In martial arts cinema, there comes a time when a film brings not only exciting fight scenes, but brings a sense of humanity and heart driven by excellent performances by the cast. Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) successfully brings it this year with his mixed martial arts drama Warrior.
The film revolves around the struggles of two brothers who live on opposite sides of Pennsylvania. Returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq, ex-Marine Tommy Riordan is shocked to learn that he has returned home to a sober dad in Paddy Conlan in Pittsburgh. Tommy still has a bit of hatred and detriment for his father as he blames Paddy for the death of his mother. Paddy has been sober for almost one thousand days and hopes to make amends with both Tommy and his elder son Brendan.
Brendan Conlan, a former Ultimate Fighter who has become a family man and works as a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia. While his wife Tess works as a waitress, they still struggle to make ends meet. As a result, Brendan moonlights as a mixed martial arts fighter against amateur fighters in parking lots. Despite working and fighting, Brendan still is unable to afford the mortgage on his house and is due for foreclosure in ninety days.
The brothers soon learn of an upcoming mixed martial arts tournament called Sparta, which is being set in Atlantic City on the 4th of July weekend. The winner will receive five million dollars in what is being called the “Super Bowl of MMA”. Tommy, despite his constant hatred towards his father, decides to re-train under him for the tournament. At first, Brendan decides to train with former trainer and friend Frank Campana for a series of “smoker fights”. However, when Frank’s top contender is injured during training, Brendan asks Frank to take the contender’s place in Sparta. Despite the favorite fighter being Russian MMA fighter Koba, the brothers will eventually have to face and confront each other as they both have entered Sparta. Will they face off against each other in the cage?
Director Gavin O’Connor brings a sense of inspiration to his films. Before this film, he was given critical acclaim for his film MIRACLE, which was an account of the 1980 victorious upset of the United States hockey team against the Soviet Union at the Olympic Games. Switching sports from hockey to mixed martial arts, O’Connor, who also co-wrote the screenplay, once again brings inspiration and humanity, this time in the world of mixed martial arts.
Unlike previous MMA-themed films, this film is driven by showcasing the struggles of brothers Tommy and Brendan. The two tend to be complete opposites in a way yet they both have a hatred for their father. British actor Tom Hardy, best known for his roles in Bronson (2008) and Inception (2010), brings out of his best performances as former Marine Tommy. Tommy seems to be a mysterious figure as not much is known about him at first. Tommy proves himself to be an able fighter when he takes down a local hotshot during a sparring session and as the film progresses, much more is revealed, including why he changed his last name from Conlan to Riordan. Hardy plays Tommy as someone who feels ashamed of his actions and feels he must keep his walls up no matter what it takes. The character of Tommy also brings shades of Michael Jai White’s main character in Blood and Bone (2009) to the mix and this revelation of the character proves that despite being somewhat of a hateful soul, he still has a piece of humanity in him. Hardy truly brings an aggressive style to the film, one that he brought again when he took on the role of Bane in the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays it well as struggling teacher Brendan. He loves his day job of being a high school physics teacher, as he earns the total respect of his students. However, like Tommy, he has a past too. Brendan was a former mixed martial arts fighter who never earned the respect like other fighters in the field. To help make ends meet, he fights in smoker bouts in the parking lots of strip clubs. For those unfamiliar with the term, “smoker bouts” are similar to independent wrestling matches with the fighters get paid for the action and are usually held in more small-town venues. They are not professional but can involve former professionals, as such as the case of Brendan. Of course, Brendan not only struggles with attempting to keep his house, but keep his family intact when his wife learns about his recent return to fighting. When Brendan enters the Sparta tournament in hopes to make his family financially secure, his wife is not happy at first but soon realizes when he does have a chance, she knows he will need his support.
While many may choose between feeling sorry for Brendan and Tommy, the one character who really needs pity is that of the brothers’ father, Paddy, excellently played by Nick Nolte. Paddy has admitted his faults from the past numerous times due to his alcoholism. His past has resulted not only in Tommy and Paddy’s wife leaving them, but eventually had caught up to Brendan and even more, caused dissention between the two brothers. Paddy trains Tommy for the upcoming Sparta tournament despite Tommy still having a bad taste in his mouth while Brendan does admit he is upset that Tommy got all the attention from their father as a kid.
The mixed martial arts element of the film were well done courtesy of fight choreographer and stunt coordinator J.J. “Loco” Perry. Perry is perhaps best known in the fight choreography department for his stunning work in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006), the climactic battle in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2008), and Michael Jai White’s Blood and Bone (2009). What makes the film’s fight scenes interesting is that director O’Connor uses distinct MMA styles for the two brothers. Hardy seems to bring an aggressive style of combat while Edgerton plays it more like an underdog on the verge of redemption not only for his family, but for himself as well. Perry and his team trained stars Hardy and Edgerton and from the looks of it, both stars most likely performed all of their own fight scenes instead of relying on doubles for even the more technical takedowns. Perry also makes good use of former Olympic gold medal wrestler turned pro wrestler Kurt Angle, who plays Sparta favorite Koba in the limited time screen he uses for his fight scenes. There may be a sense of extreme close ups at times, but what is interesting is the use of camera angles in the tournament fights. The reason is because O’Connor uses shots from a spectator’s point of view during the tournament. He wants the viewer of the film to feel what it is like to see a mixed martial arts match and succeeds here.
In 2015, Bollywood remade the film with the very successful Brothers, which starred Akshay Kumar in the Edgerton role and Siddharth Malhota in the Hardy role with legend Jackie Shroff as the father of the duo.
Warrior is exactly the kind of mixed martial arts film that any martial arts film fan should check out. While many MMA-themed films suffer from either bad or cliched storylines and/or badly edited fight scenes, Gavin O’Connor successfully melds a terrific storyline, driven performances by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, and J.J. Perry’s frenetic fight choreography into a film that brings heart to the world of mixed martial arts.
WFG RATING: A+
Lionsgate presents a Mimran Schur Pictures Production in assocation with Solaris/Filmtribe. Director: Gavin O’Connor. Producers: Gavin O’Connor and Greg O’Connor. Writers: Gavin O’Connor, Cliff Dorfman, and Anthony Tambakis. Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi. Editing: Sean Albertson, Matt Chesse, John Gilroy, and Aaron Marshall.
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn, Maximiliano Hernandez, Bryan Callen, Sam Sheridan, Fernando Chien, Kurt Angle, Nate Marquardt, Anthony Johnson, Erik Apple.