“Brendan has done the impossible! What’s happened is a miracle!” – fight announcer
In 1985’s simplistic action fantasy “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” Sylvester Stallone plays a mentally scarred Vietnam veteran who gets released from prison to head an improbable top-secret government mission to rescue American POWs that were left behind.
In other words, he gets a do-over on the Vietnam War to make things right once and for all.
In “Rocky IV” the same year, Stallone— draped in the flag—gets to pummel a Soviet Superman, giving America some sweet wish fulfillment during the Reagan Cold War.
With America in a debilitating recession and its troops being called back for more tours of duty overseas, the roided-up underdog sports movie “Warrior” arrives to quench our thirst for violent catharsis and storybook endings.
With the title alone, the film imparts the modern wisdom that rabid intensity and hard work will pay off, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. (Coming from the director of “Miracle”—the true story of the U.S. Olympic hockey win in 1980, a film that was more effective and less over-the-top than “Warrior”—this isn’t really news.)
But the problem with “Warrior” is that it doesn’t really earn its uber-convenient underdog victory. Sure, its characters are redeemed and forgiven and united, but through what? Sheer will? Bloody baptism? If you can accept the premise, I suppose, then yes—however loaded and predetermined it may be.
The fact that both of its main characters rise from complete obscurity to the heights of notoriety in the most brutal sport around (mixed martial arts) is surely a sign of the times. Subtle it ain’t. “Warrior” bludgeons you with a shamelessly contrived screenplay and an incessant “stirring” soundtrack, while also offering surprisingly soulful performances that almost elevate it out of the gutter.
The script, by director Gavin O’Connor and co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorman, piles on a list of deep family scars and financial tribulations so thick that it’s impossible not to want the haunted Iraq War vet (Tom Hardy as Tommy) and the loving father/husband/high-school physics teacher (Joel Edgerton as Brendan) to succeed. I guess two Rockys are better than one, right? (There’s even an “undefeatable” Russian fighter—I kid you not.)
Knowing exactly where the film is going from the first reel doesn’t do it any favors either. (The trailer spotlights the final showdown in the ring and practically telegraphs the entire film, while the movie reveals key coincidences at “strategic” points.) The saying goes something like this: It’s the journey and not the journey’s end that’s illuminating—and that’s partially true here. Hardy, Edgerton, and Nick Nolte (as the boys’ formerly abusive, alcoholic father) all do fine work filling in nuances that don’t exist in the screenplay. Because these men are all wounded and the actors portray that vulnerability so effectively, its second nature to root for them.
It’s hard enough to accept, however, that these two could essentially go from nowhere to a five-million-dollar tournament, much less be brothers in the first place. Even harder to accept is the notion that this would happen unbeknownst to each other. But through a clumsily sculpted set of plot developments, that’s exactly what happens.
Until it doesn’t again. That’s the rational side. (Once the fighting kicks in, the tournament is staged convincingly in every part but the actual outcomes of the fights.)
Having to intellectualize why a movie works or why it doesn’t is not an easy thing to do—each individual will have their own reaction to any given film based on their personal tastes, experiences, etc. But it is important to look critically at our entertainment and try to figure out the “why.” Dissecting not just the message, but the way it is delivered, can give you clearer insight into why you reacted a certain way. Those who see through the contrivances will struggle to get back on track with the movie.
When “Warrior” begins with Nolte listening to the book-on-tape of “Moby Dick,” it is clear the kind of movie we’re in for. (This isn’t the only forced literary reference. Get this: When Tommy was in high school, his goal was to beat the undefeated record of Theogenes, an ancient Greek fighter. The bloody winner-take-all tournament itself is called “Sparta.” OK, we get it. They’re warriors.)
With Brendan’s home being threatened with foreclosure and Tommy’s mental anguish from the war—and the fact that each took opposite sides in a broken home—the situations being played out in “Warrior” are certainly relevant today.
But for all of its supposed realism and reflection of hard times in America, the movie plays out as complete fairy-tale nonsense—exactly the kind of thing that “The Fighter” was fighting to get away from (even as it partially embraced it). There’s no fighting it here. “Warrior” hits every cliché on the straight line from tough times to redemption. (O’Connor even finds a way to create cheering sections for each opponent, further destroying whatever kind of hard-scrabble authenticity he was trying to construct.)
“Warrior” isn’t a working-class success story—it’s a working-class fantasy world. It is a movie where everything happens exactly how we want it to, even when every bone in your body is telling you it is impossible.
The art direction and cinematography are predictably grimy and the situations are as dire as they need to be, but when the movie strands the audience (as it does so often), the effect is devastating. It’s as if the scrim suddenly fell, the lighting went dark, and an assistant PA tripped his way into the frame. It becomes a movie. And we are outside of it, waiting 140 minutes for the inevitable miracle to happen.