Thursday, October 20, 2011

New Release Review: Warrior (Gavin Cooper, 2011)

Warrior follows a similar trope as many preceding sporting films, dating back to Rocky from 1976 and even David O. Russell’s The Fighter from last year – but despite the conventional plot, and a predictable stream of events, director Gavin Cooper, who was also one of the writers, recognizes the clichés from the start and manages to impressively overcome them. He has built a gritty, emotionally rich family drama, which focuses on two compelling protagonists that we wholeheartedly care about by the end of the film.

Warrior focuses on two brothers, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy Reardon (Tom Hardy), who enter an elite Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournament called SPARTA, which draws together the world's toughest middleweights and offers a $5 Million dollar purse. Each has their own reasons for entering the competition, which are revealed throughout the film.

The film opens with Tommy visiting his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former alcoholic turned Christian. Tommy is upset by the way Paddy abandoned him and his ill mother as a child, but due to mysterious circumstances, he has returned to Pittsburgh and asks his father to train him for SPARTA, as he once did when Tommy was a child prodigy. Brendan is a high school physics teacher, who has all-but cut ties with his father and moonlights as an MMA fighter. He fights amateurs for money to save his ailing mortgage. He is suspended from teaching when he is spotted in action, and with nowhere else to turn, tracks down friend and trainer, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), and sets his sights on the tournament.

The character arcs are purposeful and emotionally involving, and the way the film is structured, to reveal the motivations behind each brother’s desire to compete in SPARTA, and to tie in their damaged childhood and their volatile relationship with their abusive father, is really well done. While the critical response in the United States was strong, its poor box-office numbers have proven crippling. While I had expected a quality film, I was surprised by how well made the film is, and how much I found myself immersed in the story.

The performances are all strong. How each character is written and how the performances relay their individualism, is more than acceptable. Though Brendan is an underdog, and a non-professional, his hardened look, his stocky build and the sense that he has more stamina than his bigger opponents ensures that his surprising achievements in the ring are completely believable. He wears down his opponents and rather than using physicality, uses a series of grappling moves to lock his opponents down.

Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom and more recently The Thing) gives an excellent performance as a proud man who has built a great life – he has a loving wife and two beautiful children - and rather than declare bankruptcy (“That’s not how I take care of things”) because of their struggles to afford his daughter’s surgery, and keep their beautiful home, he turns to a natural talent that was never fully realized in his youth. One of the commentators remembers Brendan for being “unmemorable” but now that he has built up something worth fighting for – a family, his own slice of the American Dream - he has learnt what it takes to become a fighter.

Even better is Tom Hardy, a naturally gifted actor and an imposing screen presence. Many will remember him only from Inception, where he was effortlessly compelling. But Hardy’s best performance (until now) was his unhinged, maniacal performance in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson. For most of the film Tommy is a mystery. We learn that he served in Iraq, and after Tommy is recognized in a Youtube video capturing him knocking down a middleweight contender in a gym bout, a U.S Army Sergeant comes forward claiming that Tommy had once saved his life. Later, even more insight is given, including his desire to give the prize money to the widow of a war buddy killed in Iraq, and the reason he has adopted the name of Tommy Reardon.

Hardy is a seething brute comprised of raw anger and emotion. A complete unknown in the field of sixteen, he enters the ring without any accompanying music, skulks around in intimidating fashion and demolishes his opponents in volatile fits of suppressed fury. There is plenty of emotional resonance in the exchanges between him and his father, a man he despises and has never forgiven, and his brother, a man he doesn’t consider to be family. When the two come to blows in the dramatic conclusion, you are torn. You aren’t sure whom to support, and that makes the outcome completely unpredictable. There are decades of unrepaired familial trauma co-existing in the ring with the men, and given the emotional weight of what we have witnessed throughout the film, the climax is incredibly moving.

