Force equal mass times acceleration.” Just in case you missed that lesson, Warrior chalks it up on the board for us. It might seem like a re-run of The (cage) Fighter, but director/ co-writer Gavin O’Connor’s (family cop thriller Pride And Glory, sports fable Miracle) movie turns simple physics into grand ambitions.
It takes its best shot at a modern middle-ground between Rocky and Raging Bull, throwing everything at upping the ante on the fight-film formula.
Swapping the sweet science of boxing for the ultraviolent world of mixed martial arts (MMA), Warrior then goes for double impact with not one underdog story but two – and sets them on a collision course.
In the red corner: hulking ex-Marine Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), driven by his demons to get back in the ring after washing up on his recovering alcoholic dad’s (Nick Nolte) doorstep for the first time in 14 years. In the blue corner: his brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a high-school teacher and family man who’s fighting to save his home from foreclosure.
So, two desperate men looking for a fight. And oh, wouldn’t you know it, there just happens to be an MMA tournament coming up offering a $5 million prize to “the toughest man on the planet”. Predictable, much? Don’t be fooled by the raw camerawork and angsty urban backdrop.
Warrior is a big, daft, watery-eyed Hollywood male-odrama. But if this is a film that blatantly pounds you with old-fashioned clichés, it also puts them in a chokehold and wrings them for everything they’re worth.
The foot-fist way
What we have here are two archetypes of bruised American working-class masculinity – concussed by war and recession – looking for brutal, brawling redemption.
Warrior wants to be mythic: Cain and Abel in a cage fight. It keeps shovelling on classical references, from Edgerton’s coach making him train to Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ to the fight tournament being named Sparta. But if O’Connor’s movie wobbles under the weight of these lofty thoughts, its honesty, craftsmanship and powerful performances keep Warrior’s feet planted firmly on the mat.
Again and again, scenes that should seem cheesy – Nolte having an alcoholic breakdown, staggering around listening to a Moby Dick audiobook – become emotionally convincing thanks to that cast.
Gargling his lines like an old man drowning in guilt, Oscar nominee Nolte is irresistibly moving, ravaged by past sins and – in the movie’s best scenes – taking Tommy’s unforgiving hate as his penance.
It’s up there with the 71-year-old’s best work. Excellent in Oz crime drama Animal Kingdom, Joel Edgerton is likeable and credible as the good-hearted Brendan. But he’s really a counterweight to the fascinating character of his brother – created with ferocious charisma by Tom Hardy. Ripped up inside and out, Hardy creates a hurt boy lost inside the body of a monster.
Guilt, rage, self-loathing, brutality, pain... He’s Jake LaMotta to Edgerton’s Rocky Balboa. If some of the plot turns are pure fairytale, expert MMA choreography and tight lensing ensure the cage fights pack an exciting, fresh, authentic wallop.
And in case you were worried all that emotional stuff might overpower the smackdowns, Warrior devotes the final hour of its grandiose 140- minute runtime to fists, feet and floorwork.
Here comes the pain
You can see more of the climactic fight in the DVD’s 11-minute split-screen breakdown, that uses storyboards, pre-visualisations, and rehearsal footage with the actors and their stunt doubles.
Looks painful? It was. Edgerton tore a knee ligament, while Tom Hardy broke ribs, a toe and a finger. According to the credits, even the stunt doubles had doubles. In a 20-minute featurette, Philosophy In Combat, MMA trainer Greg Jackson and actor Frank Grillo discuss making Warrior and reveal just how seriously everyone took it.
The group dynamic also translates to the strong audio commentary with O’Connor, co-writer Anthony Tambakis, editor John Gilroy and Edgerton. Expect plenty of good humour, anecdotage, theme mulling and technical chatter. “It’s a PG-13 movie, so we were allowed one ‘fuck’,” laughs Tambakis, during one of the implosive scenes between Hardy and Nolte.
“Gavin and I used to have exhaustive conversations: ‘When do we use it?’ We treated it like a grenade...” There’s just one deleted scene, but it’s one scene O’Connor wished he didn’t have to delete.
Sat in a diner with a sullen Hardy, Nolte tries to coax a conversation out of him (“Bang your spoon once for Afghanistan and twice for Iraq if it makes you feel any better”) before offering up one of his own ‘Nam experiences.
“Painful to see this being cut out of the movie,” sighs O’Connor in the commentary, revealing it was the first scene shot in the film and done in the first take, drawing a standing ovation from the crew. (There’s an extra layer to the drama here, too.
Back in 1965, Nolte was given a suspended 45-year jail sentence for selling counterfeiter documents, thwarting his desire to join the military and serve his country in Vietnam.) Finally, there’s a tribute to MMA promoter Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr, who died in a car crash shortly before Warrior began shooting.
One for hardcore UFC fans, really, but better than the mightily unfunny gag-reel. There’s no room for silliness in a man-weepie of this magnitude.
‘Warrior takes its best shot at a modern middle-ground between Rocky and Raging Bull’