Sunday, December 4, 2011
Shooting at the Walls of Heartache: Warrior
When the one-word title appeared on the screen in white block text against a black backdrop, I presumed that was the first of what would be many nods to Rocky in Warrior. I was sort of right. Like Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 franchise-starter, this mixed martial arts drama is about underdogs, second chances and believing in yourself when almost no one else will. On top of that, Warrior contains overt references to Rocky buddies Mick and Paulie, and it has a seemingly unstoppable Russian villain who reminds of Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago. And yet the longer Warrior went on, the less it reminded me of Rocky, or any of the countless fight movies it inspired, and the more it seemed akin to, of all things, Michael Mann’s Heat. Like that 1995 crime classic, Warrior is a drama about emotionally embattled men who tempt danger in an effort to exercise control over their lives. It’s a film that’s simultaneously mythic and realistic, stylized and uncomplicated, violent and romantic, epic and intimate. And it’s gripping to the end – without question one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
None of this is to imply that director Gavin O’Connor is the next Mann or that Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are the next Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, although their lead performances are tremendous and the nighttime meeting between Warrior’s adversarial yet cut-from-the-same-cloth main characters works as this movie’s version of Heat’s famous diner scene. Rather, I hope to call attention to the way that O’Connor, like Mann, uses thunderous action sequences to intensify his human story, instead of letting the physical action become the story. From a screenplay written by O’Connor, Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tambakis, Warrior’s basic plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen a sports movie – the protagonists enter a big tournament as long-shots and unknowns, hoping to fight their way to the top – but what’s special about Warrior is that it doesn’t ask us to root for victory itself so much as triumph. O’Connor accomplishes this in large part by giving us two protagonists, who happen to be brothers, with equally worthy aims: Brendan (Edgerton) is a suspended high school teacher and father of two who needs to win the $5 million purse to keep from the family home from going into foreclosure; Tommy (Hardy) is a traumatized war veteran and former caretaker of a dying mother who wants to financially support the widow of his best friend and who needs to lash out against a world that keeps trying to break his spirit. Because it’s impossible for both men to emerge as tournament winners, O’Connor ensures that the film is focused on his fighters’ souls, not their scorecards.
That Warrior’s narrative is generally predictable is, well, predictable. Protagonists in sports movies don’t always win the trophy, but they almost always get close. That’s why within the first 15 minutes, as soon as the big mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament is name-dropped, we know with almost complete certainty that Brendan and Tommy will be the last two men standing. And to O’Connor’s credit, Warrior never pretends otherwise. Brendan and Tommy aren’t on the original list of competitors at Sparta, but the film doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience by implying suspense where there is none. Along those lines, Warrior’s requisite training montage, which plays out in split screen with Beethoven in the background, is less of an “Eye of the Tiger” adrenaline booster than a Raiders of the Lost Ark spots-on-a-map record of forward progress, a forthright acknowledgment that these guys are going to be ready. And even though the tournament takes up most of the film’s final hour, its preliminary bouts are models of big-picture awareness: just long enough to be dramatically substantial, yet short enough that the inevitable clash between Brendan and Tommy always seems just around the corner. Mystery, suspense and ambiguity all have their place, but Warrior is one of those films that reaches greatness by giving us the expected and familiar with a depth of conviction and strength of tone that make it feel alive and new – straight out of the Mann playbook.
Don't misunderstand: Warrior isn’t void of surprises. Its characters may be rooted in archetypes, but they aren’t bound to them, which is why Warrior deftly avoids cliché at least as often as it succumbs to it. Case in point: consider the marriage of Brendan and Tess (a terrific Jennifer Morrison), which is one of the most refreshing portrayals of partnership I’ve seen at the movies in years. Here is a couple that fights without screaming and can be at odds and in-love simultaneously. In almost every other Hollywood movie, when Brendan tells Tess that he’s going to fight in Sparta against her wishes, Tess threatens to take the kids and leave him. But in Warrior, Tess looks at her husband with disappointment yet understanding and simply says she can’t watch him fight. It’s a perfect portrayal of mixed emotions, and so is the scene in which Brendan’s father, a recovering alcoholic played by Nick Nolte in what might be the finest performance of his career, arrives at Brendan’s house without warning or invitation and tells Brendan that his estranged brother is back in town. Brendan is stern with his father, even mean, never wavering on the idea that he doesn’t want his kids anywhere near their formerly abusive grandfather. But Brendan is human, too, still a son who doesn’t want his dad to suffer and a brother who is naturally curious about Tommy, and thus through the stops and starts of their awkward conversation we get a clear sense of the family’s tumultuous past and the lingering heartache.
Who would have thought that a film about MMA, a sport in which two opponents look to pummel one another into concussion or submission, would offer some of the most nuanced characterizations of the year? I haven’t even mentioned the relationship between Brendan and his coach, Frank (Frank Grillo), which is one of the rare male friendships at the movies that conveys love through eye contact, smiles and naked caring, rather than through sarcastic remarks, insults and horseplay. Nor have I mentioned Tommy, the broken ex-Marine with the Rocky-esque accent and the bulging trapezius muscles that sit atop his shoulders like missile launchers, who looks like a stubborn meathead and often acts like one, but who beams with delight when he talks to his best-friend’s widow and treats his waitress politely even when he’s irritated with his father. And Nolte’s Paddy? In his haunted expressions of regret, he acknowledges every charge of past monstrousness that his sons lay at his feet. And in his hopeful attempts to bond with his sons, he proves he’s what he says he is: a guy trying to turn his life around. Warrior never absolves its characters of their faults and sins, but it never reduces its characters to their imperfections either.
Of course, in emulation of Warrior’s nuance and complexity, it’s only right that I acknowledge its faults. Most significantly, Tommy’s war subplot is messily stitched in; and O’Connor, playing the MMA tournament organizer, proves to have M. Night Tarantino Disease and gives himself too much screen time; and the MMA commentators spell out the stakes when it isn’t necessary; and in one particularly awkward moment the play-by-play guy says that the crowd is stunned, but O’Connor doesn’t give us a shot that supports it. The movie isn’t perfect. But these missteps are overshadowed by Warrior’s thick atmosphere of piercing emotion, which is created through its consistently heartfelt and routinely underplayed performances – the antithesis of last year’s The Fighter – and O'Connor's intimate compositions. I’m sure that MMA fans can nitpick the realism of its physical action, but the drama is wholly convincing. In fight terms, Warrior leaves it all in the ring. That's all we can ask for.