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For people with rough backgrounds or continuing hardships, life can feel like a war, with daily battles waged just to survive. Under such circumstances, it seems that the only way to emerge the victor is to be the strongest warrior—the one who can beat all the others and still be standing in the end.
In Warrior, two brothers are engaged in such a fight to survive and to conquer their past—a struggle that is paralleled by their penchant for competing in mixed martial arts, a brutal and violent sport. But MMA and the emotional battles of the characters aren’t the only reflection of war in this film. As with many secular movies, the most crucial battle for viewers becomes that between good and evil—the question of whether or not a positive message will emerge the winner at the film’s close.
Warrior tackles hard, relevant issues, plunging viewers into the depths of some of life’s harshest realities through an unusually powerful, exquisitely acted, and thought-provoking story. The film’s characters are flawed and confused, but it’s the filmmakers’ job to make their story meaningful in the end. Warrior comes within a hair’s breadth, or, more accurately, within the launching of one kick, to creating a story that would have timeless impact and life-changing, redemptive potential. Sadly, the filmmakers’ good intentions get strangled, and they become trapped in the evils of the violent stage they chose for this tale.
“Go to war!” is the referee’s shout that starts every MMA match. For the Conlon brothers, those words are like a daily mandate. Their father may be sorry now, but the damage he did when he was an abusive alcoholic had irreparable consequences. Not only did Paddy Conlon’s violence sever his relationship with his sons, but the two boys also lost their relationship with each other in the domino effect of their father’s abuse.
When Tommy, the youngest, suddenly shows up on his father’s doorstep after a fourteen year absence, Paddy is shocked. But Tommy isn’t there to reconcile with his now sober dad. Tommy is driven by a stark past and painful present that accumulate into a furious hatred for the person he believes is most to blame—his father. There’s enough anger left over for his older brother, who let Tommy and his mother down when they needed him most. With these known and some mysterious, unknown demons pushing Tommy down his dark path, he engages Paddy’s services as a trainer for the biggest tournament in MMA. Tommy is clear that this is no sign of forgiveness or even renewing a relationship with his dad, but that he only wants Paddy’s help because training was the only thing his father was ever good at.
The oldest Conlon brother, Brendan, couldn’t even get training from his father. In a move that ended his relationship with Tommy, Brendan stayed with his father when their mother and Tommy left, in part with the hope that Paddy would then give Brendan the attention he had given Tommy. That great expectation was never fulfilled, but Brendan didn’t sink into the lonely existence it seems Tommy has. Brendan married his high school girlfriend, had kids, and settled down in a steady job, leaving MMA fighting and the violence of his childhood behind him.
At least, that’s what Brendan thinks he’s done. When his finances go bust, Brendan returns to fighting, trying to support his family with the prize money from his victories. As he gets caught up in the MMA world he once knew, Brendan starts to see the win money as more important than his health, his job as a high school physics teacher, or his wife’s wishes that he not fight. The news that Tommy has returned and that Paddy is sober only complicates Brendan’s life more. He believes he’s forgiven Paddy and Tommy for the wrongs against him, but the theory is about to be thrown in his face by encounters with his father and brother that reveal Brendan’s own unforgiving heart.
One brother advertises the damage like a billboard, while the other tries to hide the sign he, too, wears. When these two damaged and embittered souls aim to win the same, ultimate MMA tournament, their paths head on a collision course. After fourteen years of separation, Tommy, Brendan, and Paddy are destined for their own battle to proclaim the winner and avenger of their dark past. That is, unless love and forgiveness can pull out a surprise victory before it’s too late.
Warrior is part of a surprisingly rare breed of films. Supremely character driven and thematically rich far beyond the norm for Hollywood fare, this movie combines the depth and artistry one would more often find in an independent film with the polish and high-quality that characterizes big-budget pictures. The story is compelling, as well as engrossing and thought-provoking to an unusual degree. This is not a film that one walks away from never to think about again. Rather, the issues it addresses and the characters that drive the film will stay with audiences long after they walk away.
The characters are so realistically written and the actors so authentically bring them to life, that they each have the quality of someone every viewer knows. Despite the rather unusual situation of MMA, these characters are people we’ve met on the street, had as friends, or dealt with in our own families. That accessibility is due, in part, to the stellar screenplay by writer/director Gavin O’Connor. The complex screenplay dares to go deep, plunging into the pain, darkness, and confusion that can result from abuse of any kind.
Yet, O’Connor manages to avoid wallowing too much in the past or sympathizing completely with one character at the expense of the others. Instead, the film makes it clear that all three of the Conlon men are at once victims and guilty of wrong themselves. None are wholly innocent and all have been hurt. In addition, the story dramatically illustrates the difference one’s choices and actions make in determining the kind of person one will be—more of a difference, Warrior suggests, than environment or circumstances.
To do this, Warrior has to balance the telling of two stories equally—that of Tommy and Brendan. For the most part, O’Connor succeeds in giving equal treatment to these two characters, though Tommy remains more of a mystery even through the end of the film.
