Monday, September 12, 2011

The devil you know is better than the devil you don't

Gavin O'Conner's Warrior is everything a good boxing movie should be. One cannot help but to become emotionally invested in the two leads, the fights are riveting, and the final victory is earned and profoundly moving. I loved this movie. Granted, I have a softspot for boxing movies. Sports of hand to hand combat are naturally cinematic. Inherent in the sport is a compelling story arc. There's conflict, struggle, conquest, and in the world of boxing, most fighters are among the underclasses of America, so they are all underdog stories. This alone is the bones of a good movie, as long is it avoids the pitfalls of being too saccharine and too heavy handed. Warrior avoids this with the power and authenticity of it's leads and a setting of modern, post-market crash, war torn America.

Tommy Riodan (Tom Hardy) returns to the home of his childhood, not to make amends with his alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), but to enlist him as his trainer for a mixed martial arts tournament. The unexpected appearance of Tommy is cloaked with mystery. He says little, but he is an imposing figure that has been destroyed by circumstances. However, he is a force to be reckoned with in the ring, which is revealed in a sparing match in a small gym when Tommy takes down the middle weight contender in a matter of seconds. Tommy's estranged brother, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is similarly broken by life. He is a high school physics teacher, underwater on his mortgage, who is suspended without pay when it is discovered that he is earning money on the side in fights in the parking lots of strip clubs. Brendan provides a stark contrast to his pill popping, unhinged brother. He too is a skilled fighter, but a controlled fighter who plays by the rules. He does it for the money to support his wife and daughters, one of which has an expensive, heart condition.

Probably the strongest element of Warrior is provided by the authenticity of the two lead actors. Tom Hardy's career took off after he bulked up to become the notorious English convict, Charlie Bronson and he again brings a similar physical menace to Tommy. Probably having no more than a dozen lines in the film, Hardy dominates the film with his powerful build and aggressive demeanor, but also vulnerability. However, all vulnerability is absent when Tommy is in the cage, where he is reminiscent of Kurosawa's samurai heroes, striking down any challenger in the blink of an eye, with a single sword strike. Tommy's fights are over before his opponent has a chance to fight back and he exits the cage before the fight can be called. Joel Edgerton gives a similar level of authenticity and believability to Brendan, since he has an athletic physique that is not in top condition, about what one would expect from a teacher that fights on the side. And he is probably not new to physical roles, since Joel Edgerton wrote many of the films that his brother, stuntman Nash Edgerton directed. Both Hardy and Edgerton were plausible as brothers and very natural as fighters.

While Warrior succeeds as a solid sports movie with great fight scenes and an exciting climactic win, at it's heart, Warrior is a film about family and forgiveness. Gavin O'Connor has made a film that is devoid of any cynicism. There is real compassion for Brendan and Tommy in their struggles to redefine masculinity. Both have rejected the violent and domineering model of manhood provided by their father, Paddy Conlin (Nick Nolte), but the alternative paths taken by the brothers have failed them. Tommy became a soldier to escape his past and Brendan became a teacher and a family man, but in the post-9/11 world, both are damaged by not only their alcoholic father, but also the war and the lack of any kind of social safety net. But in Warrior, Tommy and Brendan find forgiveness and redemption when they face off in the ring in what should have come across as trite, in a film with so much honesty and heart, Warrior instead becomes triumphant.