When I drove to Chicago to answer the invitation MMA Gospel received to attend a three week advanced screening of Lionsgate Entertainment’s new mixed martial arts drama Warrior staring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, I didn’t expect much. The few short trailers that had come out prior had piqued my interest though and seemed to imply that the film would offer more than the poor acting of several UFC champions and excessive nudity that previous MMA films had given us, but knowing the mainstream media’s still jaded opinion of the sport, I didn’t expect Warrior to be much more than a basic rehash of every old boxing movie re-skinned to appeal to niche market MMA fans. I was pleasantly surprised. Director/screenwriter Gavin O’Connor put together a movie that appeals to fans of all walks of life and manages to weave a story that is both deeply ensconced in the subculture of mixed martial arts and completely independent of the action in the cage at the same time. The story could have centered around any sport and still had a serious impact on the viewer, but MMA was certainly the best fit.
The central premise of the film focuses on two brothers, their relationship with their estranged alcoholic father, and Sparta, a world wide middleweight Grand Prix tournament with a five million dollar grand prize to determine the greatest fighter alive. Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy), an ex-marine and Iraq War veteran, returns home to Pittsburgh in search of his father after 14 years of absence. After making it very clear that he has no intentions of forgiving his father, he stays with him and quietly takes his bottled rage out on the heavy bags at a local smoker gym. His brother, Brendan Conlon (Edgerton), is a UFC wash-out and physics teacher who is totally dedicated to ensuring his family never has to experience the childhood he had with his abusive father. He struggles to keep the house he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) from going into foreclosure by fighting in small Toughman-style one-night tournaments while telling his wife he is moonlighting as a bouncer. The plot comes to a head when, shortly after a mega wealthy MMA fan announces his Sparta championship tournament, Brendan loses his teaching job and Tommy becomes a YouTube sensation by knocking out one of the tournament’s top contestants in a sparring match.
Brendan, now jobless and trying to save his suburban dream, visits his long-time friend and world renowned MMA trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) and begs him to train him for small fights. Campana agrees but reminds him that his training will be secondary to the hot young middleweight blue chipper he is currently training for the Sparta tournament. Brendan agrees and begins winning at small local and regional shows. Fate smiles on Brendan and he ends up replacing Campana’s fighter in Sparta where he is bracketed opposite his war hero brother. Meanwhile, Tommy gets offered a chance to fight in Sparta and takes it. He asks his father to train him and becomes a dark horse favorite among the fans. When troops in Iraq begin sharing his YouTube fight, a young Marine recognizes him in the video as the man who tore the back hatch off of a flooding tank to save the Marine’s entire crew before going AWOL and disappearing. As a result, Tommy is branded a hero and quickly becomes a sensation heading into the tournament.
The two brothers are complete opposites who took completely different paths in life, a fact which is reflected in their radically opposing journeys through the tournament brackets. Tommy stands in stark contrast to his adoring fans and Marine Corps. cheering section as he angrily storms the cage with no entrance music, destroys his opponents, and storms back to the locker rooms, the very picture of unforgiving rage and disgust at the world around him as he fights for himself and, it is later discovered, to win the prize money for the wife and kids of a fallen comrade. Brendan is universally written off by the fans while the experts remind them that he was once in the UFC and thus, is always dangerous. Where Tommy destroyed his foes, Brendan seems to pull victory from the jaws of defeat in the last seconds of all of his matches, mirroring his last-ditch effort to save his home from foreclosure. The brother’s contrast is further reflected in their brackets. Tommy, who is disgusted at what he sees as the weakness of his father for begging his forgiveness and his estranged brother for staying behind when his mother left due to his then-girlfriend and now-wife, faces the obviously weaker side of the brackets. His brother, full of desperation and struggling to keep the shambles of his finances together while hiding them from his children, has his uphill battle reflected in the opponents he faces. He opens the tournament against the unethical fighter Midnight (Anthony Johnson) and goes on to face undefeated Russian superstar and MMA god figure Koba (Kurt Angle) in the semi-finals. The inevitable conclusion to the film is the finals battle between the two brothers with Tommy representing the rage and pain of the pairs past and Brendan representing the determination to overcome anything and sacrifice everything to have a future. Throughout the whole movie, the fighting is secondary to the story, supporting it by personifying the characters’ lives and personal demons while the outcomes of the bouts themselves are largely irrelevant, and the effect is stunning.
Perhaps the most ingenious (and annoying) device in the film’s bag of tricks is the use of the overall production quality to assist in building the viewers sense of immersion in the story. The camera work in the early fights appears raw and amateurish, much as one would expect from the video of a parking lot smoker fight, and the story is broken, jumping back-and-forth between each brother’s story, much as their lives are broken. As the film progressed, so did the cohesive flow of the two story lines and the quality of the camera work. The whole effect was one of the film, from the storyboard to the camera work, to the fight choreography, coming together as the characters’ lives did. The actual production seems to grow more complete as the brothers themselves do and the effect is that the viewer becomes totally enraptured with the film, not even realizing how long it is. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the early parts of the film feature jerky camera motions that could cause anything from headaches to epileptic seizures, but the risk is well worth it. Take an aspirin and enjoy the best fight movie not named Rocky.
As a whole, Warrior is exactly what MMA needed. A mainstream movie of exceptional quality to represent what the sport is all about. It’s the kind of film that makes fans of people who may not have even considered giving the sport a chance otherwise. I would recommend the film for anyone, male or female, but it is a must-see for MMA fans.