The supporting performances, led by Nick Nolte, were also great. Nolte has been receiving some Oscar buzz for his role here, and it is evident that there is still something left in the tank. His distinctive gravelly tone is used to heartbreaking effect here, as his attempts to reconcile with his bitter and estranged sons. A former champion trainer and war veteran who was plagued by alcoholism, he is clearly shaken by regret and trying to find some quality of life through his son’s achievements in the ring. On closer reflection, he was spectacular. Frank Grillo, who I recognize from somewhere, was also very good as Brendan’s unorthodox but effective trainer. There was every indication that this was the case.

Wow, this is turning into an epic. I just want to give a special mention to the raw, hand-held shaky cam photography, which I thought worked really well. There is a tendency to utilize this to portray anything gritty and violent – but I thought it worked well in the dialogic exchanges too. While the cuts were clean and effective I liked the way the camera swiveled between the actors. The fast cutting (from a variety of angles, both inside the ring and out – and even using televised footage) really ups the adrenalin of the fight sequences, which consistently had me on edge. Not a minute is wasted throughout the 140 minutes, which seemed to fly by. Most of the second half is comprised of the SPARTA tournament, but the physical brutality is divided by the emotional, with a tense exchange between the brothers on the beach. Cooper also dodges the inevitable training montage effectively by introducing a split-screen format.

Look, there are a few flaws here, and on a couple of occasions I thought to myself that something was little bit too incredible. But I can’t remember specifically, so it can’t have been too important. I think it might have been some of the commentary, which was at times corny, and a bit too keen to undermine the two. But, this is a damn good film. I got involved; I was impressed by Cooper’s direction and the hard-hitting nature of the story. I actually preferred it to The Fighter, which was unsure who to promote into the lead role. There were no scenery-chewing performances here (hello Christian Bale and Melissa Leo), just genuine raw emotions and engaging storytelling. Released on October 27 here in Australia (the same day as Drive), Warrior is highly recommended.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. Great review of an extremely hidden yet powerful film. I don’t know about there, but here in the States, Warrior came and went in theaters far too quickly. It isn’t getting the credit it deserves.

    “It is evident that there is still something left in the tank,” that’s damn right; it’d be so cool to see Nolte land a nom!

  2. Thank you! Yeah it seems to have vanished. It doesn't open until the 27th but because it stars Joel Edgerton, I think it will draw a crowd. I haven't read any other Australian reviews yet, but I think it impressed a lot of people at the premiere. Yeah, I think he deserves close consideration - though the box office draw could hurt him (but I don't think that should be a consequence).

  3. I've been wanting to see this movie for a long time, maybe I should do it before it goes out of the theaters! Thanks for the review, great, as usual!:)

  4. The ending was pretty lovey dovey but it still worked because these characters were so rich in detail, and how Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte all portrayed them as well made it even better to watch them on screen. Great review Andy.

  5. @ Aziza - It's definitely worth a look, and from what I hear from the States it didn't stay in the cinemas for long - a bit of a box office flop. I hope that's not the case here! Thanks for reading and commenting :-)

    @ Dan - Thanks Dan. I really liked the way it ended; it didn't add any unnecessary final sequences. We knew what the stakes were and what the result meant to both of the brothers, and the fact that their stories had been well built throughout the film meant that we were torn on who to support. Great performances kept the characters compelling and involving, too!

  6. Really glad that you liked this one too. For me the emotional parts were what was most memorable, especially Nolte. I'm really glad that I saw this one before it left my theaters.

  7. Nolte's character was heartbreaking, but the drama was present in all three of their lives - and that is what made their achievements all the more inspirational and moving. It's not a sport I would ever watch, but seeing it portrayed here, I really got involved. Glad to hear you saw it. Not many did in the States.

  8. I agree about the hand held shot, it helps bring out the emotions. I didn't see it but my friend said to me there are many cameramen appear during the fighting inside the ring.
    Great review. Agree it's a worth watching movie.

  9. Thanks for stopping by Andina. I didn't notice either but I suspect they shot the scenes as a normal fight would be covered. On television we see all of these angles too. Definitely a film worth your time!