That ending is where Warrior falters from a filmmaking standpoint. Until the final portion of the movie, Warrior is not a sports movie. It has entirely too much emphasis on character, story, and life outside of any athletic event to come close to the genre. However, the later section of the film does a sudden flip by inundating viewers with several back-to-back MMA matches. These fights are at the crucial tournament the film has built up to, but the initial matches that are shown in such detail are unimportant to the movie’s focus (the story of the Conlon brothers).
Thus, arguably the only artistic flaw in the screenplay is a large one, as the end pacing of the film suffers while viewers have to sit through mildly interesting action that should have been omitted or shortened, rather than adding unnecessary length to the already long movie. O’Connor wisely breaks up the nine MMA matches with a dramatic sequence that turns out to be the most moving of the film. Even so, the impact of this powerful moment would have been all the stronger, had the patience of the audience not just been tested and their attention diverted with needless coverage of the rather insignificant MMA bouts.
By the time this MMA-heavy ending rolls around, however, most viewers will be so embroiled in Tommy and Brendan’s story that they’ll be willing to sit through the pacing mistake to see what happens to the characters. One need look no further than the acting performances of Warrior’s stars for an explanation for this audience commitment. Nick Nolte, already a stalwart and highly-respected actor, is perfectly cast for the role of Paddy Conlon and plays it well enough to garner an Academy Award nomination.
The acting surprises of the film are the two lead actors, who are still considered relative unknowns in Hollywood, though that’s rapidly changing. Joel Edgerton as Brendan Conlon has to play an unusually complicated character who can seem at home both in the “normal” world of high school teacher and family man, as well as in the violent world of MMA. He nails the part, leaving the audience no reason to doubt that this man can be a friendly teacher in the classroom and a tough fighter in the cage of MMA.
Brendan’s fighting style suits his character, in that it is not as aggressive as his brother Tommy, who is like a wild animal let loose in the cage when he fights. Add the name Tom Hardy to the list of actors that should not have been overlooked for an Oscar nomination, as his portrayal of Tommy Conlon is brilliant and memorable. Tommy could be a victim, unlikable, and unreachable for audiences, but with Hardy in the role, he is strong, vulnerable, frightening, loving, brooding—above all, he is real and riveting whenever he is on screen. While Edgerton impressively banished his Australian accent for his American role, Hardy goes a step further, adopting to perfection the accent, posture, and demeanor of a street-wise American tough.
With the many aspects of this film that are worthy of accolades, Warrior becomes an unintended tragedy in itself for those who can see what it could have been. The excellent production quality and the positive messages of forgiveness, love, and family are flattened in the first round by the onslaught of foul language that begins in the opening scene and accelerates from there. Profanities and obscenities are present, pummeling the story’s good moments nearly beyond recognition.
For viewers who want to brave the language issue, there are still more dangers ahead. Among them is the immodesty of Tess, Brendan’s wife in several scenes. Though her wardrobe would be acceptable if she really were only with her husband, as the scenes depict, the audience is also privy to seeing her insufficiently clothed in briefs and, later, in super short boxer shorts. She also wears a short skirt to work that prompts her husband to ask, “Where’s the rest of that skirt?”
Still more problematic and corrosive to this film is the glorification of violence that lies like a sleeping lion till it pounces for the kill in the final scene. Earlier, but still in the latter half of the film, the movement toward encouraging and lifting up violence on a pedestal is evident in such elements as Brendan’s high school students becoming fascinated by the revelation that their physics teacher is a MMA fighter. The school’s principal, while he doesn’t sanction Brendan’s fighting in any official capacity through the school, does support and cheer for Brendan later, watching the television coverage of the tournament fights, even with the high school students.
At the final tournament, a huge audience watches and cheers, there to enjoy watching men pummel each other in the ring. [SPOILER WARNING] It only adds to their excitement and blood-thirst, it seems, when it turns out that the final match will feature brothers attacking each other. As with other similar “sports,” images of the gladiators come to mind and the violence that becomes so easily embraced by thousands of cheering fans.
While it serves as an intentionally symbolic layer in Warrior’s thematic structure, this emphasis on violence proves to be the film’s undoing. Early in the story, viewers are shown the tragic results that violence can have on a family, and, in that context, the violence is condemned. Brendan manages to end the circle of abuse within his own family, as he makes a clear point of never allowing such behavior in his home. Tommy, volatile as he seems to be, also never shows any inclination toward violence with civilians or even his hated father. For much of the film, then, it appears that the Conlon brothers pursue MMA as a perhaps still unwise outlet for their physical aggression.
But as Warrior progresses, the film goes in another direction and the fighting that seemed to be an unhealthy and foolhardy pursuit becomes, according to the story, a means for doing something good. More than that, violence becomes the vehicle for redemption—a means of ultimate love to be shown and for the saving of a life. The story comes so close to taking a truly redemptive path that the near miss leaves one with an ache for what could have been and a horror for the twisted message that is presented instead.
There are plenty of troubles to face in life, and Warrior is a gripping, emotionally moving look at some of them. The film may get one thinking, but don’t expect it to offer any help or training for the bouts ahead. Warrior instead gives foul play the upper hand, making the battle more dangerous for anyone trying to win the war.