A new movie that tries to do for MMA what The Wrestler did for, erm, wrestling.
In general movies revolving around Mixed Martial Arts have been cheap cash-ins destined to hit the DVD bargain bins. Sure films such as Never Back Down and Blood and Bone might be OK provided that you throw plenty of beers and snacks into the bargain but to be fair – aside from the odd interesting film such as Redbelt or documentary like Choke - they’re decidedly low rent. Taking its cues from the likes of Rocky, Warrior attempts to increase the stock of the MMA film by marrying plenty of action with a (sometimes rather unbelievable) storyline about a family that has been torn apart.
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) is enjoying a life of quiet religion and is almost 1000 days sober. But his serene life belies his past as a wife beating drunk that has left both his children estranged. One day Paddy returns home to find his youngest son Tommy (Tom Hardy) waiting for him. It soon transpires that Tommy wants Paddy to train him for upcoming MMA tournament ‘Sparta’ with the proviso that Paddy does not try anything to repair their relationship: everything will be strictly professional. But neither of them knows that eldest Conlon child, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is also contemplating a return to MMA after retiring from the sport to become a teacher. Needing to secure his financial future, the large prize money offered by Sparta seems too tempting. Soon a showdown between the two brothers is promised that will open both physical and emotional wounds.
It’s clear that director Gavin O’Connor is attempting to give everything a gravitas that has been missing from your typical MMA themed film. From the urgent handheld camerawork to the grainy cinematography it goes for a dirty and realistic look that emulates the likes of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The approach, coupled with the extremely strong acting (Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte are all excellent), is almost successful. But the story drifts too much into melodrama and cliché with a number of situations that our protagonists find themselves in rather forced and predictable (though there are a couple of time when the story manages to cleverly wrong-foot the audience).
It’s clear that director Gavin O’Connor is attempting to give everything a gravitas that has been missing from your typical MMA themed film.
Indeed, the first half includes a physics teacher becoming an MMA fighter, revelations about Tommy’s past as a soldier and enough plot strands to keep an HBO show going for a couple of seasons. It feels like it’s trying too hard to make all the MMA action ‘legitimate’ when it finally arrives. It’s a shame as if it had stripped back some of the more convoluted ideas contained in the plot the film, which clocks in at more than 2 hours, may have felt a little less bloated.
But ultimately it’s a film for MMA fans and when the action comes it delivers in spades. The fights are well filmed and manage to capture the spirit of MMA whilst still sticking to the kind of loose reality that movies demand. Fans will also recognise cameos by the likes of Rashad Evans and Stephan Bonnar alongside Kurt Angle who plays a Russian fighting machine (which is kind of ironic given that Angle has won a gold medal in wrestling for the USA). And the film also manages to pass the most important test for any sports movie: it has a montage sequence (a split-screen montage sequence to boot!)
Warrior makes a creditable attempt at expanding the scope of the MMA films – and whilst not always successful – the powerful performances should keep many people happy, even if they closest they have come to a fight is in the school playground. MMA fans on the other hand should find their thirst for action sated alongside the all-important montage.
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