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Warrior Review

warriorWarrior is a tough movie to classify because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a fight film, glorifying the sport of MMA? Is it a family drama about two brothers and their estranged, recovering-alcoholic father? Director Gavin O’Conner (Miracle, Tumbleweeds) tries to take the two and mash them together like peanut butter and chocolate. But instead of a delicious treat, the film will tease audiences with one thing, then give them another. It’s a bit of a bait and switch, and an unnecessary one, since it could have been much more with just a few changes to the script, and a different eye on the action.

There will be an audience for Warrior, and some will love it and herald it as a feel-good story about two brothers, but the core group that initially goes to see Warrior will probably leave disappointed. As a fight film, it has so much promise, but then seems to decide that it doesn’t really want to be a fight film at all. 

There is a lot about Warrior that works, especially the acting, but rather than focus on one element and excelling, it tries to do too many different things and ends up watering them down.

Now entering the ring…

Beyond the MMA angle, Warrior is about the Conlon family: Brothers Tom (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), and their estranged, former alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). After 14 years Tom suddenly turns up on his father’s doorstep, carrying a grudge and a haunted past from his time in the military. A once unbeatable wrestler, Tom has returned to the father who drove his family away in order to have him train him as he used to when he was a kid. When circumstances suddenly throw Tom in the ring against an MMA top contender, he takes the opportunity, which leads to his own shot at glory.

Tom’s brother Brendan has taken his life in an entirely different direction. A high school physics teacher, Brendan loves his family, but when his daughter’s medical bills threaten to overwhelm them and cost them their home,he is forced to return to fighting despite a mediocre career filled with numerous injuries.

When stories of a less than reputable fight cost him his job and force him back to the ring, Brendan turns to fighting full-time to pay the bills, and gets a lucky break that could save his family.

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With both brothers training, each unknowingly takes the first steps towards a confrontation at SPARTA, a $5 million winner-take-all single elimination MMA tournament, featuring the best fighters in the world.

When the movie first begins, there are two fast, impressive and brutal fights that seem to set the tone. The drama is the backdrop to a fighting movie, there to give the action a deeper context. But soon the fighting scenes get lost in the drama, and the family story takes over.  

If you ignore the fighting, then as a family drama film, this works fine, although it is predictable. You immediately, from minute one, know they are destined to face off in the ring (the trailers even say as much), and everything else is just details, including the other fights. If, however, you are an MMA fan, you will have to dive head-first into a pool filled with a willing suspension of disbelief.

Lawyers make for fearsome foes

MMA is a professional, worldwide sport that is dominated by established organizations. Simply having one rich guy announce that he wants a tournament of the best fighters in the world would do nothing. If he was lucky, he might get sued by one of the various MMA organizations. And even if the lawyers spared him, the best fighters would be under contracts with other organizations. But putting that aside, the tournament in Warrior is 16-men competing for $5 million. To have two unknown brothers fall backwards into it, ahead of the—literally—thousands of better qualified fighters, is also tough to accept.

But it is a Hollywood movie and things like that are expected, plus those are just minor things that only MMA fans would probably care about. You have to just accept the convenience and serendipity that leads the brothers to a fight that would almost certainly never happen in real life.

To put it in context for non-MMA fans, it would be as if two random brothers both happened to randomly find themselves in situations where they are seen making a good football play on a playground, and then a few weeks later find themselves starting in the Super Bowl.

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There is also one issue with Brendan’s story. Call it a pet peeve, but his plot is needlessly dramatic. He is about to lose his house, and needs to win the tournament for his family. If he wins, they are set, if not, they are homeless. This is a common Hollywood contrivance, that is as annoying as it is lazy. If a guy were fighting in what the movie repeatedly says is the biggest MMA tournament in the world, there would be plenty of ways to earn a few dollars—at least enough to pay a mortgage—just by being there. One sponsorship would save the day, but that doesn’t fit with the drama that Warrior so desperately wants to cultivate.

Tom’s story is equally unrealistic, simply because his past is such a mystery, and no one seems to really have a problem with that. The tournament officials don’t seem to care either. No one bothers to check, which again, just reinforces that the film really doesn’t care about the logic of the tournament, which is further proved when the fights finally begin.

An eye for an eye

If you are hoping for a fight film–which would make sense of a film called Warrior that is running trailers filled with fight scenes–there are a few issues. The entire film is a build-up, both emotionally and in terms of the characters’ physical preparations, for the tournament. And this is where the movie fails.

Every problem with the film—the illogical tournament, the melodramatic and unoriginal family conflict, even Brendan’s seeming inability to cash in on an obvious opportunity or two—all of it could, and would have been forgiven if the final tournament was awesome to watch. And it is for a few minutes, but then the film seems to decide that the fighting isn’t really all that important and the cinematography changes.

It’s a baffling choice by the filmmakers. The first few fights in the SPARTA tournament are excellent to watch. The camera follows the action, the commentators are used well and the action is suitably intense. Then when the movie hits the semi-finals, just when you would expect the fights to be the most incredible, the camera changes, and so does the way the action is shown.

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The camera suddenly, and for no apparent reason, decides to film the action from the point of view of the crowd, on the outside of the cage. Rather than a decent view from in the ring that the movie was using, the camera work is suddenly constantly obscured. It also begins to use quick cuts, which when paired with the view through the cage, is positively dizzying. The final, climactic battle is even worse–and it is sped up, so you only see a bit of it anyway. It is both frustrating and surprising, and the film seems like it just doesn’t care about the action anymore, which makes you wonder why the movie even bothered. Then the film just sort of ends. There is a resolution, or at least part of one, but it is so obviously designed to tug at your proverbial heartstrings, which is hard to buy.

The saving grace

While the fighting falls flat, the family drama remains a strong element of the film. The plot is familiar and predictable, but it is saved by some top notch acting. Nick Nolte digs deep into his life experience and is completely believable as a burned-out drunk (not surprisingly), but the movie is really about the brothers. Of the two, Joel Edgerton’s Brendan is the real focus of the film. Tom and Paddy are a package deal in the story, but Brendan is alone the majority of the time, leaving Edgerton to sell his role without the performance of someone like Nolte to bounce off of. He also has the most screen time by far, and does a good job as the most likable character in the film.

Tom Hardy also turns in an incredible performance. He is physically transformed, just as he was with Bronson. The character he plays is tortured and quiet, so the bulk of his performance is left to his physical actions. He steals every scene he’s in and is easily the most interesting of all the characters. 

Warrior was filmed last year before it seemed like Hardy was destined for stardom. When his stock recently shot up, Warrior suddenly became a Tom Hardy vehicle, according to the studio’s advertising team. That isn’t really fair to Edgerton, who shoulders this movie, but it isn’t surprising either. 

Conclusion

Warrior seems confused as to what it wants to be. It uses the backdrop of the MMA world, but seems to do so grudgingly. Instead it lapses into a drama featuring two brothers that only have two scenes together the entire movie. Their story becomes far more important than the fights that should have defined the movie. And it is made even more bizarre when you consider that the brothers both are designed to fulfill stereotypical sports-specific roles. One is the epitome of an underdog, while the other is the driven prodigy. Then the movie just sort of decides it doesn’t want to follow that tact, and changes.

If you are looking for a drama, the acting in Warrior keeps afloat a plot that is soaked in melodrama. It just feels like the movie missed a major opportunity to be the fight film of the last few years. In another scenario, the family plot would have been enough to make a great movie thanks to the acting, but the fighting is more compelling. There are pieces of a good movie inside of Warrior, but together they just end up taking away from each other.

 {Warrior is rated PG-13 with a running time of 139 minutes}