Some news and notes before today’s review…
1) Remember to check out walkinradio.com, sort of our unofficial partner here at Kevin Reviews Things. Today’s review of Bruce Springsteen’s Five Best and Worst Songs is a particularly good one, even if they left out The Boss’ best one (Rosalita).
2) I haven’t received a ton of suggestions lately. Let me know what you want to hear at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’m hoping our first guest reviews will start coming in within the next couple of weeks. Please submit those as well – and don’t worry, I’ll do all the editing. (Or maybe you should worry.)
3) I’ve missed a month and a half or so, but next week we’ll start taking a look at what’s in the cinematic queue for 2012 with lots and lots of mini-film previews. Send me your thoughts and I’ll be sure to incorporate them into the posts as well.
On we go…
If there’s a Sports Movie Cliché Checklist, Warrior earns just about a perfect score. Underdog looking to beat improbable odds? Check. Evil Russian? Check. Wife who doesn’t want her husband to risk their lives with a fight? Check. There’s a “just give me a chance” scene, a few “how much pain can one man take?” scenes, financial troubles…on paper, it sounds like a thrill-less cliche’ fest. Don’t be fooled. Warrior is a dynamite film, one that takes a story on a smaller scope and places it into a much more epic setting, one that will absolutely take your breath away in its thrilling conclusion.
Warrior doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and anyone with half a brain can figure out the general plot – but it’s still best not to know much going on. (Avoid the trailer if you haven’t seen it yet, because you’ll know the whole movie in the span of two and a half minutes.) The basics: Warrior follows two brothers, Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton). There’s a reason for the different last names – the boys have had a troubled past, thanks to their alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte), and Tommy’s adopted his late mother’s last name as his own. After 14 years apart, Tommy shows up on his father’s Pittsburgh doorstep one day – but not to reconcile their relationship as father and son. A former star wrestler, Tommy is preparing to train for Sparta, a 16-man UFC tournament in Atlantic City with a $5 million prize, and he wants his dad to train him – but only as a trainer.
Across the state in Philadelphia, Brendan’s in a happy marriage with two daughters, but he’s struggling to pay enough money to keep his house. Brendan’s a former UFC fighter but a current physics teacher, with no plans to get back in the cage – until the bank comes calling and he’s out of options. He begins training as well, just for some low-money underground fights, but fate, as it always does in fighter movies, has other ideas.
It all sounds fairly generic. But it doesn’t play out that way. Director/screenwriter Gavin O’Connor takes a while to get us to the big tournament, but the stops along the way are gripping ones. Warrior is mainly about family – the relationships, or lack of relationships, between the three Conlon men. Hardy’s Tommy is a lone wolf, devoid of the need to ever see his kin again; Edgerton’s Brendan is a family man whose pain at the family’s separation is evident; and Nolte’s Paddy, a recovering alcoholic, just wants his boys back. Love and forgiveness are major themes of Warrior, a surprise considering the subject matter.
O’Connor also pulls the audience in by telling not one, but two major stories. Tommy and Brendan’s motivations are distinctly different, their methods opposite, their lives barely connected. We identify with both leads in different ways, but are drawn in by each side of the story. Warrior’s fight scenes are downright brutal, but the intensity is often matched by what happens outside of the cage.
There are so many ways in which Warrior could fall into a substandard cliché, and so many ways in which it doesn’t. The necessary supporting characters are there – The Reluctant Wife (Jennifer Morrison), The Trainer (Frank Grillo) – but they’re fleshed out thanks to smart writing and strong acting. Grillo in particular is a shining supporter here – I hadn’t seen him act until his antagonistic turn in The Grey just a week ago, but I’m thoroughly impressed with what I’ve seen so far. And I’m impressed with O’Connor, who’s pulled the same trick twice after 2003’s Miracle – he’s taken a clichéd and often predictable story again and kept you on the edge of your seat throughout.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning in detail the performance of the three leads, and it’s time to give them their due. Nolte garnered an Oscar nomination for this, and it’s as well-deserved as can be. His emotional range is often subtle, yet heartbreakingly powerful to watch. Edgerton seems to move through the film with ease, slipping effortlessly into his conflicted character. But it’s Hardy who makes the biggest and best impression here. A soft-spoken brute, he towers over the film with an extraordinary mental and physical presence. If I wasn’t convinced already, I am now – Christopher Nolan has smashed it out of the park with the selection of Hardy to portray Bane in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. I’m still terrified of Hardy, a day after watching.
There is, admittedly, some suspension of disbelief that needs to happen while watching Warrior. The film’s events are marked by an extraordinary contrivance of coincidences. But never once does it start to feel laughable or a head-scratcher. And it doesn’t batter you over the head with the plot…details about the family slowly leak out as the film churns along. Warrior’s a satisfying viewing from minute to minute, and it pummels you with one of the best endings from 2011’s films. I can’t wait to watch it again.