The Oscars love fight movies. In the last decade or so, whenever one has featured an A-list actor or director, you could guarantee at least one nomination. Just a few of these include Ali (2001), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Cinderella Man (2005), The Wrestler (2008), and The Fighter (2010). I’ve seen all but one, and although I’ve liked all of them, none have earned more than four stars out of five from me. (The four starred flicks are The Fighter and Million Dollar Baby.) Furthermore, I don’t think I would watch any of them again. Seen them; once was enough. And then there is Warrior, a film that, if anyone at the Academy has a brain, will be the next fight flick to earn Oscar nominations. For me, it stands head and shoulders above the aforementioned films, because not only have I given it a perfect score – five stars out of five – but I have already seen it twice since it opened. (Once on opening day; another time on Sunday.)
Because I’m not much of a “boxer” fan, and really not a sports movie fan, I vacillated about seeing Warrior, especially once I read that it had a running time of 140 minutes. I imagined it having a lot of boring, bog standard boxing matches that would drag on and on, and there would be me, checking my watch every five minutes wondering when the torture would end. But I wanted to see SOMETHING on Friday, Sept. 9, so I checked the Twitter feed on Thursday night. I was shocked to see so many glowing reviews. “OK,” I thought, “let’s do this.”
First off, Warrior is a fight movie, and yet, it really isn’t. It has fighting in it, but it’s first and foremost an intense family drama that just happens to take place in an UFC, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) universe. Co-written and directed by Gavin O’Connor, Warrior centers on the fractured relationship between a father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), and his two grown sons, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton). Paddy, a war veteran, was, until recently, an abusive alcoholic. (He’s coming up on 1,000 days sober.) And although he’s a “changed man” – he is a Bible-reading churchgoer who spends his free time listening to Moby Dick on tape – neither of his sons can forgive him for being the abusive alcoholic that tore apart their family so many years ago. [To escape her beatings, the family matriarch took Tommy with her across country. Her intention was to take Brendan, too, but he chose to remain behind so that he could be with his girlfriend/now wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison).]
The film begins with Tommy returning home after 14 years. He shows up at his father’s house, but the “reunion” doesn’t go well. Rather than stay with his father, he bunks down at a local gym. One day, while working out, Tommy offers himself as a sparring partner for the Mohawk-sporting “Mad Dog” (Erik Apple), and, to everyone’s amazement, he knocks out the fighting champion. The video of this sparring match goes viral. Meanwhile, Brendan, a high school physics teacher, finds out that the mortgage on his home has gone “upside down,” and if he doesn’t come up with more money, it will go into foreclosure. Between him and his wife, they are already working three jobs. What options are left? Enter Sparta, a mixed martial arts competition held in Atlantic City. Its objective is to reveal the world’s toughest man. The purse? $5 million. Both Tommy and Brendan see an opportunity in this, and they begin training: Tommy with his father, the man who, long ago, fashioned his son into a wrestling champ; and Brendan with his long-time friend and former coach, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo).
From the synopsis, Warrior might sound like a rip-off of Rocky (1976) or The Fighter (2010). And superficially, yes, it has a lot in common with every other fighter picture. For instance, you get the obligatory shots of the guys working out, preparing for that final showdown. There’s even an underdog element to Warrior. But this film rises above all of the others. Why? The characters and the tragedy of their situation. Alcohol made Paddy a horrible father and an even worse husband. But before we can blame him, we have to take into consideration the fact that he’s a war veteran. He probably came home, traumatized by what he had experienced and seen, and with no mental health care available, turned to the bottle for solace. His alcoholism lead to a terrifying environment for Tommy and Brendan, who were literally torn apart during their teen-age years. Resentment, anger, guilt, etc. built up. Tommy enlists with the U.S. Marines, has his own traumatic experiences, comes home with no mental health care, finds solace in prescription medication and alcohol. The cycle repeats. The only way that these men know how to function and communicate is through violence. So the end of the film isn’t just a brutal and intense fight between brothers … it’s their way of bashing away all of the years of pent up anger, sadness, frustration, and loss. The first time I saw Warrior, I found it very cathartic, and I cried off and on. At one point near the end, I came to the conclusion that this had to be the saddest film I had ever seen. A true tragedy. I would say that it has more in common with Fight Club (1999) than it does Rocky.
