It’s tough to make a case that competitive mixed martial arts, the aggro-sparring form that shot to ubiquity in the Limp Bizkit-era, raging-without-a-cause 1990s in which fighters can use nearly any striking style to tap out their opponent, either needs or deserves its own Rocky or Karate Kid. While the sport’s massively popular pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship cage matches often display balletic feats of fight fusion – especially the earliest bouts where the Gracie family took on all comers with their jaw dropping spider-like style that entangled even the biggest men – most MMA going on in rings around the country could charitably be described as sloppy brawling.
Successful sports movies depend on digging into a particular sport’s practical strategies – the bob and weave, the full-court press, wax on-wax off, what have you – and finding the metaphorical humanity in it. If MMA is no holds barred, anything goes martial arts jambalaya, then what strategies can possibly exist, and therefore, what humanity?
Writer-director Gavin O’Connor, who also directed 2005’s hockey drama Miracle, answers that question definitively with Warrior, a family drama centered around the MMA cage. The outstanding Joel Edgerton plays Brendan Conlon, a school teacher who resorts to fighting in makeshift parking-lot rings for extra cash to support his family and attempt to keep his nearly foreclosed house. He’s haunted by his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former abusive drunk now trying to get sober and hoping to see his grandchildren. Things get complicated when Brendan’s brother, the hulking former war vet Tommy (Tom Hardy), returns home after a long, unexplained absence. Tommy’s stoic face masks a simmering rage underneath, one that, we’re told, made him a champion wrestler with the assistance of Paddy’s coaching. But that was then. Now, the trio of broken men are forced to pick up the pieces of their shattered pasts (and there’s a mysterious subplot involving the war and the boys’ mother).
When a worldwide MMA event called Sparta comes to their attention – along with its promised $5 million purse – Tommy and Paddy head back into training as if slipping on an old glove. Unbeknownst to them, Brendan begins his own training for the same event, to many observers’ (including the viewer’s) surprise. Watching the two brothers – one built like a tank, the other like a cross-trainer – hit the heavy bag side by side (through intercut edits), one can appreciate the makings of a crowd-pleasing underdog story, albeit one with an obvious fraternal twist.
For its first half, Warrior’s screenplay shows its seams, and the dialogue, especially Nolte’s “I can change” spiels and melodramatic sobriety battle, is distractingly by-the-numbers. But when Sparta commences and the only thing left to do is fight – for the house, for the family, for redemption – the film takes off into the stratosphere, perfectly balancing concise editing, strategic momentum and masterfully performed fight dances while never letting the audience forget why this is happening and where we are in the competition.
It all culminates in a climatic championship fight that works just as well as Daniel-san’s crane kick or Rocky Balboa’s 15-rounder. At one point, I even felt as if I understood some of the strategy going into the fight. Whatever the case, Warrior’s humanity, at least, registers wonderfully.
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