Friday, September 23, 2011

Fighting Chance

There are some things that no matter how you suggest, advertise or promote, many people simply won't or can't change their mindset about. Professional wrestling will always be called a "fake" sport with soap opera dramatics. NASCAR will always be seen as entertainment for rednecks and a tactic to keep the South from rising again. Video games rot your brains. Baseball is slow and boring. The Twilight series is poorly written (or poorly put on the screen, take your pick). It doesn't matter how you argue against these statements, there are some people who simply will not be swayed no matter no intelligent or passionate your stance. Mixed Martial Arts is another in that long line, a sport that can trace its roots back to the ancient Olympic sport of pankration, in which men would fight one another using several methods to strike down their opponent or grapple him into submission. Criticized for being brutal and ultra-violent, MMA has gained a bad rap with many people, despite being much more civilized than Professional Boxing was in its heyday. As a relatively new sport, it's still fighting for recognition and respect from potential audiences. That's part of the reason Warrior, the MMA-inspired drama by Miracle director Gavin O'Connor, faltered severely when it went head to head with Contagion last weekend. The film seemed to have a strong stance going into the weekend, with many trailers and previews making it look like a blend of Rocky, The Fighter, and Miracle. It also headlined up-and-coming performers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, not to mention the the comeback of former Academy Award nominee Nick Nolte. In the end however, it was the MMA tag that likely drove most of the prospective audience members away, as too many people who would have enjoyed this title were apathetic about giving this young sport any more attention than they thought it deserved.

Stop calling him Rocky!
When war hero Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh, it is surprising that his first stop is the home of his father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), who was a drunk and abusive husband and father when Tommy was young. Despite Paddy having been sober for almost a thousand days, Tommy isn't home to build bridges and catch up. Paddy was a skilled fight coach, and Tommy wants his father to help him train for an upcoming MMA tournament featuring the top sixteen middleweights in the world, with a five million dollar prize the largest purse the sport has ever seen. Meanwhile, Tommy's estranged brother Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is trying to raise a family on a meager teacher's salary that he has had to supplement by fighting competitively at bars, much to the chagrin of his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison). Having been a former MMA fighter, Brendan has little problem handling small-timers with no experience, but he needs a ton of money to keep his house from being foreclosed, and therefore needs to improve his skills in the cage. With a lot of hard work (and a little luck) he manages to find himself in the same exclusive tournament. Eventually it comes down to brother vs. brother, and Tommy and Brendan must solve their differences both physically and emotionally before they can accept one another again.

"Warrior is a knockout!" Anybody use that tag line yet?
Ignore for a second the fact that this film is entirely predictable and smarmy to almost a fault. The story of a fractured family and a sport of violence somehow bringing it back together is so expertly told that  even though you know what is coming, the tale is rarely boring and never frustrates you with its overly convenient plot turns. With the exception of a brief midway collage of imagery of the two brothers training, the precision of the narrative is razor sharp, and the focus on each character is starkly different so as to make each feel remarkably unique. You want to root for Brendan because he's a dedicated family man and you think hard work should pay off in the end, but Emo Tommy is so full of ANGER that you just want to give him a hug and make his pain go away, before he puts the pain on someone else. That both heroes are likable for completely different reasons is a genuine feat, one that makes the finale that much more difficult to anticipate. That's right, you don't know who will come out on top in the end, but you DO know that you don't want either of them to lose.

The obligatory late night scene

This is in large thanks to the superlative cast that was put on full display. Hardy and Edgerton are two future superstars, and both are at the beginning of major career pushes that should see them become household names not too far in the future. Hardy is especially effective here as the soft-spoken but clearly enraged Tommy, looking for any outlet for his aggression and a cause to call his own. He steadily controls almost every scene, and one look at his body speaks epics about his commitment to the project. It's almost unfair to compare Edgerton to his cinematic brother, but the Australian actor does prove himself a top tier talent, successfully balancing between determined combatant and loving family man with ease. He also works well with Morrison, who gets a few chances to make herself known in the obligatory "suffering wife" role. It's Nolte though who will be absorbing the affection of voters come this award season. Playing a recovering alcoholic, Nolte is strong in his nuanced performance, which features him barely raising his voice but still being able to wring just about every emotion out of his wheezes. Even though he is rudely ousted by the film's end, if there's anybody here courting awards, it's Nolte; only the film's poor box office performance could deter that.

"Just don't maim too many people today, honey"
If there's one thing truly wrong with Warrior, it's the film packing so much into one standalone story. There is a TON of setup throughout the film in preparation for the finale, and even with the truncated training compendium I mentioned earlier this title still comes in at 140 minutes, almost a quarter of which is the climactic tournament. Fortunately much of the time goes smoothly and this extended playtime passes without any real issues. The narrative paces itself nicely, and the story is like a well-cultivated meal for the senses in the way it is told. It helps that there are the strong characters on which the tale can fall back, and that helps the time pass without any dull stretches. There are also a few cliches that could have been bypassed, such as a pointless secondary feud between Tommy and another fighter (Strikeforce star Erik Apple), or the unbeatable Russian (a call back to Miracle) fighter Koba, played by American former gold medalist Kurt Angle. These minor problems are made up for by the footage of the tournament, which plays out like a Greek tragedy on steroids. Even non-fans should be able to get into the struggle of each fight leading to the brothers' final encounter.

It's Cain and Abel with brass knuckles
For a moment I want you to put your MMA biases aside. Can you do that? Thank you. Warrior is so far the most ignored great movie of 2011. If you look at it objectively, you can see why I have it set at #6 for 2011. Excellent direction? Check. Great characters that draw you into the story? Check. Emotional baggage that ties it all together in a convincing manner? SUPER check. Even if the film's irregular vehicle of Mixed Martial Arts isn't your cup of tea, that shouldn't deter you from catching this film in theaters, where it is struggling without your help. Just because you're like me and not a fan of the sport doesn't mean you should allow yourself to miss out. Do yourself a favor and see it while it's still there.

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