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Warrior (2011, USA)

22/04/2012

Director: Gavin O’Connor             Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison

It took me a little while to catch up with the highly acclaimed Warrior (a film apparently loved by critics and audiences alike), as usual slightly dissuaded by the hype that surrounded it coupled with the endless comparisons to Rocky. The premise didn’t help. The tale of two estranged brothers, Tommy a disillusioned U.S. Marine veteran (Hardy) and former UFC fighter turned physics teacher in danger of having his home repossessed Brendan (Edgerton) who by coincidence find themselves competing in the same MMA tournament while their equally estranged recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nolte) eggs them on sounded a little bit much to swallow for me, although admittedly did lend some credence to the Rocky comparisons.

For all it’s contrivances though I have to admit that the film works brilliantly. The first half of the film, with Tommy returning from Iraq and seeking out his father to help him train for the tournament has echoes of The Fighter about it, almost coming across as reasonably serious family drama. Hardy and Nolte do a great job of portraying Paddy and Tommy’s excrutiatingly difficult relationship, Hardy especially bringing his trademark intesity and commitment to the role. Brendan’s arc is less convincing, having blown his savings on life saving medical treatment for his daughter and fallen foul of dubious financial advice from his mortgage broker he is left facing a ninety day deadline for foreclosure and so turns to amateur bouts to make ends meet, jeopardising his teaching career in the process. Edgerton does well considering the slightly preposterous turns his character takes but really, this is Hardy’s film.

The same could be said about the fight scenes. It’s pretty clear that both Hardy and Edgerton trained hard to convincingly portray the brothers Conlon in the ring (in interviews Hardy has attested to seven weeks of seven full days a week of fight and weight training). They both bring the necessary physicality to the film to portray convincing fighters. Each fights with a style consistent to their character – Tommy a whirling dervish of brutality, rapidly finishing fights with nihilistic violence, Brendan taking a more thoughtful, strategic approach to his bouts patiently waiting his moment, even if sometimes his victory comes across as less than believable. The actual fight choreography, courtesy of J.J. Perry, is superb and each bout is filmed with an almost documentary approach adding to the sense of realism. It’s not clear how much of their fights Hardy and Edgerton performed themselves. It’s pretty clear that they were heavily involved in their own fights but they have stunt doubles listed in the credits, presumably for the more brutal moments that could have left them unable to complete filming perhaps? Regardless, any doubling is seamless in the chaotic frenzy in the ring (sorry, “cage”) and you find yourself cheering on the fighters as if these were genuine bouts and not largely predictable stepping stones in the plot.

It actually holds its integrity pretty well, at least up until the big tournament, at which point the measured family drama element gives way to full on Rocky underdog mayhem. I’m not even talking the first Rocky, this is Rocky IV terrritory, complete with demented evil Russian and overblown American patriotism but somehow it gets away with it and the final sequence of fights to determine the champion (no prizes for guessing who has to duke it out in the high stakes final) is nothing short of riotously entertaining. In different circumstances it would be easy to feel betrayed that earlier indications of a more complex, subtle take on the fight film have been abandoned but with the charisma of the leads and the quality of the bouts (not to mention the enthusiasm of the supporting cast) it’s hard to complain. There’s something overwhelmingly compelling about this kind of underdog triumph sporting movie and even when the cheese-ometer threatens to explode towards the end it’s still impossible to get mad at the film. This is feel good entertainment, pure and simple.

What’s great about a film like this is that it truly cements Tom Hardy’s position as a bankable star which can only be a good thing. He is, in my opinion, the British De Niro, an actor who approaches his roles with a hundred percent commitment and an on screen intensity you rarely get to see and the tremendous commercial success of a film like this really does set him up to pick and choose his future roles. He’s been on the go for a while now, over a decade in fact (you can catch him in early roles in the likes of Band Of Brothers and Black Hawk Down), so it’s nice to see a British actor gain international prominence, especially one as talented as Hardy. As for Warrior, I’d say the hype was pretty much justified and that yes, it’s probably true that it’s a Rocky for the MMA generation.

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