Movie review – Warrior
– by Clinton Hallahan
I think that all the talk of the inspiration of sport and the triumph of the human spirit discussions that surround sports movies is essentially bunk. The enjoyment from the “sports movie” is highly reptilian. One team loses, other team goes home and gets a motel room with the prom queen. It satisfies us as capitalists. Warrior scratches that itch in style.
Warrior is the second excellent sports film out of director Gavin O’Connor, who chronicled another Cinderella story in 2004’s Miracle. Every generation has their trendy dance movie – from Footloose to Stomp the Yard – and similarly the martial art de jour gets the quick and dirty film treatment more often than not. Credit goes to O’Connor then for not phoning in a quick MMA flick to bundle with Tapout t-shirts and instead attempt something substantial.
The tropes are all there. Impossibly convenient opponents, in this case estranged brothers, work out their daddy issues on the faces of a few unsuspecting sparring partners until fate throws them into a winner-take-all scenario for a chance at impossible fortune. Nick Nolte shines as only he can as the recently on the wagon ex-drunk father, the hatred towards him the only thing uniting a family torn apart by his personal failings. Joel Edgarton plays Brendan Conlon, a physics teacher and perennial second banana to Tom Hardy’s Tommy Conlon, his younger brother and the apple of their father’s eye. Speedbumps and shocking good luck in both of their lives bring them to Sparta, an Atlantic City MMA tournament with a grand prize of $5 million.
While the colour commentary and narrative twists are on the nose to the point of inspiring laughter, there is no denying the power of this film. Its flaws are almost completely overshadowed by confident, gritty cinematography and direction, and its cheese is transformed from the standard Kraft Singles found so often in sports film monologues to a fine cinematic gouda by the spectacular performances by Edgarton, Hardy and Nolte. The cheesy moments in the film are set up and demolished in the same way over and over. Nolte’s Paddy Conlon is chasing a dream of a unified family and success in the ring, and listens to audiobook tapes of Moby Dick throughout. Groan-worthy, but the character arc payoff those tapes enable is as heartbreaking and powerful as any this year, and could garner Nolte Oscar attention despite the shortcomings of the film as a whole.
The action set-pieces are shot passably well, with some errant cut-aways favoring reaction shots to punches on a few odd occasions, but the brutality of our current favourite sport is not sanitized or buffed out. O’Connor makes sure that when the brutality is visited upon our heroes, we care. That seems elementary, but has eluded enough directors this summer to be surprising and noteworthy.
Warrior is a film we’ve seen, but ranks among sports classics such as Rocky and Friday Night Lights by emulating their best qualities – solid performances and an injection of the real emotion of – sigh – human spirit triumphing over adversity and limitations. Like the best in the genre, it also ends the way it begins, knee deep in sweat and blood and broken things.