Warrior (2011)


Was any 2011 film more ill-served by its trailer than Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”?

Here’s the trailer:

A few months ago I was at a theater where this played; and when the ringside announcer cries, “This is impossible! The two men fighting for the championship ... are BROTHERS!?!,” several people in the crowd laughed out loud and shouted sarcastically at the screen. Worse than the awfulness of the line itself—how it dumps in your lap the very thing that needs to be built up slowly (the impossibility of the story)—it’s a third-act revelation. The people who created the trailer are letting us know everything that’s going to happen in the movie except for who wins that final fight: the military brother or the schoolteacher brother. Which you can guess if you factor in Hollywood’s underdog tendencies.

So I wrote off the film. As did most of us. It opened the weekend of September 9th and grossed $5 million. Its total domestic take was not quite three times that number, $13 mil, meaning word-of-mouth wasn’t great. By the end of October it was gone.

Then last Sunday the New York Times critics picked their Oscar nominees and there it was. Both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis chose Tom Hardy, the military brother, among their best actor nominees. Scott included the film among his five best picture nominees.

Best picture? The “brothers fighting for the championship” movie?

I had to see it.

Its value, I’d argue, lies somewhere between what Scott says and the trailer implies. It’s a formulaic fight film, yes, but it’s got a personal touch. It builds slowly. It’s about relationships: the drunk father and his two unforgiving sons. It aspires to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which, remember, won best picture in 1976. Hardy is a good actor.

But best picture?

It begins with its best scene. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte, of course), a former fight trainer and alcoholic, a thousand days sober, returns home at night to find a young man sitting on his front stoop with a brown paper bag around a bottle. “Tommy?” he says in that Nolte growl. It’s his son, estranged. He hasn’t seen him in ... 10 years? More? Not since the mother left with Tommy and headed west and wound up in Tacoma, Wash., where she died of cancer and he joined the military. Now he’s back from Iraq, going by his mother’s maiden name, Riordan, rather than Conlon. He seems to want something from the old man, too, but can’t forgive him. He slumps through the old man’s small, Pittsburgh apartment like a tinderbox, looking at pictures, asking questions, ready to explode. He doesn’t. He just smolders.

In Paddy’s apartment, Tommy also sees photos of his older brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), now married to Tess (Jennifer Morrison), the smoking hot neighborhood girl, and working as a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia, and that’s where the film goes: to Brendan teaching his students, who call him Mr. C., and Brendan patiently letting his daughters paint his cheeks “like a princess,” and Brendan pumping iron in the gym prior to leaving for his second job as a bouncer. Except he’s not a bouncer. He’s making money as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter in parking lot rings next to strip clubs. Turns out he was once a professional MMA fighter, trained by the old man, but his strip-club fighter is a little like Rocky Balboa’s with Spider Rico: a victory, sure, but hardly impressive.

Certainly not as impressive as when Tommy visits his local gym, and, in a sparring match, beats down the local golden boy, “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple) in 20 seconds—which is filmed by one of the locals and becomes, as they say, “a YouTube sensation.”

For his strip-club fighting, Brendan is suspended from teaching without pay. Unfortunately, the local banker tells him he’s underwater on his mortgage and if he can’t come up with the payments the bank will repossess. He only has a few weeks. That’s why he was fighting in the first place.

Hey, turns out there’s a MMA big tournament in nearby Atlantic City: 16 fighters, single-elimination, $5 million winner-take-all purse. Tommy’s YouTube video helps him make the cut, while Brandon, whose suspension for MMA fighting pushes him toward MMA fighting, trains with a top-notch local, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo); and when Frank’s boy, Marco Santos (Roan Carneiro), goes down, Brandon asks for his slot. Frank gives it only reluctantly.

At this point, nobody outside of them and us knows Tommy and Brendan are brothers. They have different last names, after all. All that’s known about Tommy is the YouTube video, along with another video, in which, seen via helmet cam, Tommy pulls the door off a tank to rescue several soldiers in Iraq. To be honest, we don’t know much more. We see him talk to a girl in Texas, the widow of a friend, a Marine. That’s about it. We know he doesn’t forgive his brother for choosing the father (or the local girl) over him and his mother. We know he doesn’t communicate well and forgives even less. We know he smolders until heat waves emanate off him.

In the elimination rounds, Tommy clobbers his opponents in seconds while Brendan gets clobbered for two rounds only to win with a come-from-behind tap-out in the third. Then it’s just them.

It’s at this point, right before the championship match, that the media figures it all out. Hey, Tommy is Tommy Conlon, the son of the man who’s training him, and the brother of Brendan Conlon, the man he’s fighting for the championship. Wow! (Which raises a point: Why did no one in the media, or in PR, realize that the trainer of one fighter was the father of another fighter? Why wasn’t that a story before Tommy’s lineage became known?)

The bigger reveal is that Tommy’s AWOL. He fled after a friendly-fire incident in which he and his buddy, the husband of the woman in Texas, were shot by U.S. planes. His buddy was killed. He’s fighting for her. He wants to get money to her. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

Forget for a moment the implausibility of it all—the “this is impossible... two brothers” line from the trailer. What else rings false about the movie?

We know why Brendan fights. He needs to save his house. But why does Tommy fight? For the widow in Texas? Surely he knows he’ll be exposed by a national tournament in Atlantic City. It’s a wonder he even makes the cut in the first place. Yes, a wonder.

But it’s the bit about Brendan’s house that really gets me. The bank is going to foreclose on him in a matter of weeks? What super efficient bank is this? It takes most banks months, possibly years, to actually foreclose in this economy. Plus the fact that he’s underwater on his mortgage means nothing if he wants to stay there, right? How does the shifting value of the house make the current payments harder? Does he have an adjustable rate mortgage? And wouldn’t current low interest rates help him in this regard?

Admittedly, both leads—Hardy from England and Edgerton from Australia—are good at playing Americans, but there’s too little behind Edgerton’s eyes and too much behind Hardy’s. In this way, Hardy is both reserved and over-the-top: a neat trick. To be honest, the actor who impressed me most was Frank Grillo as Frank Campana. At first I assumed they’d grabbed a real-life MMA trainer from somewhere, maybe the guy who was their technical consultant, because he seemed so real; then Grillo begins to project things that no walk-on, no non-actor, can. It’s a great supporting performance.

So no best-actor nom for Hardy from me. Best picture? Not even close. A.O. Scott’s got rocks in his head.

But the movie is still better than its trailer implies.

—January 7, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard