Tom Hanks’ character in A League of their own once famously said ‘There’s no crying in baseball!”, the assertion being man up and play. Well I’m here today to tell you that someone has broken the rules. They’ve taken perhaps the most ‘manliest’ of all sports – almost certainly the most brutal and bloody – and made a human drama that very nearly made me tear up near the end.
The sport is MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts for those unindoctrined, a mish-mash of several effective ways to kick the piss out of your opponent who is trying to do exactly the same thing to you. And you’re supposed to shake hands before and after the bout!
After the early stages of the film introduce us to the two main protagonists it is hardly a great leap to suggest they will be facing off at one point in the film. After all both are facing huge odds. Both are expected to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Both are brothers…
I only state that because it is so clumsily laid out on the DVD cover that it can’t possibly be deemed a spoiler. So let’s meet these two very different siblings.
Tom (Tom Hardy) is back from a decade plus long absence, during which he served in the armed forces and watched his Mother die.
Brandon (Joel Edgerton) is a devoted family man up against it. He has a loving wife and kids and works two jobs, yet after medical bills and a poor housing market still finds his home on the line in danger of foreclosure.
Both detest their father Paddy (Nick Nolte), whose alcohol fuelled violence tore the family apart and convinced the boy’s mother to leave town, with young Tom in tow. He has come back to his childhood hometown to confront Paddy, perhaps physically, but is confused to find him sober, religious and penitent.
Then out of the blue a giant carrot emerges to tempt both men in the form of a 16 man winner take all MME tournament called Sparta. The 5M winner’s purse tempts Brandon to come out of retirement and save his home, the chance to belt guys black and blue seems to appeal to Tom, who has risen to prominence through a viral video showing him dealing some punishment to a known MME fighter. The video has garnered thousands of views worldwide, which brings Tom even more unwanted attention.
To spice things up there are 14 other fighters including the very same guy Tom beat up on film and an unbackable Russian favourite.
It is the polar opposite nature of the two fighters that keeps your interest.
Tom seems to prefer disorder and conflict. He asks Paddy to train him even though he loathes him on the proviso that Paddy cannot talk to him about anything other than fighting, which after a 15 year absence is understandably hard for the now reformed Dad. Tom eschews the theatrics of tournament fighting, he has no catchy intro music, no slogans and conducts no interviews. He doesn’t even hang around after his bouts to see his hand raised in victory, bouts that are usually over quite swiftly after Tom uses his hulking frame (even his tattoos have muscles!) and lightning hands to dispel opponents to the canvas.
Brendan on the other hand is all defense, allowing the opponent all the free hits they want until they leave an opening or make a crucial mistake. With a trainer that uses classical music in his teaching he is perhaps the anti-MMA poster boy, it doesn’t help when the trainer calmly intones messages like ‘Breathe’ and ‘Relax’ while Brendan is on the canvas having his head caved in and his limbs torn from his body at impossible angles. But Brendan is fighting only to win and not to inflict pain, after each fight he seems to be more concerned with the defeated fighter than playing to the crowd or basking in his victory.
I realise that with all of these elements the stage is clearly set for a Kickboxer 7: Off the Canvas type straight to DVD crapola, but the acting in this film is excellent – Nolte in particular actually tries for the first time in years – and the plot developments handled with sincerity and care that we can’t help but get involved despite knowing full well that this was exactly the intent. In fact the only negative, and perhaps the thing that kept this film from Greatness, is the babble from the ringside announcers in the tournament. I have seen my share of WWE and the histrionics that it supposedly demands, but the continual playing down of the brother’s chances was clumsy and overwrought. If half of the commentators continued verbal doubts and criticisms were true neither Tom nor Brendan should have shown up, yet they continue as they win fight after fight.
Like The Fighter from 2011 the first half of Warrior is a human drama edging towards action, unlike The Fighter the last hour deftly blends both aspects simultaneously. So while The Fighter got the accolades and a couple of Academy Awards, I personally give Warrior the edge, despite the fact that it features a more unpalatable sport and wasn’t based on a true story.
Final Rating – 8 / 10. Warrior is the year’s best fight film, and is very nearly the year’s best drama. That’s a combo even the best MME exponents couldn’t pull off.