I’m surprised it took this long for somebody to make a straight drama about mixed martial artists. It seems so obvious. It would inherently have all the same dramatic elements as a boxing movie (underdog reaching for the top, wife tired of seeing him beat up, society treating him as a dumb brute, then the fear of losing it all by a loss or an injury, all that) plus the novelty of an expanded repertoire of moves (kicks, chokes, armbars, throws, flying knees) and of being a popular newer sport that hasn’t been done to death in movies.
Also it could dip into the themes from martial arts movies if it wanted to: different cultures, styles and camps, secret moves, important traditions. I’m sure we’ll eventually get a biography movie or two out of the sport. One about the Gracie family bringing jiujitsu to Brazil and then to the world by inventing and dominating the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Or maybe even better, one about Ken and Frank Shamrock, two street kids who became brothers by adoption, trained by their dad, becoming legendary fighters in Japan and then the US, having a falling out… somebody’s gotta do that movie.
But this isn’t so much about the sport, it’s about a family, two brothers who participate in it and their fuck-up dad who got them started as a wrestling coach. They’ve all been estranged for years because dad (Nick Nolte) was an alcoholic wifebeater, Tommy (Tom Hardy) ran away with mom, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) stayed with him. Now the sons resent each other and hate the dad. But the movie starts with dad coming home late one night to find Tommy sitting on his stoop.
Dad is sober now and trying not to blow it. Tommy menaces him by asking him to have a drink and thinly veiling his hostility as friendly chitchat. It’s a tense scene, almost like Jackie Brown coming home and finding Ordell at her place and having to play like everything’s cool. Except it’s the guy and his own son. It’s like Tommy’s gotta get revenge on him for being a bad person by not letting him be a good person.
Meanwhile there’s Brendan, who used to fight in the UFC but now is a physics teacher. He married his high school sweetheart and has daughters. But his house is being foreclosed on so behind his wife’s back he starts doing small time cage fights for cash.
Tommy – who’s just back from Iraq, by the way, so there’s that too – has his own reason to need money. Through two separate sets of unlikely circumstances the brothers both end up fighting in the same big tournament created by a hedge fund billionaire putting up a $5 million prize. Tommy has his dad train him, Brendan won’t talk to him when they see each other, but Tommy’s even worse, being with dad every day but refusing to have a father-son relationship with him, or even a fighter-trainer relationship, if you think about it. He just torments him by using him for his talents and rubbing his nose in their failed relationship at the same time. No wonder he’s gonna be in that Batman movie, because here he’s a super villain masterminding a scheme for emotional vengeance.
The structure is kind of novel. First they set up the characters and the stakes and everything. But then instead of spending the whole middle section training and building up to the tournament they roll through the training quick and get right to it. I guess it could be a series of training montages with character development breaks (and maybe a part where they go to a bar and get drunk and start dancing real weird and get in a fight) but instead they do split screen and flip through multiple montages at the same time.
I really liked this movie – I just wish the camera operators had been allowed access to the fight scenes. I know I’m a broken record on this, but it would be irresponsible to talk about this movie without pointing out how fucking ridiculous it is to shoot fights this way. It’s gotten to the point where it almost seems like mainstream directors all got together and agreed to play a prank on everybody by making movies in a way that no reasonable person would seriously think was a good idea to make them. You might as well be doing a damn radio play at this point, or an abstract animation segment.
(this is gonna go on for a bit, I’ll mark it so you can skip it if you need to)
You might think they’re just trying to hide that these are actors and not fighters, but that doesn’t explain it. These two are obviously very dedicated to the training. If careful planning and editing can make it look like Uma Thurman can fight then I’m sure it could make it look like Tom Hardy can. I’m betting the choreography is good, because it’s by J.J. Perry (UNDISPUTED II, BLOOD AND BONE, THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL, HAYWIRE), but there’s no way to know from watching the movie. The style is to switch rapidly from the viewpoints of several people who can’t see well – somebody outside of the cage at a weird angle, somebody out in the crowd with their view blocked by taller people (I’m not kidding) – and intercut this with closeups of the fighters and numerous shots of the faces of people reacting to the fight. Basically we’re not allowed to see the fight clearly ourselves, we have to imagine it based on the expressions of characters that are seeing it clearly on various TV screens at bars and get-togethers.
Doesn’t pretty much everybody agree on this now, that they gotta stop doing this shit? Are there directors and cinematographers arguing “I would film it clearly and communicate a story, but people now days just don’t like understanding what they’re seeing”? If this was a documentary you would say “Yeah, it’s too bad they weren’t able to get any good footage.” Since it’s not a documentary, I guess you’re supposed to say “This is great, this is just what it would feel like to watch it if it was real and they weren’t able to get any good footage!”
In the world of realit if there’s a big fight you’ve been looking forward to and then somebody gets knocked out in the first minute or so, it’s disappointing. Maybe it was an amazing knockout, maybe your guy even won, but it’s like, shit, that’s it? All this build up and that’s all we get?
But at least you fuckin saw it! And they’ll replay it a bunch of times. Not in WARRIOR. You won’t see it. Sorry. This is not pay-per-view. This is modern cinema. We got different rules here, boy. You got a pretty mouth.
I don’t remember any parts in any of the ROCKY movies where I couldn’t tell which fighter was which. In this one there were very few shots during the several fights where you could clearly see who was who and what was going on. I never saw this director Gavin O’Connor’s hockey movie. Did they actually do a hockey movie where you can’t see what the hockey players are doing or which team is which? My hunch is no, but these days I can’t rule it out.
I know, WARRIOR is an Oscar bait drama, it’s not supposed to be BLOODSPORT. But the tournament is pretty much the second half of the movie. That’s alot of screen time dedicated to something you don’t think anybody wants to watch. It just seems like if you can’t learn how to shoot something like that you should make a movie about some other topic, maybe something where people stand still, like a spelling bee or something. Or start eating better and training with Nick Nolte every day until you’re ready.
this concludes the “these motherfuckers have killed the cinematic language” portion of THIS review only
O’Connor actually provided finishing funds for John Hyams’s great documentary THE SMASHING MACHINE, and has been a fan of the sport ever since, but he told Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment that “It’s not about MMA. It’s about forgiveness.” Therefore I will forgive him for making an MMA movie that I don’t think has a single Asian or Brazilian in it. We already got REDBELT for the meaning of mixed martial arts, and NEVER BACK DOWN 2 for references to different fighters and stuff. But it is kind of weird that these WARRIORs never talk about their fighting styles or anything. It’s one of those movies where third act exposition is mostly narrated by two commentators instead of shown (I think all sports movies have a commentator shouting “I’ve never seen anything like it!”) but I wish they’d talk more about the real stuff that gets talked about during fights, it kinda took me out of it.
Also to be honest, I’m not into MMA enough to be 100% clear what “Tapout” is (other than a t-shirt worn when the Ed Hardy one is in the wash) or why they keep showing that guy with the Sideshow Bob hairdo.
By now it’s gotta sound like I didn’t like this movie, but I honestly did. I just feel like it’s not living up to its full athletic potential. Once you get past that it’s a good melodrama. The reasons to see it are Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte. Edgerton continues his streak of likable, decent man’s men roles. I wonder if he might be the Australian Hollywood leading man they’re trying to make Sam Worthington into? (Nothing against that guy, I like him too.) Warning: do not think about how much Edgerton looks like a musclebound Conan O’Brien.
Hardy is more of a chameleon type of actor obviously. We’ve seen him skinny, hulking, British, gay, psychotic… here he’s playing Vin Diesel, right down to the giant neck muscles. He probly still had some of the muscle leftover from BRONSON and that’s good ’cause he needed to make the shoulders extra big to fill in the chip he’s got there. I don’t know too many other musclehead-assholes-that-you-feel-sympathy for characters to compare Tommy to, but he’s probly one of the more interesting ones.
Nolte is great too, a fragile, timid man trying to keep the monster inside. His face, his walk and his croaky, Popeye-ish voice say “life has beat the shit out of me for 60 years,” his eyes say “Yeah, I know, it was my fault, I’m not complaining.” So even as you hear indications about the unforgivable shit he’s done you feel bad that his son is just crushing him, and that he knows he has to just stand there and take it. When this duel meets its breaking point it’s devastating. Tommy gets what he wants and you’re like “Are you happy now?” and the answer is no, he’s really not. And then he’s at his most sympathetic.
The climactic fight has some topnotch macho melodrama that would’ve probly had me crying like a baby if the unconscionable direction of the previous half hour hadn’t pushed me away emotionally. So the real excitement is not the fights but the various showdowns between family members – Tommy ambushing his dad, Tommy and Brendan talking for the first time in years. In fact when the two brothers confront each other on the beach it’s actually shot like a fight scene, giving them big entrances marching toward each other. I almost want to think O’Connor meant to shoot those conversations like they were the real fight scenes, but that’s no excuse for failing on the other ones.
The extra edge this movie has is that it’s a little more nuanced and less manipulative than you expect. There are plenty of ways it could’ve ended to be emotionally satisfying but not as believable. This movie’s willing to have some touching moments but still leave things messy, even unresolved. I like it. It’s a manly way to be sweet, I guess.
* * *
SPECIAL NITPICKS AND SPOILERS SECTION
don’t read the rest if you haven’t seen it
This is stuff that didn’t really hurt the movie for me, but that I thought was humorously implausible.
*There’s no way that in an organized event like this a guy could keep fighting with a broken shoulder. This would have to be a sanctioned fight so there’d have to be a doctor there that could stop the fight. When they showed a doctor in the ring after the fight I thought “You’re not doing your job!”
But it’s cool how it’s a reversal of the KARATE KID or BEST OF THE BEST thing. Instead of a guy staying in the fight despite an injured limb he’s trying to get the other guy to stop because of his injury.
* Come to think of it, these guys only have 0-1 guys in their corners. No cut man or anything. Shoulda brought in Clint Eastwood. He could’ve given some tips about keeping the cameras calm, too.
* I love that this billionaire wants to find out “who’s the toughest man on the planet,” but apparently only among middleweights. Because the toughest man on the planet would obviously weigh less than 160 pounds.
That’s a problem with trying-to-be-believable fighting tournament movies in the post-UFC era. The original UFC tournaments with no weight classes, rounds or time limits and very few banned moves were as close as we’ll get. You can’t legally do that stuff anymore, and an illegal Kumite type situation isn’t gonna attract your Kobas and your Boykas. They’d only do it if you kidnapped their loved ones, but that would make this a real action movie, not a drama. Sorry hedge fund guy, but your money is worthless, you’re not gonna find out who the toughest man on the planet is.
*It doesn’t really make sense that nobody involved figured out these two were brothers until they were about to fight. And if it did happen nobody would believe it wasn’t set up.
* Alternate ending: It should end exactly the same, with the one brother helping the other walk backstage, but after it fades to black some text comes onto the screen that says, “Since they left the ring early neither fighter was awarded the $5 million. THE END.”
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.