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Monday, December 19, 2011

Movie Review: WARRIOR


"Lock up the china because the boys are at it again!"
-- Bryan Callen

Warrior is a 2011 dramatic sports film directed by Gavin O'Connor that centers around two brothers who compete in the same mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament. When they were young, brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) had to live with their alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte) and his violent tendencies. Brendan chose to stay with his father, but Tommy left with his mother and started a new life on the west coast. Brendan got married and became a physics teacher, but when money becomes tight, he starts to moonlight as a fighter to make ends meet. Tommy went into the Marine Corps after their mother passed away but deserted after his battalion was destroyed by friendly fire. The two separately hear about a landmark MMA tournament called Sparta that will award the winner a $5 million purse, so they both start to train in the hopes of winning the cash. Little do they know, however, that the other is training to fight against them. As the tournament draws closer and closer, the stakes continue to climb, adding even more stress to the Conlon brothers' debacle.

I started hearing about this film at the beginning of the summer in preparation for its September release. I was immediately drawn to the film based on the fact that Edgerton and Hardy were going to be attached, considering I've loved their past films. Then the first trailer hit the theaters, and I was astounded by the possibilities. I even placed the film on my Fall Movie Preview, which highlighted the films I was most excited to see this fall. So, as you can probably imagine, I was a tad bit anxious to see this one. Unfortunately, September came and went, and I was unable to see the film during its initial theatrical release. However, I was able to give it a view tonight, so here's what I thought.

In the past, boxing movies have always been quite a big draw for audiences. In comparison to bigger and grander sports, there's something rather simple about filming a boxing match. And, considering its long-standing tradition in the United States - as well as its basic fundamentals - it's an easily accessible sport that has translated itself onto the silver screen in many a format. I mean, Rocky nabbed the Academy Award for Best Picture back in 1976, and we saw more recent success from the likes of 2010's The Fighter, which was nominated for Best Picture. So as you can see, boxing has done well when it comes to the movie audiences.

Mixed martial arts, however, has had a bit of a hit-and-miss beginning at the cineplex. One of the most memorable MMA-style films is the 1988 film Bloodsport, which stars Jean Claude Van Damme, but more recent examples include 2008's Redbelt and Never Back Down. This style of fighting had yet to receive a signature, critically-acclaimed film until Warrior came along, but after striking it rich with the critics, we may have actually come across a film to hold that particular title.

Warrior finds a way to succeed on nearly every level. The screenplay itself is quite a doozy, and although it's a tad bit predictable at times, it makes up for it with well-written characters and more emotion that you can probably handle. Sure, the trailers hyped the film's ending by telling us that the two brothers were going to face off in the tournament's final, but I think that only added to my personal anticipation for that climactic battle. Seeing how they fared in the three rounds before the championship set up a brilliant final round, and I think the emotion conveyed throughout the film was released in those final scenes with an intensely cathartic resolution.

The acting is spot-on as well, and it'd be tough to pick just one actor to salute more than the rest. Edgerton is great as our likable lead, but I think I need to tip my hat to Hardy, who manages to play a leading role that's both likable and unlikable at the same time. In the beginning, I wanted to hate him, but as I learned more about his character, I wanted to start to root for him along the way. In a sense, Hardy's character is the more complete one, and while this is no knock against Edgerton's performance, I think Hardy steals a bit of the spotlight this time around. Also worth a serious mention is two-time Academy Award-nominee Nick Nolte, who brings one of the strongest performances I've seen from him in years. It's been fourteen years since Nolte was last nominated for an Oscar, and it's been nearly that long since he's had a solid cinematic performance. However, I've already heard little bits of Oscar buzz for his supporting role. Whether it will come to fruition remains to be seen, but as of now, I'd put him on the short-list to at least get a nomination. We're also getting rather good, if small and slightly underutilized, performances from Jennifer Morrison as Edgerton's wife Tess and Kevin Dunn as his former boss.

Overall, Warrior is a fantastic film that definitely sets a new standard in the world of MMA-centric films. I would even argue that it surpasses some of the greater boxing films of years past, including Rocky (of which I was not entirely impressed, although I do not have a review for that film at this time). The reason it works so well is because it delves into the emotion of the sport and the family relations surrounding the characters' particular situation, and for that, I have to applaud O'Connor for his deftness of direction. This film could have easily bombed, but with the collaborative effort of the entire cast and crew, they've managed to make an instant sports classic.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
2 Thumbs Up

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