March 28, 2013

WARRIOR: Two Balboas For The Price Of One!

"Sam, he ripped the door OFF A TANK!."
Gavin O'Connor's Warrior frequently invokes the spirit of Rocky, but it almost feels as if someone watched that movie and asked, "What if there were TWO underdogs?"

While I love the Rocky franchise (except for Rocky V, whose existence I refuse to recognize) and boxing in general, I've never been able to get interested in MMA.  While the fights themselves are certainly brutal, there's an element of grace and intelligence to boxing that's always felt absent from the meatheads of the UFC.  That feeling is partially driven by the actual fights, but also by the type of crowd the sport seems to draw - legions of Tapout-clad douchebags who are only interested in a bloodsport where two mountains of muscle inflict as much damage on each other as humanly possible.  The closest I've ever come to enjoying the UFC was watching Rampage Jackson drop that one guy on his head in Joe Carnahan's batshit awesome A-Team movie.

That said, I kept hearing that Warrior was not the simpleminded onslaught of testosterone it appeared to be when I saw the trailers.  At the same time, my friend Jeff Schwartz made the suggestion that I should do Manly Mondays to counterbalance Wifey Wednesdays, and while I don't know if I'll do it every single week, I still love the idea.  My running tally of potential screenings contains enough war movies, samurai tales and cowboy yarns to keep me busy for months, but I figured Warrior would be a good test run.  I have no doubt that in lesser hands, the film would be an absolute middleweight (nyuk nyuk), but the B- script is elevated to impressive stature by four individuals.

First and foremost are Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as dueling brothers Tommy and Brendan.  Separated as teenagers, Tommy cared for his sick mother while Brendan stayed with his abusive, alcoholic father.  They haven't spoke or seen each other since, with Tommy serving overseas in the Marines and Brendan marrying his high school sweetheart, raising daughters and teaching high school physics.  But in the wake of the financial collapse, Brendan is in serious debt and about to lose his family's house to foreclosure.  Desperate for money, he turns back to the fighting career he abandoned so long ago.  Meanwhile, Tommy has returned home using his mother's maiden name, looking to do the same for reasons that remain cloudy for much of the film.  They each end up competing for a $5 million purse in a winner-take-all tournament called Sparta, but both are considered long shots; Brendan is replacing a fighter who's injured days before the tournament and Tommy is only there because of a viral video of him beating up a ranked fighter.  Of course they work their way through the tournament until they have to fight each other in the final round, and even though there's never any doubt who's going to win the money, by then it's clear that there's plenty more at stake between them.  That's an impressive feat considering that the two men have only a single scene together before they enter the cage.  (Seriously, they fight in a cage.  Another reason I have trouble taking MMA seriously.)

Warrior was released after Hardy made such an impression on audiences in Inception, but before his masked turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  And man, if you thought he was marble mouthed as Bane, just wait till you see him as here.  To be clear, that's not a slam; Hardy makes a vocal transformation here that is fairly astounding.  The more time we spend listening to Tommy's slurred speech as he trains in a dingy old gym with his now sober father (Nick Nolte), the more the Rocky comparisons become  unavoidable.  (The film even takes place in Pittsburgh, further lending to the feeling that we're seeing a similar story play out in a parallel universe.)  Tommy is an exposed nerve, a raw killing machine with a singular focus.  There's no art to his fighting, he simply pounds his opponents into submission.  He does no interviews or press for the tournament, he enters the cage with no fanfare and he exits as soon as the fight has ended.  He's a man on a singular mission to win, and he allows nothing else to distract him from his cause.

Brendan is the opposite side of that coin.  He doesn't possess Tommy's raw power, but he's a much smarter fighter.  Like Rocky Balboa, he's able to withstand insane levels of abuse against much more imposing pugilists.  Instead of knocking the other guy unconscious in a matter of seconds, he's in it for the long haul and uses quickness and leverage to pin his opponents and force them to tap out.  He enters the ring to Beethoven's Ode To Joy, a crucial component of the philosophy espoused by his trainer Frank (Frank Grillo, soon to face off against Captain America).  It's all about rhythm, serenity and focus, qualities which Joel Edgerton embodies wonderfully.  While Tommy fights to quell his inner demons, Brendan fights for the love of his family.  It's constructive, not destructive, and that gives him a remarkable inner strength.  Edgerton is an actor whose star has been on the rise for years.  He first appeared to American audiences as young Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels and he's come a long way since then, playing one of the SEAL team members alongside Chris Pratt in last year's excellent Zero Dark Thirty.  It's just a matter of time before the guy really breaks out and becomes a household name.

Recognition must also be paid to Nick Nolte, who does his best work in over a decade.  (He's obviously great in Tropic Thunder, but that's a much sillier barrel of monkeys.)  Paddy starts the film a thousand days sober, listening to Moby Dick on audio tape and longing to reconnect with his estranged family.  While Tommy wants his help as a trainer, he has no desire to rekindle any kind of fatherly relationship with the old man.  Brendan is of a similar mind, having been so burned by his father in the past that he's only willing to communicate over the phone or through the mail.  Tommy's arrival cracks open a window of possible reconciliation, and watching him struggle to win back his sons is absolutely riveting.  It's the kind of work that I honestly didn't think Nolte was still capable of doing.  After Warrior he was rightfully praised for playing an elderly horse trainer on HBO's aborted drama Luck.  While I haven't caught up with Gangster Squad yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that a decade from now we'll be able to point to this film as the beginning of a Nolte renaissance.

Finally, kudos to director Gavin O'Connor.  First and foremost, he stages the combat with a visual coherence that's sadly absent from most fight scenes these days.  Part of the challenge of shooting MMA is that the fights often devolve into a tangle of limbs that can be more than a little hard to follow, but O'Connor makes the most of his almost two and half hour running time to give these fights plenty of breathing space.  While I couldn't always tell exactly how or where Brendan had leverage on an opponent to make them tap out, it certainly looked painful as hell every time.  O'Connor's best known as the director of Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.  I think that's a really fun movie that knows how to create dramatic tension despite the fact that we all know how that movie's going to end.  O'Connor also gets a great performance out of Kurt Russell there, so if nothing else I now believe that the guy has a knack for coaxing the very best from his cast members.  

(Spoilers for the following paragraph.)  The film's biggest flaw is that the character development is a little lopsided, but that's done purposefully to maintain a sense of mystery around Tommy and his motivations for as long as possible.  Brendan is not only fighting to save his family, but he also has all of his students watching and cheering him along from a drive-in theater back home.  Brendan's got an entire support system rooting for him and if he loses, then his wife and daughters lose their home.  Tommy's goals and proponents are much more removed and abstract, so it feels obvious that Brendan would emerge victorious.  But by then, I don't really mind that I'm not surprised, as the journey was really more important than the result.

Gavin O'Connor was recently drafted to take over Jane Got A Gun after Lynne Ramsay declined to show up for the first day of shooting.  The movie sounds great, a western about a woman whose outlaw husband comes home riddled with bullets, forcing her to enlist the help of an old boyfriend before her husband's gang shows up to finish the job.  Fortunately O'Connor's inherited a cast that includes Natalie Portman, Jude Law...and Joel Edgerton.  Warrior not only far exceeded my initial expectations, but it's now got me itching to see what O'Connor can do with really well cast western.  And maybe if we're lucky, this will be the film that finally launches Edgerton to the next level.

Title: Warrior
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

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