I still don’t really “get” MMA (mixed martial arts) — whenever I see it on TV it reminds me of a prison shower — but Warrior, starring Aussie Joel Edgerton and Inception‘s and soon to be The Dark Knight Rises’s Tom Hardy, has convinced me to give the sport a second look.
Warrior is, without a doubt, the best MMA movie of all time (given that the competition includes Never Back Down I and II, Fighting and Undisputed II and III), and is arguably one of the best films of the year. You might say it’s 2011’s The Fighter (the true story of Micky Ward starring Marky Mark and Batman) — a riveting family drama disguised as a violent sports film.
Without the benefit of a “true story” behind it, Warrior does have the danger of being construed as cliched, but as always, it’s all about the execution of the story. I don’t want to give too much away because the mysteries of the relationships play a big part in the film’s allure and sustaining the drama. Tom Hardy is Tommy, a child wrestling prodigy who escaped his abusive father (and trainer) with his mother as a teenager. Edgerton is his big brother Brendan, a former UFC fighter turned struggling physics teacher. Nick Nolte plays their reformed father. The event that brings them all together is Sparta, a $5 million winner-takes-all grand prix-style MMA tournament featuring the world’s top fighters, including a frightening undefeated Russian champion.
There is a sense of inevitability in this Gavin O’Connor film (he also wrote the script and co-produced), but it hardly matters because Warrior is a genuinely moving, gripping and explosive drama that touches on such universal themes as forgiveness, redemption and unbreakable familial bonds. I don’t think the film would be what it is without the top-notch performances of its three stars. Tom Hardy brings a brooding, tragic presence to the enigmatic Tommy, while Edgerton is picture perfect as the underdog fighting for his family. And Nolte pretty much has his mumbling old man thing down pat, and is perhaps the most heartbreaking character of them all.
As for the fight scenes — while they are secondary to the film’s drama, and keeping in mind that I’m not a regular viewer of MMA, I personally thought they looked fantastic, as good as any film about fighting I’ve seen. There were some fast cuts and rapidly changing angles, but I never lost track of what the fighters were doing, and most of all I found the choreography highly engaging and exciting. There is perhaps an element of implausibility in how the story and/or fights unfold, but everything is handled with so much skill and sufficient subtlety that it becomes forgiveable.
Warrior made an emotional connection with me which made the film enormously satisfying to watch. I’m not sure if it’ll be the same upon a second viewing or years on later, but for now, in my mind, it’s one of the best fighting movies ever.
4.75 stars out of 5!