Since the majority of fight movies are about boxing, I found Warrior to be a breath of fresh air. Mixed martial arts fights are exciting to watch, because each fighter has his own style. One guy might engage in a lot of kicking; another will use mostly wrestling moves. Watching this film has made me want to check out UFC matches. But fighting can only take a movie so far. Most fight movies are fun to watch, but they aren’t Oscar worthy. For authenticity’s sake, the casting director often casts real fighters in the lead, and I can’t think of one who is a great actor. Warrior is different. The casting director didn’t go for real fighters nor did she cast A-listers. Instead, she chose two relatively unknown actors – Hardy, who is British; Edgerton, who is Australian – and a “washed up” veteran, Nolte, and with this combo the director makes absolute magic. This is an acting tour de force.
I fell in love with Hardy back in 2002, when he played Praetor Shinzon, the bald “villain” of Star Trek: Nemesis. He has had many more TV and feature roles since then but his “stand out” performances have been in RocknRolla, playing Handsome Bob; Bronson, playing “Charles Bronson;” and Inception, playing Eames. (He was supposed to play the lead in a remake of Mad Max/Road Warrior, but that project keeps getting stalled. Next up for him is Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.) Hardy is the go-to guy for unsavory, violent, even despicable characters but he never makes them one-dimensional. He has a knack for finding and exposing their vulnerabilities, thus making them seem lovable. For instance, Tommy says some really awful, soul crushing things to his father, and yet, you forgive him, because you can tell that he’s really hurting inside. Tommy doesn’t say a lot, but when he does he wounds people. And when he fights, he’s like a beast unbound. You can feel the rage, the sadness, the guilt, the regret … it all comes out whether he’s speaking, fighting, or just sitting quietly. It’s heartbreaking to watch him, especially at the end. He is a broken man in desperate need to fixing. Tommy is a complex character: A dutiful son who nursed his dying mother. A soldier who exhibits bravery and strength but who also was a deserter. A loyal friend who keeps his promises. A son and a brother who probably wants nothing more than reconciliation but who lets his pride and hurt stand in the way. For this role, Hardy has bulked up to impressive levels. It is said that Tommy tore the door off of a tank, and we believe it. He’s a force of nature.
Brendan is just the opposite of Tommy. He’s a hard-worker, a good father and husband … he’s intelligent, and he has the capacity for forgiveness and kindness. He’s a former UFC fighter who went legit for the sake of his life and his marriage. The only reason he’s fighting again is to save his house; it’s for his family. Brendan and Tommy provide a nice contrast to each other, and the actors couldn’t be better in their respective roles. Edgerton has been acting since the mid-1990s, but he got his “break” playing Owen Lars in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). The first time I sat up and took notice was from his performance in Acolytes (2008), a small Aussie crime drama in which he plays a mustached serial killer. (He’s practically unrecognizable in this part. He has that “voyeur, porn-loving freak” next door look about him.) He followed up a year later with another impressive turn in Animal Kingdom (2010), playing Barry “Baz” Brown, the only really “nice” guy in the operatic Aussie crime drama. Next up he’s in The Thing prequel and he’s playing Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Both he and Hardy deserve acting nominations for Warrior. And I’d love to see them in another film together. They have amazing chemistry.
I have a soft spot for Nolte. I think the first film I saw him in was Cannery Row (1982), and I thought he was superb. His career has had its ups and downs, and he’s had a very public battle with alcoholism. In interviews, he claimed that playing Paddy was cathartic. You can almost see him exorcising his demons in Warrior, and he delivers a knock out performance, probably the best of his career. His character is a man with a regrettable past, and as much as he tries to move forward, he can’t. The damage he’s wrought is too deep. Your heart aches for him. He has a child-like enthusiasm when Tommy shows up; he’s almost like a dog excited to see his master return from work. And then Tommy verbally knocks him down, crushing him. It’s almost too much to bear at times. (Hence, why I thought that this must be the saddest film ever made.) There are two sequences – both of which include Hardy and Nolte – about three quarters of the way through the film that sucker punched me both times I’ve seen the film. If these sequences don’t earn Nolte an Oscar, someone at the Academy needs knocking out. This is raw stuff we’re witnessing. What makes it even more tragic is the fact that Tommy and Paddy have so much in common – both are traumatized war veterans; both have substance abuse issues – and if they could just put the past aside, they could heal each other. But this is going to take a lot of change to make that happen.
Warrior has a lot of layers to it, which is why after I saw it on opening day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to see it again. I didn’t love it as much the second go round, but it still affected me deeply. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, Warrior is undoubtedly my favorite. It has award-winning acting, a tremendous screenplay, and intense and exciting fights. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It is a perfect film that rivals The Fighter and The Wrestler.
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