparisons don't end with Edgerton's winning performance. With his grizzled face and world-weary voice, Nolte has the Burgess Meredith role as the wizened trainer, while Tess functions as the Adrian to Brendan's Rocky. (To be fair, Morrison gets to show more backbone than Talia Shire ever did. Still, her scenes are the movie's most noticeable weak link.) And the opponents Tommy and Brendan have to defeat before facing each other are variations on the boxers Balboa fought over six movies. There's an Apollo Creed-like bruiser, a Tommy Gunn-style street punk and a giant Russian a la Ivan Drago (played by real-life wrestling star Kurt Angle). The fights themselves are tense and exciting, although O'Connor chops up the action a little too much at times. (The boxing sequences in the Rocky films are often faulted for too many obvious phantom punches and an over-reliance on slow-motion, but it was nice to be able to follow what was going on.) It's probably worth noting as well that Warrior is a decidedly pro-MMA film, which may not please those viewers that find the sport's level of violence troubling. O'Connor doesn't exactly hide the toll the fights are taking on Tommy and Brendan's bodies, but he's also can't help but overtly romanticize the gladiatorial mindset they bring into each bout. (That rosy glow starts with the almost mythic title.) While it studiously sidesteps the ethical and moral questions raised by its sport, Warrior does achieve its primary objective: it gives you an underdog (two, actually) worth cheering for.

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