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Warrior (2011)

The Elephant in the Ring

It's a goddamned crime that The Help held the number-one spot at the box office for three weeks in a row, and was succeeded by the lame bat/swine-flu procedural Contagion. Both films aspire to realism but fall into the traps of revisionist melodrama and dry montage fatigue, respectively. Along comes Warrior, an exciting, emotionally devastating triumph--the year's best mainstream American picture, by far--and hardly anyone sees it.

Maybe the marketing campaign turned people off. The bland, black-and-white poster with its noticeable lack of marquee names and the trailers reminiscent of last year's big boxing picture, The Fighter--complete with rousing, inspirational score and the deadly words, "From the director of Miracle"--may have contributed to scaring away the very people who most need to see this movie (i.e. everybody). Admittedly, I was firmly in the skeptics' camp, too, but the joyous surprise of discovery is the greatest perk of being a film critic.

Like The Fighter, Warrior is a movie about down-on-their-luck brothers with severe family issues who look to a Big Match to resolve their financial and personal issues. That's where the similarities end, though, and while I love what Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg did with their characters, they've got nothing on Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton here. Co-writer/director Gavin O'Connor and screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman have created a deceptively complex story about guilt that spits in the face of every sports movie's Inevitable Redemption message.

Hardy plays Tommy Conlon, an Iraq War vet who returns to Pittsburgh to stay with his recovering-alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). They've neither seen nor spoken in the fourteen years since Tommy's mother ran out on her abusive, womanizing spouse, leaving his older brother, Brendan (Edgerton) to pick up the pieces. There's a cloud hanging over Tommy whose black depths we don't see until much later in the movie; all we know is that he's back in town and staying with his old man because he has nowhere else to go. To pass time, he joins the local gym and impresses its owner by knocking out the mixed-martial-arts middleweight champion during a sparring session.

A few towns over, Brendan struggles to maintain what looks on the surface to be a perfect, middle-class family life. He's a high school physics teacher with a waitress wife named Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and two young daughters--one of whom had to have heart surgery a few years earlier. Heart surgery is expensive, as is raising a family on a teacher's salary and tips; on top of that, their flipped-mortgage house is in danger of slipping into foreclosure in three months.

With few legitimate alternatives, Brendan heads to a strip club one evening and participates in the low-rent MMA fight being held in its parking lot (Growing up, Paddy, an ex-Marine had trained both of his boys to be wrestlers and boxers, a life that Brendan left behind when he decided to settle down). Brendan wins the fight, but is spotted by the older brother of one of his students--resulting in a semester-long suspension without pay. After a difficult talk with Tess, he reconnects with his old trainer, Frank (Frank Campana), an unconventional master who uses Beethoven to teach his men grace, perseverance, and timing.

Even if the trailers hadn't stated it explicitly, the premise should be enough of a tip-off that these brothers will go head-to-head in a championship title. The event is called "Sparta", a $5 million Atlantic City elimination cage-match. What the previews don't convey is the deeply personal importance of this fight on the Conlon family. As Brendan scraps desperately with his opponents, clawing his way up the ranks, Tommy makes a name for himself as the interview-dodging, silent machine who knocks men out in seconds and then darts from the ring. In the end, it becomes clear that Tommy is less a man than an amalgam of Paddy's and Brendan's anger and guilt, a reminder that winning the match has nothing to do with the multi-million-dollar purse.

Part of the movie's brilliance is the way it gives hints of backstory without resorting to flashbacks or long speeches about specific things that happened to the Conlons earlier on. This is a story about aftershocks, and the screenwriters keenly observe the splintering effect that alcoholism can have on the relationships between fathers and sons and siblings. Paddy is so reviled by his boys that it's hard to imagine the broken-down old man as being a monster; we get a glimpse of that later, in a scene that's surprising in both its setup and resolution. By the time Brendan enters round five of the climactic match, we feel both the weight of his reluctance to take down the feral beast Tommy has become and the need to provide for his new family; it's a devil's bargain whose outcome is not a cheerful ending, but the beginning of a much tougher journey.

My one complaint about Warrior has less to do with the film itself than with the Fight Movie genre, which has certain tropes that seemingly must be adhered to in order for such a film to get a wide theatrical release. I'm talking specifically of the multiple audience cuts-to. From Brendan's students cheering him on at a local drive-in that's screening the live fight to the school principal doing happy dances in his living room, O'Connor drizzles an old-fashioned layer of cheese on Warrior that absolutely doesn't belong in his adult drama. Part of my problem, I realize, is that I'm half-Vulcan and can't imagine screaming and jumping about while watching anything on television--so maybe it's just a touch of realism that I wish had no basis in reality.

A lesser issue is the handling of the obligatory training montage, which is presented as a series of sliding miniature windows made popular by the TV series 24. It's a stylistic choice that doesn't jibe with the rest of the film's gritty, mostly hand-held aesthetic. But it comes and goes in a couple of minutes, with no sign of Jack Bauer--so I let it go.

For all my talk of psychology and plot, I haven't said anything about the movie's actual fight scenes. They're flat-out terrific. O'Connor spells out the rules in a succinct bit of event-commentator dialogue and then lets the audience see exactly what's going on in every match. It sounds like a no-brainer, but so many fighting movies get caught up in trying to make matches visually interesting that they forget the inherent fascination in the sport itself.

There are no slow-motion close-ups or artsy angles in need of interpretation. There's just a lot of sweaty, angry men kicking, punching, and slamming each other into cage walls and onto mats that sound like canvas-covered brick floors. And the variety of fighting styles and match durations keep Warrior's forty-plus-minute "Sparta" climax from feeling repetitive. The entire sound department on this film should be up for Oscars this year, as they make every blow, swipe and rumbling approach feel like the performers are coming after the audience.

Speaking of awards, I'm pretty confident that the major categories will have only four additional slots to fill, once Warrior shows up as a default contender. To a person, everyone in this movie does an amazing job. If you'd told me that Edgerton is Australian, and had I not seen Hardy act in his native British tongue in both Bronson and Inception, I would not have believed that these men were anything but working-class American boys. Granted, Hardy sounds at times a little like Rocky Balboa by way of Queens, but that's just nitpicking. Nick Nolte will break your heart, and Jennifer Morrison brings dimension to the scared-but-supportive-wife archetype. Top all of this off with nods for directing, writing, and the note-perfect cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, and you've got 2011's film to beat.

You might think you've got Warrior pegged. From a plot standpoint, you might be right. But this film is so much more than a "guys beating the crap out of each other" movie. The last half-decade has seen a renaissance of films that speak to middle-class desperation and the American spirit of rugged individualism (beginning with one of the best sequels ever, Rocky Balboa). Here, these themes are tied up with greater issues of family, loyalty, and the effect that one person's demons can have on others. In a sea of empty, star-studded thrillers and wonky race parables, Warrior doesn't just stand out, it dominates.

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