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Warrior (2011) – Blu-ray review

February 20, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

This double-underdog is out on Blu-ray and DVD today, hoping to land a few more blows than it did in cinemas. Well worth a watch, despite the copious extras being a little too self-congratulatory about what a good film this is.

Warrior 2011 Tom Hardy Gavin O'Connor

Warrior
(Gavin O’Connor, 2011)

It could have been a hoary old melodrama. Instead, it’s two hoary old melodramas, redeeming their clichés by duking it out in a cage

They’ve all been there. Rocky, The Wrestler, most recently The Fighter. Underdog pugilist, full of working class baggage, sees the big fight as the source of his redemption and goes the distance. Doesn’t even matter if he wins or loses: in his heart, he always wins. Warrior tells that same story yet again, but this time there’s a twist. It tells the story twice.

As high-concept pitches go, ‘estranged brothers go up against each other in a mixed martial-arts tournament’ feels that it’s already been taken – and Gavin O’Connor must have checked IMDb over and over again to make sure it was available. And that’s the sparking point for a surprising reinvention of this well-worn genre, because the problem with fighting movies is that it’s always about the one fighter. When guys like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull are busy battling their own demons, the actual opponent may as well be masked. So to give equal focus to both protagonists is rare, and refreshes the template because you’re rooting for both of ’em.

And that changes the whole dynamic, because the first hour has to set up more plates than ever. On the one hand, there’s prodigal son Tommy (Tom Hardy), home from war to see his recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte) to train him for the big tournament; on the other, Tommy’s brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a teacher who fights to make up spare cash to prevent his home from going under. O’Connor takes his time, applying huge patience to ease us into the story: the opening sequence, as Tommy faces Paddy for the first time in years, lasts nearly ten minutes.

Each section has its challenges. For Tommy, it’s one of sympathy; he’s a man of few words and his backstory relies on surprise, so O’Connor spends time watching Hardy’s lumbering frame and hooded eyes to show a huge amount of hidden pain behind the man-mountain. For Brendan, it’s one of plausibility: how the hell is this guy even going to get into the tournament? O’Connor knows we’re in fairytale land, so he sells it by approximating an off-the-cuff verité style and some deft, naturalistic dialogue.

That all changes in the final hour, when the film defaults to type. Mixed martial arts is certainly different, but in genre terms the movie doesn’t do much different from any other – even down to indulging pro commentators by letting them talk over the fights. To this reviewer at least, a complete lack of knowledge of the rules made it easier to swallow Brendan’s underdog status, taking the beatings only to do something very clever and technical to force a win. In fact, the film’s best joke (taking the piss out of the entire genre) is that O’Connor has to spend so long justifying Brendan’s wins that Tommy marches into the ring, punches out a guy in seconds, and then storms out again. It certainly keeps the running time manageable.

OK, so Warrior lacks the focal point of The Fighter, which was able to paint a serio-comic portrait of an entire blue-collar community while pretending to be interested in Mark Wahlberg. At heart, O’Connor’s film is a traditional ‘sins of the father’ melodrama, and the hinge on which the film turns is Nolte, putting all of his life experience into a 12-step performance of sad-eyed humility. Yes, he milks it, but he also mines the core of emotional fracture that makes the film’s healing process so cathartic. The sport, finally, is immaterial – it could easily have been boxing, or wrestling – although there’s a lot of wit in O’Connor choosing to mirror his mixed storytelling with a fighting style in which anything goes.

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