I’m a fan of mixed martial arts, and have been for a long time. I can tell you what it was like to watch Royce Gracie on VHS with my dad when we didn’t know what he was even doing, only that he was a legitimate badass. Thus, I was probably predisposed to liking a movie about the sport before I went to the theatre.
That said, I had reservations about Warrior, most of which centered around Hollywood’s inability to do almost anything right. I couldn’t see how they could take the sport – one still mired in controversy in a lot of places – and tell an engrossing story to captivate an audience, not without portraying it as something between a three ring circus and a festival of gore and carnage.
Thankfully I put those reservations aside, because what I got was a movie that was a good movie, not just a good movie about mixed martial arts.
There are times…you forget that Sparta isn’t a real thing, and the fighters involved are creations of a writer’s imagination. That’s pretty commendable.
The film follows Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgarton) Conlon, estranged brothers who were broken up when their mother fled their abusive, drunken father Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tommy joined the Marines, Brendan moonlighted briefly in the UFC before becoming a high school physics teacher. For his part, Paddy got sober and simply wants to be forgiven for his transgressions after finding God.
It’s a tale as old as film itself, that of the Irish family torn apart by the bottle and driven into confrontational situations – in this case, combat sport – as a result, but it works here as well as it ever has anywhere.
Upon his return from the Marines, Tommy finds a gym and is turned onto MMA after years as an amateur wrestler. He begrudgingly enlists Paddy to help him train, as Paddy was his boyhood wrestling coach and helped him become the best in the state. Meanwhile, in another town, Brendan is struggling to make ends meet and is fighting in strip club parking lots to keep the wolves from his door.
Eventually both men hear of a two-night tournament, Sparta, that will award five million dollars to the winner. Circumstances conspire to put each in the bracket, Brendan as a last-minute replacement for a training partner and Tommy after becoming a YouTube sensation.
The filmmakers are obviously fans of the sport, going to great lengths to authentically display the training and competition, as well as how it’s covered by the media. There are times that the analysis, taken directly from ESPN’s ‘MMA Live,’ make you forget that Sparta isn’t a real thing, and the fighters involved are creations of a writer’s imagination. That’s pretty commendable.
The action is sometimes a bit over-the-top, but that has to be expected when watching a film about combat sports. Remember Rocky? In case you’ve never seen real boxing, it is literally nothing like those films.
In this case, watching a guy work for a submission isn’t for everyone, so there has to be creative license allowed to make it work. Director Gavin O’Connor does a good job of pushing things without making them too silly, and provides a pretty visceral look inside the cage.
However the real beauty of the film comes from the Conlan triangle, and the performances thereof.
Edgarton is solid as the straight-laced teacher who fights because he’s decent enough to do so, even if it’s not the way he’d like to supplement his income.
Hardy portrays Tommy as a brooding, unstable man capable of incredible violence and obviously shaken by his experiences at war, and it’s remarkable.
Nolte, however, blows both away as Paddy. His ability to be repentant of his past, yet heartbreakingly unable to accept that the bridges he’s burned cannot be rebuilt, make much of the time he’s on screen tough to watch. In a good way. Though it isn’t likely, a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars next year would be absolutely warranted.
Overall Warrior works on a few levels. As family drama it excels thanks to its stars. As a sports film, it’s above average because it finds an exceptional balance between sport and entertainment. It also plays well to MMA fans and non-fans alike, because it doesn’t bog itself down in technical details that would be lost on the average filmgoer, nor does it ignore the depth of the sport and the intricacies involved in succeeding in the cage.
Watching those old VHS tapes back in the day I certainly never expected to utter these words, but mixed martial arts has provided the world with a great film. Fan or not, this is one that should be seen.