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September 11, 2011

8

Movie Review – Warrior (2011)

by HELEN GEIB

Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher, around 30 years old, married to his high school sweetheart Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and proud father of two adorable little girls. The family is in debt from medical bills and in danger of losing their house to foreclosure. Brendan’s first career was as a UFC fighter and to make some extra money he’s started fighting again, like the fight in the temporary ring set up in the parking lot of a strip club that gets him suspended from his teaching job.

Younger brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) is just back from a combat tour in Iraq with the Marines when he shows up on the doorstep of the old family home in Pittsburgh. He hasn’t seen his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), or his brother, since his mother left with him 14 years ago. Now he needs money, he plans to earn it fighting, and he says he wants his father, who was his coach when he was a high school champion, to train him.

Paddy is coming up on 1000 days sober, attending Mass and reading the Bible, and longing to be taken back into his sons’ lives. Alcohol-fueled abuse left a legacy of profound estrangement within the family. The bitterness is always at the surface with Tommy; Brendan’s hurt is no less deep for being cloaked in chilly civility. Matters come to a head when both brothers make it into a high-stakes Mixed Martial Arts tournament in Atlantic City.

The overarching tournament fighting plot and the tournament fights that dominate the film’s final third are a vehicle for the family drama of hard-won forgiveness and reconciliation. The fights are not exciting as action scenes, but are dramatic and interesting for what they reveal about the characters and the shifting ground of their relationships. Good pacing, a large dose of leavening humor from the ringside broadcasting team, and crowd-pleasing cutaways to hometown viewing parties- Brendan’s students, the guys at Tommy’s gym- keep the drama from getting too heavy.

The Conlon men’s dialogue has an admirable reticence that rings true to life. Brendan keeps things bottled up even from his wife- not incidentally, theirs is one of those uncommon movie marriages that closely resembles the real thing- and Tommy is the strong, surly type; Paddy seems to want to talk but his sons won’t give him the time of day. The film has something of the flavor of a mystery story as we gradually piece together what happened in the past and what they’re thinking and feeling now from cryptic-to-us, meaning-laden exchanges. The characters’ reluctance/ inability/ refusal to use words to communicate makes the fight drama genre a peculiarly appropriate choice.

Warrior eventually falls into the familiar trap of earnest dramas: piling on so many traumas that it isn’t possible to do justice to them all. There are simply a few backstory revelations too many, mostly concentrated in Tommy’s story. (The only other drawback worth mentioning is the use of shaky-cam for no evident reason other than that it’s the current Hollywood fashion.) Nevertheless, the film stays on track thanks to uniformly excellent performances, a resolute storytelling focus on the central drama, and resonant themes of fatherhood, brotherhood, and a man’s responsibilities.

3 1/2 stars


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The milieu and themes of Warrior bear similarities to director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor’s 2008 police corruption drama Pride and Glory.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sep 11 2011

    I was expecing this to be a decent film but everyone seems to be raving about it (which is now a good thing). This film features MMA and being an actual martial artist, I dislike MMA because it’s a boring sport utilizing mostly jiu-jitsu (ground-based fighting and grappling). But apparently there’s more straight-up fighting and apparently it’s really good. And taking your review as a recommendation I’d now like to see the film.

    Btw, Helen how do you comare this film to The Fighter, a film that I mostly dislike?

  2. Sep 11 2011

    I don’t have much comment to make about the fighting per se, which looked from my uneducated perspective like a mix of boxing and wrestling with some anything goes brawling mixed in. But as a vehicle for the drama and for comparing the brothers’ personalities (i.e., Brendan is a technical wrestler, Tommy goes straight for the knockout punch) I liked it a lot.

    Re comparisons to “The Fighter”, the films aren’t nearly as similar as you’d think at first glance (given the working class backdrop and brothers who are both fighters set-up) because the characterizations and story emphases are quite different. There are some of the commonalities you’d expect in any two movies in this genre, but beyond that the similarities are fairly superficial.

  3. Sep 12 2011

    Good.

    When I originally saw the trailer to The Fighter I was underwhelmed because of David O’Russel’s direction and mainly because of his choice in casting Mark Wahlberg (who can act well!). When I saw the trailer to Warrior all I could think of was, “Tom Hardy! I have to watch this because it has Tom Hardy!” Now I hear that it’s a good film and no one compared is to The Fighter so I’m happy. :O)
    Plus, Joel Edgerton is a terrific up and coming Autralian actor who’se terrific in Animal Kingdom and a great, recent Australian film noir called The Square.

  4. Sep 12 2011

    Well, I liked both movies about equally but for different reasons, so I hope you’ll like “Warrior” more than you liked “The Fighter”. :-)

  5. Sep 12 2011

    I liked Bale’s and Leo’s performances enough to recommend it as a DVD of the Week but not the film. I hated the characterization of Wahlberg’s character who, sadly, was the same in real ilfe, and I hated the ESPN footage style of shooting the fight sequences.

    Warrior seems more interesting to me, in general.

  6. Sep 14 2011

    Great review Helen. The cliches are there but Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte rise this above being just than just Rocky with MMA. It’s a well-made and emotionally gripping story that brings out some real gut-wrenching moments as well as the great knock-outs. Check out mine when you can!

  7. Sep 15 2011

    Thanks Dan. Your critique raises something I didn’t see my way clear to tackling in a review and will instead jump into in a separate comment.

  8. Sep 15 2011

    [SPOILER WARNING- and I apologize in advance for the length of this comment]

    As is often the case I saw “Warrior” with friends from my film club, including my co-organizer Gary. Gary made an interesting criticism that, though I ultimately believe misses the mark, led me to think more deeply about why I liked this movie so very, very much despite its flaws.

    He gave it a very positive review overall but thought that it was a missed opportunity to present a climactic fight between two men in whom the audience has an equal rooting interest (the story starts off in that vein but as it develops clearly shifts in favor of Brendan). I would agree wholeheartedly _if_ this was a tournament fighting movie.

    Before anyone says “but it is” or worse “but you said it was” let me explain. “Warrior” takes its structure from the fight genre and in that obviously important respect is a fight movie, but at its core it’s something far older and even more basic: a classical-Biblical-proverbial story of two brothers. It modernizes, complicates, and revises the old story in a number of ways, most significantly in making both brothers good (although one has buried his goodness deep under a consuming bitterness) and in laying the cause of the familial estrangement squarely at the abusive alcoholic father’s doorstep.

    Nevertheless it is that old story. The final fight is not about about who’s the better fighter, or who needs the money more, or who’s earned it by his never-say-die spirit, or who we want to win, or any of the other things tournament fighting movies are about. It’s about Brendan being a big brother again and Tommy accepting love and the father-son reconciliation that the brothers’ reconciliation presages… and a whole lot of other mushy emotional stuff. All of it fully earned by the skill, conviction, and truth of the writing and directing and acting.

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