Review: Warrior

Warrior flew completely under the radar for me.  In fact, I pretty much dismissed it.  There haven’t been a lot of films to tap into the modern revolution of MMA (mixed martial arts) and certainly none that are mainstream (the only one that comes to mind is the highly underrated “Red Belt” from David Mamet).  There was next to nothing that held any real interest for me.  I don’t watch UFC or any of the real life fights.  Personally, I have studied martial arts and even taken up to level 2 combatives (The U.S. Army’s answer to MMA training) while in the Army.  I still box and enjoy every aspect of martial arts training, but simply don’t get into watching it in the competitive arena.

The trailer for “Warrior” piqued my interest, but I still chalked it off as a Netflix rental.  Then, the reviews began to filter in, calling it the new “Rocky,” etc.  Generally, I agree with the good critics.  With that, I made the decision to see what all the hub-bub was about.

And, it’s well within its rights to have earned the kudos it’s garnered.  In other words, it’s as good as they say.  Possibly better.

Warrior isn’t a perfect film, but at the same time I don’t think there’s too much to improve upon.  I only have a few nitpicks, which I’ll address.  However, this is a film that is well worth the write up, the recommendation, and the supercharge it deserves to be a box office success.  I don’t care about Hollywood making mad loot on this film, but I think it’s a worthwhile trip to the theater, especially if you were like me and wrote it off as a rental.

There are a lot of familiarities here, but none of them hindering.  Two brothers, played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, grow up away from each other after being separated as teenagers.  Their family was split when their alcoholic father, played masterfully by Nick Nolte, pushes their mother to take the boys and split.  However, Edgerton’s character stays with the dad as he is in love at the time, eventually marrying the girl in question.

There are no flashbacks to convey this information, just pieces that connect together as the story flows.  And that’s exactly what the story does.  It breathes and flows.  In an age where movies have become a whiz-bang, chop and cut edited machine, rather than an unfolding story, Warrior storms the gates and let’s us know that the craft of telling a story is not forgotten.

One may think that Warrior would work as hard and fast as possible to “get to the good stuff,” (i.e. the fights).  Fortunately, Warrior is not a one-trick pony.  Warrior is a multi-layered film that builds from the ground up.  It is a film that earns its moments with careful precision, allowing characters to speak, to think, to BE.  All too often, films are cut in a manner that never allows anything to linger too long, catering to the short-attention-span-modern-day-instant-gratification crowd.  Not Warrior.  It lets you know that it’s telling a story and that getting to the ending is going to be a journey, not a wait.

Filmed in gritty realism, the film follows the lives of Hardy and Edgerton, both of whom are struggling with their own demons.  Both are estranged from their father, who has obviously wounded them deeply in the past.  Hardy shows up out of the blue on his father’s doorstep one day, confronting him for the first time in years.  Having served in Iraq as a Marine, Hardy harbors a secret that is slowly revealed throughout the film regarding his involvement there, which helps to cement his motives for competing.  His father (Nolte) is now in AA and is struggling to make amends for his past behavior.  It’s to no avail in the eyes of Hardy, who is cold and dismissive to his obviously remorseful father.

However, he has a request; he wants his father to train him for an upcoming MMA bout, the superbowl of the MMA if you will, called “Sparta.”  His father was at least good at training, but Hardy makes it clear that reconciliation is not an option.  Only training.  Nolte tries to squeeze in moments of bonding throughout, but Hardy stops him in his tracks.  Sometimes the wound is just too deep.

Edgerton is a high school physics teacher (and former UFC fighter) who has the respect and admiration of his students, especially when they find out that he’s moonlighting as a fighter in local competitions.  This raises the awareness of the school board and gets him suspended.  Coupled with being upside down on his mortgage and having a daughter with a heart condition, Edgerton is forced to go back into the ring to earn money just to keep them afloat.

Warrior is not about the fighting.  It’s not about training or cool moves.  In fact, no moves are particularly addressed.  This is not a film about MMA at all.  That’s the most surprising fact.  This is truly a film about characters.  It’s a film about redemption, struggle, forgiveness, and family.  MMA is merely the platform used to tell the story.

I won’t even call the scenes in the film “scenes,” as they’re more like “moments.”  Sometimes they linger, letting us see the struggle in each character’s face.  We hear entire conversations, rather than snippets of dialogue.  It’s such a welcome surprise to be able to see and hear characters interact.  And the topper on the cake is that everyone is utterly convincing in their roles.  I never rolled my eyes at anyone, never felt out of place.  All characters spoke and acted in a manner that conveyed we were living in their world, rather than sitting on the sidelines and watching things happen.

Tom Hardy, who you may remember from last year’s “Inception,” is an imposing force with a deep, dark stare and physical presence that would cause anyone pause.  He emits a sense of fear, anger, and hatred in every scene, his very demeanor a living, breathing force.  Edgerton starts off as a very strong, but self-deprecating, yet confident individual, but with a very different, more violent side to him.  He is full of fire and passion, which is unleashed each time he steps in the ring.  Through sheer perseverance and skill, Edgerton emerges victories as he works his way to the Sparta competition.

The training sequences are built in a split screen montage of events, which are much like we’ve seen in many like-minded films.  Although the film isn’t about MMA, it would’ve been nice to touch on some of its allure, history, and a few of its signature moves, which I feel would’ve enhanced the audiences understanding of the craft.  We don’t need a “crane kick,” but an explanation of some of the more defining moves would be beneficial to the average moviegoer.  It’s a minor nitpick, but one I think is worth mentioning.

The only other issue I have is that while the fight scenes are good, they aren’t particularly great.  I think part of that could be solved with the aforementioned explanations of the fighting style, but it could also be helped with a little more innovative filmmaking.  Director Gavin O’Connor films everything else quite well, but he relies too much on the “from the sidelines” vantage point of the fight scenes.  We’ve all seen that before.  It would’ve been beneficial to take us to the mats.  Show us a little more perspective.

And that’s really my only issue.  Everything else is solid gold.  This is an emotionally charged film, one that will have you feeling sympathetic, empathetic, and even disappointed in each character.  I never felt that I could predict where it would go or how it would end.  In fact, I was on the edge of my seat to find out.  Although the movie builds to the final fight between brothers, there are also a few other fighters given some personality and build up that makes their engagements that much more gratifying.

Warrior hinges on metaphor, particularly with the struggle to forgive, to reform bonds, to heal the wounds of past failures, mistakes, and familial scars all encompassed in a literal fight.  For me, personally, I felt deeply for these characters.  My own life has a long, sad history of family struggle that stems from similar circumstances (minus the MMA).  The relationship of Hardy and Edgerton to their dad (Nolte) is particularly heartbreaking.  Here is a man who has made huge mistakes in his past, wounded his two sons with his behavior, and is trying now, in his remaining years to make amends, but they fall on deaf ears.  The damage is so great that he is humbled, even pathetic in his attempts to reconnect.

There are scenes in this film I’ve never seen before that are worth noting.  I’d spoil them to mention them, but I felt that there was a genuine attempt to show us things as they happen in real life, rather than trying to stage something that “should be” emotional.  They let it flow naturally.  I never felt like I was being beat over the head with the emotional aspect, nor the literal fighting.  Everything flowed as it should (or really would).

Nolte is absolutely heartbreaking in his role and if Hollywood is jerking itself off next year with Golden trophies, Nolte should be given one for his efforts here.  It’s the best he’s been in years and it’s great to see an actor of his caliber back in top form.  As for Edgerton and Hardy, I can’t say enough of them.  They both shine here.  Hardy is just a force to be reckoned with, physically and mentally and Edgerton displays that quiet, calm reserve of perseverance that embodies the underdog.  Ultimately, you’ll likely find yourself rooting for both characters, wondering exactly who “deserves” the win.  I never had to decide for myself as the story told was strong enough to take me on that journey.  I’m deeply satisfied for that.  I have two brothers and we have fought it out throughout our lives, but ultimately stayed true to our bond of brotherhood.  Sometimes, it really does come to an actual fight to mend a conflict, even if strength and skill aren’t the mettle being tested.  Warrior shows us this with a deft hand.

It’s worth mentioning Mark Isham’s music score as well, which plays to his modern day acoustics, which are somewhat dark and moody.  He is kind of a cinematic underdog as a composer, so it’s a fitting assignment.  He weaves the heroic undertones exceptionally and even intertwines the use of Beethoven, a common theme in film, throughout the score.  It’s memorable and fitting throughout and a credit to the film itself.

So, is Warrior one of the best films of the year?  Absolutely and surprisingly so.  I think it will fall on a lot of top ten lists at the end of the year and it deserves that spot (it will be on mine for sure).  A lot of comparisons have been made to The Fighter, but I think they’re unwarranted.  They’re both great films in their own right, even though they both tackle the themes of brothers struggling to overcome their demons.  Neither has to be better than the other.  Warrior is an emotional journey that packs a strong metaphoric punch to the gut and don’t be surprised if a few of the scenes make you well up.  That means the movie is doing its job.

MOVIE SCORE: 9/10

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