Sometimes delaying a film because of its potential competition turns out to be the best possible thing for it. A year ago the Mixed Martial Arts Warrior was held back from release because of Mark Wahlberg’s boxing biopic The Fighter. A year later, the landscape has changed between boxing and MMA. With the UFC, the world’s largest MMA organization, joining forces with Fox Sports to broadcast the UFC on network television for the first time ever the sport of MMA is on that precipice of mainstream acceptance. But the sport never had a brilliant film to be able to entertain masses like the boxing has with Rocky and Raging Bull, amongst others. The closest MMA has had was Never Back Down (for the teenage set) and the overlooked David Mamet film Redbelt, neither of which really focused on MMA and instead was around the periphery of the sport.
Warrior changes all that by focusing on MMA, properly, in what is perhaps the best film of 2011.
The film at its heart is the tale of a family broken apart by circumstance. It starts with the head of the family, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a reformed alcoholic who pushed his family away with his problems. His youngest Tom (Tom Hardy) went away with his mother and became a war hero, coming home to try and find his place in the world. His eldest Brendan (Joel Edgerton) stayed and became a school teacher, now struggling to keep a house with a mortgage underwater.
Both have lives that have formerly been in the sporting arena but never succeeded fully. Tom was an amateur wrestling prodigy at one point while Brendan had a lackluster career in the UFC. Both need the money from fighting for different reasons: Tom out of a sense of obligation to a fallen war buddy, Brendan to keep his family in their home; moonlighting at local tournaments to try and stave off foreclosure as long as possible, he gets suspended from his job as a physics teacher because of it. And then something intersects with both their lives that could turn them both around:
SPARTA, a $5 million winner takes all Grand Prix style tournament featuring 16 of the best fighters in the world.
With Tom getting into the tournament after dismantling one of the best in the world in a sparring sessions, and Brendan in the tournament due to an injury in his own camp, the two enter the tournament as massive long shots. Meeting in the finals after remarkably different runs through the tournament, the finale is a fight between two brothers trying to find peace with one another after a lifetime of hurt from a family fracture. And that’s the film’s main premise: about how a family has dealt with their lives in its aftermath. The tournament and MMA aren’t the focus of the film; it’s about two brothers coming to grips with their lives as adults with each other and the father that drove a wedge between them years ago.
It’s an absolutely gripping and powerful film because it does one thing that a good sports film ought to do: focus on the story and the characters instead of the sport itself. It’s what Rocky did, presenting a love story inside an underdog tale, and that’s what this film ultimately is: a family drama presented in a dueling underdog story. That’s what gives the film an edge. Both brothers are presented as good, honorable men and neither is presented as a bad man. There’s no villain to cheer against, just two heroes to root for. There’s no sense as to how the film will end and it adds to the inherent drama of it.
The film also presents MMA in a terrific light without pandering to the die-hard fans or changing the presentation to suit people unfamiliar with the sport. And it starts in how it shows Tom and Brendan fight. Tom is a wrecking machine, coming out without entrance music and exiting the cage as soon as he’s done fighting. He leaves a wake of broken bodies in his path to the finals, the underdog who shows he has more talent than anyone has shown. Brendan, on the other hand, manages to pull off victories when by all rights he should have lost with last minute, dramatic victories. When both make it to the finals it’s through some dramatic, well-designed fights that are both fairly realistic as well as inherently cinematic.
It doesn’t hurt that the film’s three main stars (Nolte, Edgerton and Hardy) manage to convey a strong family dynamic between them. Nolte is the father who knows he’s done wrong and wants to change it. His task is Herculean, though, as neither of his sons wants much to do with him. Tom wants his help as a trainer, as Paddy was once a Todd Marinovich style coach of amateur wrestling, but doesn’t want him in his life as a father. He’s lost that chance as far as Tom is concerned with how he treated his mother. Brendan keeps his father at a distance, acknowledging his presence in his life but wanting to be the sort of father to his daughters that his own father wasn’t to him and his younger brother. The three have a strong chemistry with one another with Nolte leading the way in terms of acting performances; it’s the type that Best Supporting Actor performances are made of.
Hardy and Edgerton have the much tougher task. They have to act and move like fighters, as opposed to actors trying to be fighters, and if neither is credible as a cage fighter then the film sinks. This is especially true in a film revolving around MMA, which is something harder to use a trained stuntman for. Both men had to have to done a bulk of their own stunts, if not all of them, because Gavin O’Connor doesn’t use many camera tricks to try and disguise who is fighting and who is just there acting like they’ve been fighting. It doesn’t hurt that he’s cast a handful of professional MMA fighters in the tournament (Nate Marquardt and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson) as well as Olympic wrestler Kurt Angle (as the Russian champion Koba). Having a handful of actual fighters gives them film a remarkable credibility; this isn’t an actor who knows how to punch and wrestle, it’s a fighter who does it for a living. Angle may not get any dialogue but his physical presence sells itself as Koba; he’s the elephant in the room that everyone is scared of and it’s hard not to be of the freestyle wrestling Gold Medalist. He’s scary looking and the sense of menace in the air is palpable every time he’s on the screen. And they all look credible in the cage with Hardy and Edgerton, who have put it the time to transform into fighters for this film. Both have put in the time because they look like fighters and are credible on screen as them.
Hardy has the relentless, manic pace of many amateur wrestling prodigies and his character is a wrecking ball inside the cage. He comes in, he sees, he conquers; everything else is on the periphery.
Edgerton gets the more cerebral character and he fights like such; he may be overmatched throughout the film physically in the cage but he makes up for it with veteran experience and knowhow. When he keeps winning it’s from something he sees that a cagey veteran would.
When all is said and done, Warrior is the film that raises the bar for films involving MMA. No longer will the sport have such low level representations of it like Never Back Down or any of its direct to video sequels. It has a brilliant masterpiece as its highest level in cinema, the way the best films in mainstream sports like baseball, boxing, basketball and football have.
Director: Gavin O’Connor Notable Cast: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn, Frank Grillo, Kurt Angle, Nathan Marquardt, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson Writer(s): Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman