Fight films are rarely complex. They are the closest the male of the species get to chick flicks – a warm comfortable space where we can bond, laugh and yes, even cry. Fight films are simple, primal things. They are about redemption and escape; from poverty, from a hopeless future. They are also about the things that we can’t escape from; family, and our own worst impulses. Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior does nothing to alter this template, and is all the stronger for it.
It tells the story of two brothers, Tommy and Brendan. Both fighters, in every sense of the word. Brendan has faced down a cage-fighting past to become a high-school physics teacher. He has two kids, a beautiful wife. Debt is slowly drowning them all. Tommy reappears from somewhere up north, after he nursed their ma until she died. He’s a mystery, a furious ghost with a punch that soon gets him noticed.
The black hole around which the two men orbit is Paddy, their father, an penitent ex-drunk with a violent history towards his family. Brendan will not have Paddy in his house. Tommy needs him as a trainer, but recoils from any attempt at reconciliation. He can’t even bear to have Paddy touch him.
The event that draws the family back together, in a fashion, is Sparta, a winner-takes-all MMA tourney with a $5M prize. Brendan needs the money badly – he’s on the brink of foreclosure, and his pride shuts out all other options. Tommy has his own reasons. They, and the gradual revelation of all his secrets, keep the story ticking along. Until Atlantic City. Until they walk towards a cage that perversely has the power to set them both free.
I was hooked from the first scene, a bitter two-hander between Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy that sketched out the Conlon family and the way it had fallen apart in one beautifully acted scene. That’s the thing – this film has the potential to be soap-operatic, ridiculously overwrought. It isn’t, and that’s down to sharp, natural dialogue and nuanced acting from everyone involved. Nolte has his cut-loose moment, but it’s at the right time and completely in character. Joel Edgerton, so good in Animal Kingdom, is incredible here, struggling against his own pride and a world that keeps coming back at him. The one central female character, played with sass and charm by Jennifer Morrison, is as tough as the men, but tender too. She shines in a film that could be an all-out grunt-fest.
But let’s face it. This is Tom Hardy’s film. His brooding presence fires off the film, and his shifts between preternatural stillness and shocking violence motor it along. There are two moments that dragged helpless tears out of me in Warrior, and they’re both Hardy’s. In Tinker Tailor he showed that he could punch his weight amongst world-class competition. Here, he’s the star before he even gets near the ring.
The fight sequences. We should talk about the fight sequences. Like many people new to the sport, I viewed MMA with suspicion and disrespect, as no different to back-street bare-knuckle fights. Gavin O’Connor takes time to show us that the sport is tactical and suffused with a brutal logic. The fights are filled with surprises and at times, unbearable tension. Even when you know how things are going to pan out, you still believe that somewhere down the line there could be a shocking turnaround. Unlike the cheap theatre of modern wrestling, or the payola soaked farce that boxing has become, MMA comes out of this film looking like an alternative with the capacity for a little grace, a little honour.
Warrior is never going to win any awards. It’s too honest about it’s sources, too rooted in genre. But it’s solidly entertaining, moving, clever and utterly uplifting. As we finally see the back of the summer tentpoles, Warrior ushers in a season of films that aren’t afraid to be both entertaining and intelligent. This is no lad’s night out. It’s a far more grown-up proposition. A film about brotherhood, about how the family we are born into and the family we make are both worth taking risks for.
A hit. A very palpable hit.