Warrior (Gavin O’Connor, 2011)
That the ending of Warrior is predictable from the moment the two sequences that set up our two main characters have finished is entirely irrelevant to one’s enjoyment of this sublime piece of cinema, or at least it should be. Warrior is a simple story, simply told, that is carried on the backs of those two lead characters, and the acting ability of the actors who play them. There are many other things to enjoy about this movie indeed (even if you’re not an MMA fan, or even a sports fan in general, and I am living testament to this), but the centerpiece is the perfect performances by Joel Edgerton (The Thing) and Tom Hardy (Inception). Neither of them has carried a major role before; both are usually found in minor supporting roles. I predict that, after Warrior, that will change rapidly.
Edgerton and Hardy play brothers, Brendan Conlan and Tommy Riordan respectively. Both used to be MMA fighters. Brendan, after an ultimatum from his wife following a near-death experience, hung up the gloves and became a high school physics teacher; Tommy did…something else (the unfolding revelation of Tommy’s missing years is a major subplot in the film, so saying what would be a spoiler). Their father Paddy (Affliction‘s Nick Nolte, and I used that 1998 effort to identify him because that’s the last time I liked him in a movie this much) is a trainer and recovering alcoholic who, we get the impression, used to be something of a monster. Now all he wants is to be able to atone for his wrongdoings and make up with his kids. However, as Tommy says at one point in the film, “the only thing I have in common with Brendan Conlon is that we have absolutely no use for you.” All of which is important, but has nothing to do with the main plot of the film: an entrepreneur has set up a winner-take-all MMA tournament with a five million dollar purse. Both brothers are cash-strapped, and both of them decide to go for it, Tommy under his father’s tutelage, Brendan back with his old trainer Frank Campana (End of Watch‘s Frank Grillo).
The obvious parallel here, to me, is with Wai Man Yip’s ridiculous, but fun, 2003 comedy Anna in Kung Fu Land, which I watched a week or so before this without realizing how parallel the two films are; each is about half setup and then half competition (though Warrior spends much more time on character development even during the competition portion), with the same single-elimination winner-take-all tournament style, even with almost the same number of contestants (Anna‘s competition has fifteen, Warrior‘s sixteen), leading to a series of battles that expose the strengths and weaknesses of our main characters. The fight scenes are beautiful, the best I’ve seen since Girlfight, and with a refreshing lack of the ridiculous tendency in fight scenes these days to have slo-mo blood spray as soon as someone gets tapped with a daisy. But it’s all leading exactly where you think it is, so if you dispense with the fighting as a draw here, all you have is these characters and the familial drama that surrounds them. And Gavin O’Connor (Miracle), who also co-wrote with Anthony Tambakis (his writing debut) and Cliff Dorfman (Entourage), knocks it out of the park. The family-drama side of the script is impressionist, light-handed, gives just enough to get you filling in the blanks yourself right up until the end (and gives you enough clues that the unanswered questions at the end are easily answerable with a bit of thinking). It’s a very risky proposition, especially in a movie where the other half of the action has all the subtlety and impressionism of a sledgehammer to the face. And they pull it off tremendously. As I’ve stated a time or two, that is in no small part down to Edgerton and Hardy, who show the world that they are both forces to be reckoned with. This is an amazing piece of cinema, ironically one of the best-reviewed (83% at Rotten Tomatoes) and yet least-seen in first run (the movie made back just over half its $25 million budget), movies of 2011. If you were one of the legions that missed it in the theater, do what you must to see it now. It is a phenomenal film. **** ½