Movie Review: Warrior

This film totally blew me away.

I’d seen trailers for it last year, but missed it in the cinema, which I was kinda disappointed about because it looked pretty good. It turned out I did miss out because it was a lot better than I’d hoped.

The film is based around mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting and I know that’ll put a lot of people off due to the fact that MMA is an extremely brutal sport and many people are against it. But even if MMA isn’t your thing, definitely still check this movie out, because it is an extremely powerful, emotional piece of work.

The story is fairly simple- two estranged brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) are both MMA fighters. There has obviously been a massive upheaval in the past, caused by the troubled environment they grew up in as a result of their father Paddy’s (Nick Nolte) alcoholismn and abuse.

Paddy has now cleaned up but his relationship with both of his sons is strained. Brendan refuses to see him and Tommy remains incredibly resentful and angry about the past.

Tommy returns to training at a local gym, and after a video of him knocking out a professional fighter in 30 seconds becomes an internet hit he manages to get himself included in Sparta, a 16-man tournament where the very best fighters will compete.

Reluctantly he takes on Paddy as a trainer, Paddy having formerly been his amateur wrestling coach as a child. Paddy hopes this will lead to reconciliation, but Tommy insists that he merely needs a coach and that nothing has changed.

Brendan meanwhile, a retired UFC fighter, now works as a physics teacher, but has begun fighting on the side to support his family who are under mounting financial difficulties. When this moonlighting is exposed and he is suspended from his job he decides to become a full time fighter again, working small local shows against hasbeens and wannabes.

This causes friction with his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison) who has witnessed the punishing physical toll the sport can take and doesn’t wish Brendan to go through it again. Without any alternative, however, Brendan returns to training with his old coach and friend Frank (Frank Grillo). He helps Frank train a young fighter for the competition but when the fighter is hurt he asks to take his place, and, somewhat reluctantly, Frank agrees and manages to sort it.

The duo go to the tournament, and well, we can all see where this is headed.

The brothers face off

The progression is fairly predictable, and you know full well that come the final its going to be brother against brother in the octagon. But that’s besides the point, as the film is phenomenal and the story and characters so engaging that you get drawn in. And when the final showdown does come around there is still an element of doubt over which one of them will emerge victorious.

But more than that, the film maker’s have done such a good job with the characters that you also have conflicted feelings about which one of them you want to win at the end.

One of the things that makes the film so good is Tom Hardy’s mesmerising performance as Tommy, who in many ways is the lesser lead. Brendan is given more dialogue and his storyline is revealed in scenes he has with the other characters, but Tommy’s backstory is shaded in by other characters in many instances, or in news bulletins as his mysterious past is revealed, which makes Hardy’s performance all the more impressive.

He plays the largely silent Tommy with an almost uncomfortable level of intensity, rage, bitterness and resentment seems to bleed out of the character, but Hardy brings an odd kind of charisma to the part, which stops him from becoming a mere thug, although he definitely looks the part. Hardy’s piled on a ton of muscles and there’s also a cold, steely look in his eye that makes you glad you’re not what’s annoying him.

The character’s back story is slowly revealed as I said, and his first meeting with Brendan after several years leads to a tense, angry confrontation that provides the background in quick, believable bursts where often there would merely be clunky exposition.

And while even at the end as Tommy stands opposite Brendan, he remains a ferocious, awesome presence the character has been softened in two simple scenes where his motivation is revealed and when he shows extreme tenderness when Paddy falls off the wagon. Hardy’s performance remains believable and the softer sides click, giving a new context for the quiet, anger that comes before and lending the character a certain nobility.

That’s not to say Edgerton doesn’t give a great performance as well. He exudes an easy going charm, edged with a determined toughness that makes it fully believable that such a sweet seeming guy could be a fighter.

Edgerton in action as Brendan

He can’t have Tommy’s cold, vicious appearance because it wouldn’t fit with the teaching thing, but his wiry frame does hint that he can handle himself. And when the family trait for anger does flare up you get the impression that he is just more in control the others, but that the same weaknesses do exist in him.

The supporting cast is fantastic, especially Nolte as the recovering alcoholic. Its quite a subtle performance, and it works extremely well. His failed attempts to form a bond with his family are heartbreakingly sad and he also gives hints in certain lines or small looks that the angry, aggressive side hasn’t completely vanished and lurks somewhere below the surface.

The entire film is shot in an understated way and there’s a gritty realism to it, particularly in the fights, which seem painfully real. They’re shot in a combination of hand held footage that makes it feel like you’re actually watching a proper MMA event on TV, and intercuts with close ups that put you painfully in the action.

This realism extends to the entire plot regarding the brothers in the tournament. Brendan’s story may rely on luck, but that’s life really, isn’t it? And Tommy’s becoming an internet sensation feels relevant and realistic.

It means that both characters enter the tournament as underdogs and the crowd’s response to them feels natural. Tommy’s unique approach to the tournament (no music, no sponsors, no interviews, storming out of the ring as soon as his opponent is out cold) would capture people’s imagine and as his history is revealed he would become a crowd-favourite.

The realism extends to the other fighters who all look the part, especially Olympic gold medal winner and pro-wrestler Kurt Angle, which gave this wrestling fan a bit of a buzz. Angle used to be the clean-cut all American boy before becoming one of the best heels (bad guys) in wrestling, and really looks the part as the tough, imposing Russian tipped as favourite in the competition.

But its not about this really, its about the characters and their relationship with each other and its an extremely emotive movie. Had I watched it alone I think I may have got choked up at the end, but as I watched it at work, I kept my emotions hidden but the ending is poigniant and the whole film is fantastic. The anger and resentment ebbs away and you feel a bit more positive, even if its not an entirely happy ending.

Despite being a movie I responded like it was a real sporting event, sitting forward in my seat and rooting for who I wanted to win. Fantastic.

Verdict: A brilliantly made, wonderfully performed gem. Hardy in particular is outstanding. Violent but also oddly tender in places. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. TTFN


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