Saturday, September 24, 2011

Warrior Movie Review

I might describe Warrior as equal parts Rocky and Miracle. In fact, during the final contest we even hear the sports commentator shout something akin to the famous, “Do you believe in miracles?” spoken by Al Michaels at the close of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” when the USA defeated the Soviet Union in ice hockey in the Lake Placid Olympics. Miracle, based on that event, was also directed by Gavin O’Connor, the helmsman of Warrior.

The Rocky angle, that of a down-and-out underdog who makes good, is now fulfilled by a suburban Everyman named Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) who can’t make his mortgage payments (a very topical dilemma). His brother, Tommy Riordon (a jacked-up and rough-hewn Tom Hardy), is an Iraq War veteran, possibly scarred by his experiences there if his closed-off personality is any indications. We first meet Tommy on the steps of his father’s (Nick Nolte) house, offering a bottle. “That’s not for me anymore, Tommy,” Paddy tells his son. The history between these men is difficult, to say the least. Tommy talks about his mother, who was sick and dying when they ran away many years ago. Brendan and Tommy apparently don’t have a relationship either, but the details of that animosity are reserved for the more dramatic third act.

Surely it’s no coincidence that Brendan lives in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love” and home to Rocky Balboa, with whom he has a fair few things in common. Tommy and their father are in Pittsburgh, a city whose steely gray skies and damp atmosphere captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are matched only by the gruff sensibilities of the three main characters.

We already know from the ads that Brendan and Tommy will compete against each other in a big tournament. It’s a winner-take-all contest with a $5 million purse that will allow Brendan to save his house and his dignity, but which Tommy needs to put things right for the widow of one of his fallen brothers-in-arms.

Tommy gets noticed when he puts a bone-crunching beating on the number one middleweight during a sparring match at the gym. This gets him entrance into the big tournament. He goes to Paddy for training. Is this a shameless plot contrivance or is Tommy looking, perhaps unbeknownst even to himself, to put his life and family back together. He makes it perfectly clear that he’s got no interest in getting personal. He wants the best trainer he can get – period. Unfortunately that means the father who spent his formative years in a bottle of booze. Paddy has some conditions of his own: Tommy gives up the pills he’s hooked on and he lives at the house. In the scene where the two men discuss terms, there was an allusion to a potential plot development in which Paddy reverts to his old habits after being given the opportunity to fill a role that was once, for him, adhered to and aligned with his drinking.

The screenplay by O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman doesn’t go in the direction I predicted, but does offer some surprising developments down the road. I do think perhaps some more interesting character development of Tommy and Paddy was sacrificed in order to focus more on Brendan’s life. But it’s amazing what the script accomplishes with few words.

The sport in question in Warrior is mixed martial arts cage fighting. Wikipedia tells me it’s a legitimate sport with history and rules, but nearest I can figure from the film, the contest involves beating your opponent with whatever methods are at your disposal until you 1) knock him out – not like a 10-count boxing knockout, but actually unconscious or 2) put him into such a painfully binding hold that he can’t go on any longer and he cries “Uncle!” This makes for an aural experience that might be the human body equivalent of the metal on metal cacophony exhibited by the Transformers movies. After three or four matches I began to grow numb to the dangers involved. There are only so many times I can see a man get pounded in the face before I tune it out. It also doesn’t help that there’s little rhyme or reason to the editing used in the fight scenes. A team of four different editors cut the film together and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they worked separately. The fights are mostly a jumbled mess of shots involving tangled bodies and randomly inserted reaction shots of shocked audience members, some of whom are actual characters in the movie. The shaky-cam technique employed works in the gritty confrontation scenes – between Tommy and Paddy; Brendan and Paddy; Brendan and Tommy, but its incessant use results in a feeling of its being derivative of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

Yet most of the film works well. It’s really helped along by the fine performances of the three leads. Nolte’s character is a slight variation on his great performance as the abused son in Affliction. His casting in Warrior almost seems inevitable given both his personal and professional history. Edgerton gave a wonderful under-the-radar performance in last year’s Animal Kingdom and brings the same fiery flare and subdued sensitivity to Brendan, and Hardy is scarily intense as Tommy. So far I only know him from Inception, but now, with the ferocity he gives to Tommy, I’m fascinated to see his turn as Bane in next year’s Dark Knight Rises. Still, beyond the acting is a heart-stopping and occasionally moving sports movie. With Miracle, O’Connor had to recreate a historical moment and bring the cinematic elements together in just the right way to help audiences relive that great hockey game. In Warrior, he had the added challenge of making people feel like they were witnessing an equally impressive feat, but at the same time to convince them that this totally fictional story is the real deal. He does a fairly masterful job of it.

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