Warrior (2011)

2016 #71
Gavin O’Connor | 140 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Two estranged brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), who’ve taken very different paths in life to escape their alcoholic and abusive father (Nick Nolte), wind up entering the mixed martial arts tournament to end all mixed martial arts tournaments, their eyes on the unprecedentedly massive cash prize — one to save his house and family, the other to help the widow of his Army chum. As they separately go up against an array of more experienced opponents, who could possibly end up in the final bout? Hm, I wonder…

It’s a constant surprise to me that Warrior is on the IMDb Top 250 — and in a very secure 146th place, too — for two reasons: firstly because I’m not sure I’d ever heard anyone actually talk about it, except in passing as part of “the rise of Tom Hardy”-type passages; and secondly because, from the outside, it doesn’t look like a very Top 250-y kind of film. Maybe that’s silly, because there are several other boxing-related films on that hallowed list, but they seem to come from a different pedigree. I guess I’m trying to rationalise a feeling: from the little I’d seen or (not) heard, Warrior just doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would garner enduring acclaim from a wide enough audience to maintain such a position. Having chosen to watch it in part to assuage that confusion, I still find its placement just as baffling.

Trying to find some explanation, I turned to reviews and comments on film-focused social media sites. It quickly becomes apparent that the love for Warrior doesn’t just come from some silent majority of non-film-fan film viewers. Indeed, it’s amazing how many people of usually sound taste are suckered in by this movie — and how many of them know they’re being suckered in but let it happen anyway. The weirdest thing for me is that this is the kind of film I regularly award 4 stars even while loads of other people are giving it 3 and I think they’re being a bit harsh but I can see where they’re coming from. Now, I’m almost loath to give it 4 because I don’t agree with the consensus. And it’s a particularly strange consensus: everyone seems to acknowledge it’s terribly clichéd, but then give it a pass on that. Why? Why don’t you show the same leniency to the tonnes of other movies you rip to shreds for their clichés?

As I implied in my opening paragraph, you can tell how the climactic tournament is going to pan out before the film even begins. In a movie rife with cliché, the shape of that contest — who beats who and when — is the most clichéd part… and yet it also forms the climax. Surely the ending being the most rote bit should leave audiences with a sour taste? Yet they seem to become totally enraptured by it. “I knew I was being shamelessly manipulated by an overfamiliar story, but I loved it! Don’t worry, next week I’ll go back to completely slagging off every other movie that even tries to slightly manipulate me and has even the tiniest vaguely familiar aspect to it.” Presumably these people are even giving a pass to the film’s laughable training montage — I guess no one involved in Warrior has seen Team America.

Still, you could argue the film isn’t about the tournament — it’s about a broken family healing. But if you’re looking for exceptional quality in the dramatic stakes or performances, you’re still left wanting. The family drama is rendered in frequently familiar beats, and when it’s not dealing in clichés it’s dealing in cheap sentiment. Hardy’s character is a war-hero marine — for the American male audience Warrior is clearly aimed at, that’s basically hanging a sign around his neck that says “awesome guy” and letting it suffice for characterisation and backstory. Hardy is a good actor, but he’s not called on to do much more than glower. Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte gives an affecting performance, though I’m not sure his character arc actually reaches any kind of ending. The rest of the cast are adequate: Joel Edgerton is decent as an upstanding family man; Jennifer Morrison has little to do as his wife; Frank Grillo is convincing as a trainer who bases his philosophy on classical music; Kevin Dunn gets some amusing moments as Edgerton’s school principal. Other people sometimes say words.

Warrior is decent enough for a cliché-driven sports movie, and it certainly has all the attendant ‘victorious’ moments that make such movies feel good without having to try very hard, and at least the fight choreography is decent (I’ve no idea how faithful it is to real MMA, but it seems reasonably plausible to me), and there’s one pretty good performance… but Top 250? I remain baffled.

4 out of 5