Director: Gavin O’ Connor
Screenplay: Gavin O’ Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman
Cast: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Morrison and Kevin Dunn
Release Date: September 9th, 2011
Hardly a year goes by without Hollywood releasing a paint by numbers sport movie, and for good reason. People know the story, the movies are not particularly challenging to viewers, and the box office follows in a typically steady fashion. Warrior could be an acceptable entry to this genre, but poorly constructed characters and bland performances merge together to create a misfire.
Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are brothers united by hatred of their father, played by Nick Nolte, but still have an ocean of difference separating them. Hardy returns to Pittsburgh, unkempt and drunk, to reunite with Nolte after half a lifetime apart. Split up as a teenager, Hardy chose to go with his mother to Oregon when Noltes drinking was no longer tolerable, while Edgerton remained behind with his then girlfriend, and now wife (Jennifer Morrison). Nolte is pushing three years sober, but it makes no difference to Hardy, whom has returned, it seems, for no reason but to issue a guilt trip on his father for decade old sins. He walks into the old neighborhood gym the next day, signs up, steps into a ring with the top middle weight MMA contender in the world, and dishes out a severe beating. Of course, the gym owner/trainer/fight promoter immediately sees dollar signs and wants Hardy for Sparta, the fighting tournament to end all fighting tournaments.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Edgerton is at risk to lose his home, and needs extra cash. He tells Morrison that he is bouncing at quiet bars while he grades his students’ papers, but ends up in a parking lot amateur tournament that nets him $500. And this is where the poor story telling really begins to shine. At this point anyone that is awake should be skeptical as to why Hardy ever returned home to a father he hates more than anything, but Edgerton’s bouncing explanation falls apart. He tells Morrison he did not take the bouncing job for nine bucks an hour, and he made as much in an hour tonight as he would in a month of bouncing, yet earlier Morrison made comment not to come home bruised from some Temple frat boys again. So was Edgerton disappearing to a coffee shop to grade papers and lying to his wife? Or was he out fighting for fun and lying to his wife?
The mess of a story only grows from there. Hardy is a mysterious figure, and refuses to talk about his history at all, but we know he was in the Marines at some point and he has chosen to go by his mother’s maiden name. Through a telephone conversation with a Marine widow we discover that Hardy made a promise to take care of the widow and children of a comrade in arms, but there is no reasoning for it. Why are they so close? What happened to Hardy in combat? A friendly fire incident is revealed which creates more murkiness. Closer to the core of the story, how did Hardy become such an adapt MMA fighter? He left his father as a top ranked wrestler, but Hardy uses almost zero wrestling technique in his fights. He joined the Marines very young based on when Nick Nolte explains the timeline that a private eye he hired found Hardy and his mother, and I do not think there is much time for MMA training in Iraq. The ultimate explanation for why Hardy is no longer in the Marine Corps comes from out of the blue, and is ridiculous to the point of laughable.
Edgerton’s life is clear as mud itself. The bank is threatening foreclosure caused by a refinanced mortgage to cover medical bills for his daughter, and Edgerton tells the bank officer they are working three jobs between he and his wife. Well where is the third job? He is a physics teacher by day, and at one point Jennifer Morrison leaves the house in a sexy little black dress to go to work with no explanation. Is she a stripper? Cocktail waitress? Bartender? The third job could be bouncing, except he told his wife he lied about ever taking that job. So after his minor parking lot victory he sees an old friend and trainer and talks him into working with him again. Of course, this trainer also has a horse in the Sparta race, and when that fighter goes down somehow he gets Edgerton a spot in this elite sixteen slot Superbowl of MMA, even though Edgerton is on the wrong side of 30 and in his prime was only a mediocre UFC fighter.
When I finally gave up on making any sense of the story was when the film demanded we accept the mystery surrounding Hardy’s character. Hardy is being trained by his father, who is standing in his corner and not hidden at all. This father has a second son, that was a UFC fighter, also competing in the tournament under questionable entry. How did not a single person covering this extravaganza explore the father/son relationship between Nolte and Edgerton then quickly uncover the fact that Hardy is Nolte’s son and Edgerton’s brother? It’s preposterous that the entire arena finds out via a CNN report minutes before the brothers face off for the serendipitous final bout.
Warrior also has a strange aversion to violence for a PG13 movie about MMA. Hardy routinely pummels combatants in the face, with nary a drop of blood shown. A few bruises and scrapes show up on fighters, but absolutely zero blood is shown. It ruins the well done fight choreography and sound design on display. When the massive Hardy delivers repeated punches to an unguarded face, and the aural return is a wet smack it is a safe assumption that there should be a pile of goo where a face once was. Not here though, not even a bloody nose. The single time I thought there was a bloody nose it turned out to be a red mouth guard. Warrior has zero sexual content pushing it into PG13 territory, and it seems like the director should have pushed the MPAA a bit more in order to at least have semi-believable consequences to athletic freaks of nature pounding each other into dust.
All of this could still be salvaged by that single outstanding performance. The Christian Bale – The Fighter role. The Burgess Meredith – Rocky role. Instead Warrior offers heaping disappointment in Hardy, and blandness in Edgerton. Hardy plays his character as the angry fourteen year old that just learned his parents were splitting up, and isn’t emotionally equipped to cope with it. Instead of pursuing that and finding an interesting take on the character Hardy keeps his hair greasy, smothered across his forehead just over his eyes, while treating everyone around him like shit. Instead of being a sympathetic, or at least understandable, angry son he is a huge asshole that talks with marbles in his mouth. The accent Hardy chose is a jarring choice. Imagine Benecio Del Toro sniveling with a cold and you have it. There are flashes of a true wild man in the final fight sequences that reveal hints of a completely different character that offer more intrigue in 5 minutes than the preceding two hours.
Joel Edgerton never had a chance at this being the broke out role he has been on the cusp of for what seems like forever. His character is the prototypical bland middle-class dad trying to overcome insurmountable odds to take care of his family. He even has the love interest that fights him over his decision until she sees that he can actually do it, and then runs to his side. Nick Nolte at least gives a humble performance as the broken down old timer trying to make amends. If you have ever had a family member fight with addiction and try to earn back your trust then you will find Nolte’s performance believable, and often touching.
Warrior never justifies its existence let alone the 2 hour 19 minute run time. There are a million plot threads that are frayed at best, or completely ignored at worst. If you spend time with ESPN personalities and putting the Sparta fight promoter in front of us repeatedly then justify that time spent somehow. I honestly do not know where the time went in this film, as we had very little pre-Sparta screen time with Hardy, and once we got to Sparta it was pretty much non-stop fighting. Maybe the montages were much longer than they seemed.
I can offer Warrior faint praise, as it does look good and sound great. Ultimately, Warrior knows the sport film beats and follows them precisely to the conclusion that we all saw coming, even if the script does its best job obscuring how we got there. Warrior is damned by the lack of a transcendent performance to elevate material that any viewer will be overly familiar with. If you are a fan of MMA you may walk away with something extra, but if you want this years The Fighter you will be sorely disappointed.