Hollywood loves a good sports underdog, and in Warrior, there are two. Filmmaker Gavin O’Connor, who made the stand-up-and-cheer crowd-pleaser Miracle, has struck gold again, this time by turning the sports genre on its head.
Instead of remaking the same conventional sports movie — where the little guy dramatically beats his towering opponent in an upset — O’Connor and co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman build Warrior to a gutwrenching, final battle between dual protagonists who are equally deserving of the affection.
The result is a movie more unpredictable and true-to-life than any sports drama since 2008’s Sugar.
The fact that estranged brothers Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) will ultimately come to fight each other is clear from the beginning. But their journeys and the outcome of the final mixed martial arts championship match couldn’t be less calculated.
Thankfully, the film sidesteps the temptation to use MMA as an ornate metaphor for life, whereby Tommy and Brendan physically express their years-old hostilities toward one another. Though the fractured nature of the relationship certainly adds drama to their inevitable showdown, Warrior’s true narrative transformation takes place outside the cage. Little by little, O’Connor and his co-writers peel back the layers of a working-class family’s history in quiet scenes that carry the same vitality as the showier fight segments.
That said, those fight segments are pretty damn special. Unlike countless boxing and wrestling movies, Warrior is not simply one long, soundtrack-dominated montage of knock-outs. Instead, O’Connor implements the MMA sequences selectively and only where they serve the purpose of advancing the plot.
O’Connor’s decision to not overwhelm the audience with one fight scene after another ensures that, when there is a fight scene, it packs a strong punch. Through cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s tight handheld shots, which often rival Raging Bull’s in their claustrophobic effect, O’Connor makes sure that the viewer can feel the simultaneous skill and barbarism of every kick, grapple, and throw.
The acting is also integral to the film’s riveting sense of spontaneity. Hardy and Edgerton, both international stars on the rise in Hollywood, make real men out of roles that could have all too easily become caricatures. Hardy plays a scarred war hero and Edgerton a financially troubled teacher who only returns to MMA to fend for his family — not exactly tough guys to root for, but they truly earn the audience’s sympathies through complex characterization.
Crafting realized characters outside the cage was only half the battle for the two leads, who also had to take on exhaustive physical regimens to credibly play MMA competitors. The film’s production notes boast that Hardy and Edgerton did 85 percent of the fighting themselves, and this figure is not hard to believe; not only do both sport incredibly chiseled physiques, they also appear nimble and well-trained, even in close-up shots.
Adding to its pool of riches, Warrior also offers surprisingly adroit social commentary on the nature of sports-celebrity in the era of the viral video. By the power of YouTube, the brothers become overnight sensations — Tommy as a symbol of nationalist pride and Brendan as the badass teacher who weathers a brutal parking lot match. The championship might mean a lot to the two on a personal level, but in the Internet age, it means even more to their instantaneously formed followers and the media.
Warrior is unlikely to change anybody’s life, but that’s not the point. It is the definition of quality mainstream filmmaking — broad in its appeal and straightforward in its emotions, but nonetheless human and not beholden to every cliché in the book.
If there is any justice in this year’s awards season, the Academy will atone for its nomination of the decade’s most artificial sports drama, The Blind Side, by recognizing this vastly superior achievement in the genre.