Warrior is a film that is not subtle: the adverts on buses proclaim it to be ‘all the Rockys rolled into one’. The poster shows a super-buff shirtless Tom Hardy and a slightly-less-buff-but-still-more-buff-than-most-people-will-ever-be shirtless Joel Edgerton either side of the word ‘WARRIOR’. The trailer is even less ambiguous, showing not only snippets of story, but going as far as to show that both main characters make it to the final of the shirtless cockpunching hugfest that is the fictional Mixed Martial Arts competition Sparta, removing all suspense from the preceding 90 minutes. If you go to see this film, you know what you’re going to get: a testosterone-fuelled slugfest where grown men knock lumps off each other for two hours in place of resolving their emotional conflicts.
But that’s where Warrior might surprise you. You see, the aforementioned carnival of shirtless testicle abuse is really more of a background to the fractured relationships at play between the two leads (who here play estranged brothers) and their formerly alcoholic father (played by Nick Nolte). Yes, the fighting is important, but no, this is absolutely not a film about fighting. At least, not fighting in the ring (or octagon, or whatever stupid name they call it).
It opens with Nolte’s reformed drunk leaving church and arriving home to find his long-absent son Tommy (Hardy) sitting on his front porch. Though his backstory is doled out in perfectly-measured, teasingly small portions throughout the running time, two things are clear from the start: He does not get on with his father, and he is running away from something bad that has happened in his past. Soon enough, Hardy needs money, and a combination of a career in the armed forces and a history of high school wrestling lead him to spar with local MMA hopeful Pete ‘Mad Dog’ Grimes. One short and one-sided ass-beating later, Hardy finds himself on his way to the Sparta tournament, just four fights away from a $5m prize.
Meanwhile, his brother, physics teacher Brendan (Edgerton, previously only known to me for his brief appearance as a young Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels) is facing eviction after a combination of the global economic crisis and his youngest daughters hospital bills for a heart condition (yes, they lay on the sob stories heavier than a particularly untalented X Factor candidate) have left him unable to pay his mortgage. Taking the only logical choice, Brendan decides to supplement his teaching pay by returning to his former occupation as a cage fighter (it goes school, university, cage fighting, then teacher training, right?). This does not go as successfully as his brother, but a frankly wildly unlikely set of circumstances also see him entered into the same tournament. OK, so they’re both in it, and they’re going to meet in the final. Cue training montages (Hardy with his father, who he hates, but for some reason insists he trains him, and Edgerton with the worlds douchebaggiest gym trainer), adversity, setbacks (actually not many setbacks, come to think of it) and skip forward to the Sparta tournament, where father and both sons reunite for the first time in many years.
OK, let’s get this out of the way right now. The plot is staggeringly ridiculous. The rise to world-class status of either of these two characters, let alone both of them, in such a short space of time would have even the Karate Kid doubting how someone could get so good so fast. And no, pointing out they have ‘come from nowhere’ and are ‘probably a flash in the pan’ does not do anything to lessen the bullshittitude of the plot, no matter how many times the fight announcers say it. And when they say it’s like all the Rockys rolled into one, they really mean it; as not only does it contain comparitive training montages (one is in the gym, the other out hitting tyres with a hammer in a junkyard), but it also includes (professional wrestler and Olympic gold medallist) Kurt Angle as an unstoppable Russian who wears a hammer and sickle singlet. For those paying attention, this stopped being the flag of Russia 20 years ago. Stupid. Silly, even. But again, the good parts of this film are not about the fighting: which is fortunate, as MMA fans looking to see their favourite sport transferred to the silver screen are going to have to deal with a lot of shaky cam, often inexplicably shot outside the ring, so peoples heads, posts, and the wire of the cage itself are frequently obscuring the view.
OK, so the plot might be ridiculous, but the dialogue and performances are spectacular. To avoid spoilers I can’t go into much detail, but the uncompromising, all-out efforts both by Hardy and especially Nolte, in what is a career best performance, make the spiky, spiteful dialogue shine, confronting and then deliberately avoiding all the usual clichés that a story like this will entail. Edgerton’s tale is there to bring heart to the piece, to give the audience someone to identify with (albeit in a rather unsubtle and manipulative way), and it was a very clever choice to have this split between two leads, one emotionally damaged and bitter, and the other a downtrodden underdog, rather than try and combine them into a single character, which would have come off as schizophrenic at best. It seems the writers realise that in a fighting film it doesn’t matter who it is you’re rooting for, as long as there’s someone you can feel good about supporting, which gives them free reign to make Tommy’s story a leaner, grittier, less pleasant journey, while also providing an easy source of conflict and setting up for a satisfying resolution.
Yes, it is a stupid film about grown men beating each other up. But just as I will argue that professional wrestling is a soap opera designed for men (with jacknife powerbombs instead of spousal infidelity), Warrior is basically a male version of a dysfunctional family drama. You won’t laugh, you might cry, and if not, there’s always someone not far from getting beaten up to entertain you.
My hopes were cruelly dashed when I realised this was not the biopic of 80s wrestling superstar James ‘Ultimate Warrior’ Hellwig.