Thursday, September 15, 2011


Boxing has always had the best track record on terms of American filmmaking.  Perhaps that's not entirely surprising what with the built-in metaphor of fighting another person can stand for fighting anything-- society, oppression, unhappiness, oneself.  The great American filmmaking standard shows that even the toughest, the strongest and most infallible are prone to human weakness.  And while On the Waterfront's Terry Malloy was never shown in the ring, the backstory informed his rage and grief and why he felt he had to fight again.  Rocky Balboa's story was more unsettling because of the fight he couldn't win.  And so on, and just as neither of those films, nor recent examples, like Million Dollar Baby (more an urgent care father\daughter melodrama than pugilist epic) or The Fighter (more an A-method exercise in differing acting styles than sparring tale), the squarely rounded, slightly stirring new entry Warrior is less about the actual sport than the reason why its characters get in the ring to begin with.  Directed by Gavin O'Connor, of previous by-the-numbers, sock-it-too-you, teary-eyed crowd-pleasers Miracle and Tumbleweeds, has both the skill and compassion to convey raw honesty mixed with over the top manipulative slush.

In Warrior, first we meet Tommy Reirdon (Tom Hardy), a brooding, pill-popping mess-- he's drunk and on the stoop of his father's porch.  Full of pain, remorse, and guilt over the sad death of his mother, and further trauma overseas in Iraq, we learn he was once a great and shining beacon of hope as a champion wrestler.  Bottomed out and full of rage, Tommy starts training again, and enlists his father (and old-time coach) to train him.  His father is Patty Conlon (Nick Nolte), a once mean and frightening drunk, now one-thousand days sober, and full of guilt and pain and wants for nothing but to reconcile.  Tommy will have nothing of it, it's all about the training, and that's final.  Hardy is such a brittle, menacing and hostile giant that the easiest thing in Warrior to believe is that no one would ever really challenge him.  There is of course, more pain and sorrow to come, as the soft-spoken but ever angry Tommy shares small intimate notes with the audience of his grief and pain, most of which involving an Iraqi war disaster and a promise made to a friend of his.

Secondly, we meet Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a high school physics teacher struggling to make ends meet and pay off his mortgage, a loving husband and father to two small girls (one of whom recently underwent tremendous, if nondescript heart problems, to further complicate and infringe on Brendan's financial stability.)  Brendan was an ex-fighter, and secretly moonlights as a pugilist for extra cash.  After his school suspends him for a bloody appearance and the bank foresees foreclosure, Brendan feels there's no other option than to get back in the ring to save their home.  As embodied by Edgerton, Brendan is a lean, wily character, whose size is belied by his patience.  Of course Brendan and Tommy are brothers...there's no spoiler, that's the film.  Both Tommy and Brendan through skill and cunning find themselves at Sparta, the ultimate, holds-no-barred event for mixed-martial arts supremacy, and a top prize of five million dollars.

Essentially, Warrior is a fairly mediocre film, save for the final twenty minutes, when the inevitable occurs.  And that's where the grand-standing of director O'Connor's part really must be heralded-- for a film that succumbs to nearly every filmmaking cliche in the book, and for characters (no matter how heavy-handedly, or broodingly portrayed), there's a great sense of feeling and rooting and emotion in the brothers-in-arms tale, as all the dithering and over-flowing crap that surrounds fades out and the two Conlon brothers fight it out, not just beating the crap out of each other, but beating the demons out too.  For their credit, both Hardy and Edgerton are effective, even if it's hard to buy their circumstances or successes through lengthy stretches of Warrior.  Hardy, who nearly stole the show in Inception, and has shown his gigantic-ness before in the little seen Bronson is certainly intense, but's its the small pockets of warmth that are most impressive.  Edgerton (of last year's Aussie indie Animal Kingdom) by contrast has charm to burn, but is more impressive when fired up.  While neither quite make the interesting acting exercise of Mark Walhberg\Christian Bale of last year's The Fighter, both are surely good finds.  Nolte, by the way is outstanding in the nearly impossible role of bad seed father with the heart of gold, but his gonzo persona, coupled with his nearly gone, raspy voice gives the film a lot of heart, no matter how falsely stated.

That it does feel so falsely stated is the problem.  For a film that will certainly illicit feeling out of anyone-- I admit I got misty, I still didn't exactly buy a moment of it.  In the ring, it feels a bit too easy for Tommy, a bit too tough for Brendan...both are too tragic outside the ring, it sobs of mush.  There's too much stuff, an over-bloated surface of doom, what with parental death, parental addiction, war, heart murmurs, financial strife at stake robbing the film of its biggest, simplest and most poignant battle-- that of two brothers at odds.  When they're on screen, just them, Warrior is a real contender.  C+

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