Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/08/11 18:12:09

"Trapped In A Steel Cage Of Emotion"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Warrior” is the kind of film that is so resolutely old-fashioned in its plotting and execution that not only could it have more or less been made as a standard-issue programmer back in the Thirties, it probably was. This isn’t a knock on it in any way because it is a skillfully made film complete with strong performances and a surprisingly gripping emotional core and it is those elements that help keep it humming along even when it threatens to collapse under the weight of the mechanics of its occasionally hokey plotting. It may not be the masterpiece that some proponents are claiming it to be but it is a well-done piece of entertainment that is likely to captivate you whether you are a fan of borderline-cheesy sports films or not.

The sport in question this time is mixed martial arts and the film consists of two
parallel storylines following two men as they work their way towards a last-man-standing
tournament with the winner receiving a $5 million dollar prize. In one, Tommy (Tom Hardy)
mysteriously turns up in south Philadelphia after serving as a Marine in Iraq on the
doorstep of his estranged father (Nick Nolte), a former alcoholic who, after 1000 days of
sobriety, is trying to reconnect with the family that he tore apart with his demons.
Tommy wants nothing to do with any of that--he simply wants the old man to be his trainer
and nothing more. Tommy seems content to simply fight and keep everything else to himself
but things begin to change when he gets into the ring in a local gym with a rising star
on the MMA scene and knocks him out in little more than a few seconds. When video of that
rout hits YouTube, he becomes an overnight sensation and is put on the fast track for the
tournament. Fueling the fire even further is the fact that no one can seem to find any
information on who this mystery fighter might be, for reasons that will eventually become
well apparent.

Meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, one-time fighter Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is trying to eke
out a living for his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and children as a high-school physics
teacher and part-time bouncer but when money woes begin to pile up, he shows up at a
low-rent bout and easily decimates his opponent. While he scores the prize money, his
problems escalate as a result when he is suspended from work. With nowhere else to turn,
he decides to start fighting for money to keep his family afloat and through another
fluke, he finds himself competing in the championship brawl as well. With a
too-good-to-be-true backstory, Brendan also becomes a media sensation and it is perhaps
inevitable that Tommy and Brendan will meet in the final bout. The twist (well, not
really a twist since it is mentioned in all the ads and the film brings it up early on)
is that the two are brothers, both united by a hatred of the father that destroyed their
lives with his drinking, a mistrust of each other regarding how they handled the split of
their family unit and by a need to win the prize for perfectly understandable and
selfless reasons.

See what I mean about the storyline being a bit on the old fashioned side? Strip away
the modern accoutrements and replace the mixed martial arts with ordinary boxing and
“Warrior” is practically interchangeable with any inspirational sports melodrama from the
old days featuring an underdog fighter struggling to succeed in the ring against
overwhelming odds--considering the dual storyline approach, it is practically its own
double feature. There is nothing inherently wrong with making a film with such cheerfully
retro sensibilities--it is actually kind of refreshing to see a genre exercise that is
content to exist as itself instead of serving as a comment on other films of its
type--but director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor has made the unwise decision to load up
his already melodramatic story with a number of additional elements that threaten to drag
the proceedings down, such as the details of why Tommy has kept mum on the subject of his
days in Iraq, the efforts of Brendan’s students to get the school to publicly support him
and Dad’s inevitable stumble off the wagon at a convenient dramatic moment. None of these
developments are especially important to the central story of the two brothers and
whether or not they reconcile their past emotional hurts while inflicting new physical
ones on each other and serve only to extend the running time to a borderline ridiculous
139 minutes while reminding viewers with longer memories that a sparer filmmaker like the
great Walter Hill could have brought in the same story at 100 minutes tops without losing
a thing in the process. O’Connor also never finds a way to translate the apparent appeal
or techniques of MMA to those who aren’t already fans, unless it really is supposed to be
just a series of random beatdowns of such brutality that it seems impossible that anyone
could last in the cage for a couple of minutes without getting crippled or killed as a
result. He also guilty of the occasional bit of artistic overreaching as well. Put it
this way--in a film like this, you can use either Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or “Moby Dick”
as a recurring motif, but not both.

While these problems keep me from raving about “Warrior” to the degree that others have but there are still plenty of reasons to check it out anyway. Both Hardy and Edgerton deliver strong and charismatic performances that confirm their standings as two of the more intensely watchable actors on the rise today and Nolte gives a stellar supporting turn as their father that reminds us of the powerful actor that has been too long forgotten in recent years. As for O’Connor, he may not be the flashiest filmmaker around but he is a gifted one nevertheless and outside of the aforementioned excesses, he tells his story in a manner that still remains gripping no matter how many times you may have seen it done before in the past. By the end, I was surprised to discover that not only did I not know for certain how the final match would eventually turn out, I actually found myself caring about the end result. Stop and think about when the last time you could say that about a sports movie and when you discover just how long ago that probably was, you will begin to fully understand just how much better “Warrior” is than it really had to be.

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