The rise of Mixed Martial Arts in popular culture has been reflected in cinema with results that range from barely satisfactory (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu enthusiast David Mamet's Red Belt, Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard in Fighting) to the relatively stupid (Never Back Down, Never Surrender, never going to make the mistake of renting these again) with the hokey, but thoroughly enjoyable, precursors like Jean Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, Frank Dux's imaginative fiction depicting a Hong Kong Kumite.
Learning that Bloodsport was bullshit was more disappointing at 18 than learning that there was no Santa Claus in that same year.
Warrior is the first MMA movie that manages to focus on character and plot development as much as balancing realistic action in the cage. The movie is less about the physical fight and more about one splintered family's fight to forgive. It respects the viewer enough to provide the barest background of family patriarch Nick Nolte's abuse and the destruction he visited upon his deceased wife and two boys, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Hardy). It's a wise choice as the reality created by the regret in Nick Nolte's eyes and the harsh moments of retribution from his sons - brothers now separated, alienated, and ultimately set against each other - when the younger Tommy fled with a sick mother and the other "betrays" him by remaining with the abusive Nolte - is superior to flashbacks or other tired devices. You'll figure out quickly the kind of sonuvabitch we're dealing with.
Or were dealing with. Pop is clean now and he's trying to get back into their lives. He wants to train Tommy and be a proper grandfather to Brendan's kids.
Tommy stalks through much of the film as a wayward pit bull rescue - a snarling force-of-Nature who can't be heeled or healed. His mistreatment by family and circumstance has left him alone and alienated, existing on survival instinct and rage when his final tenuous chain to family is severed by a friendly fire incident in Iraq. He's intent on dishing back some of the hurt that the world has visited upon him, motivated by the quest of fulfilling a barracks promise to his best friend. He channels it all into a relentless fighting style that is as spare as it is brutal, first glimpsed in a gym scene with an elite contender who likes to bully his sparring partners. The spare realism of the violence when Tommy tunes up his opponent is breath-taking. Can I get a a "holy shit!?"
The feat is captured on Youtube and lands Tommy a spot in an upcoming 5 million dollar tournament.
Estranged older brother Brendan manages his reality by excommunicating his father and going underwater on a home mortgage to create the good life for his wife and children that his high school physics teacher salary can't cover. On the wrong side of 30, after a mediocre UFC career, he's left fighting "smokers" in a strip club parking lot, managing a place in the Big Tournament on the charity of a brilliant corner man - whose guidance and instruction is his best hope for negotiating the tourney - best expressed in this beautiful scene, where you can actually see doubt melt into resolution:
And I think you know where this is going...yep, the brothers are going to fight. The subtle jiu-jitsu that the movie manages is that you end up pulling for both.
If you're not willing to buy in to the movie and the layers of emotional stakes (some applied ham-handedly) and the improbable collision course that's set for the movie denouement, you're unlikely to let your emotional guard down enough to acquiesce to the film's final scene. So tap out your cynicism. I did and was rewarded not with Rocky or The Fighter, but with one of the best meditations on the meaning of brotherhood since A River Runs Through It.
Check it out.
And if you already have, tell me what you thought.