Warrior hits theaters on Friday, and it will hit…hard. The story of two brothers working their way through a brutal mixed martial arts tournament toward an inevitable showdown, Warrior stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as the punch-drunk siblings. The unbelievable amount of punishment inflicted upon all the combatants in this tournament is less mere Hollywood spectacle and more a faithful depiction of the world of MMA, the last true gladiatorial sport we have in our society.
MMA is a sport in which the objective is to visit enough violence and pain upon your opponent that he is no longer able to stand. That got me thinking about other gladiatorial sports represented in film, minus the ridiculously obvious examples of actual gladiator movies of course. I decided to place them on a continuum of their appropriateness and escalating violent tendencies.
Over the Top (1987)
Arm-wrestling, really? Indeed! This is where it starts, with a simple pastime that doubles as an unspoken test of manhood. These enormous men, most of them truck drivers, oil up their unsightly huge biceps and engage in a sport wherein the objective is to obtain the total physical submission of your opponent. You can see the jumping off point here, right? Hell, Sylvester Stallone’s character so ardently believes in the purity of this gladiator “sport” that he is willing to gamble custody of his son on the outcome.
The Longest Yard (2005)
I could have just as easily gone with the 1974 original starring Burt Reynolds, but with a flimsy script, more athletes than actors in the cast, and expecting us to buy Adam Sandler as a quarterback, the only thing the remake to The Longest Yard has going for it is its viciousness. The premise here is that the guards of a maximum-security prison have put together an impressive football team and want recently incarcerated former QB Paul Crewe to put together a team of inmates to play an exhibition game against them. As I said, what the remake lacks in substance, it makes up for in concussive, bone shattering hits; some legal, some not. The film does a good job of establishing that the guards are incredible d-bags so that we, the audience, revel in their destruction. The Longest Yard remake serves as a reminder of why we love the game of football: the devastating display of physics in action.
If you decide a football movie is too polite for your tastes, perhaps the time is right to move up to one in which two men punch each other directly in the face. And if you’re going to watch a boxing movie, it goes without saying that you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than Rocky. Stallone’s iconic underdog lives in a perpetual state of violence; a loan shark enforcer by day, a pugilist by night. When he finishes his titanic bout with the cocky Apollo Creed, his face looks very similar to that side of beef on which he trained. Rocky reminds us that boxing was for many years the last remnant of the days of the gladiators and that winning meant using your fists to knock the other man unconscious. But then MMA came along and added kicks and throw downs into the mix.
It would be impossible to talk about graduating up to kicking without mentioning Jean-Claude Van Damme. This late 80s outing from The Muscles From Brussels’ doesn’t even need a clever title. Simply the mention of the sport there contained is powerful enough, thanks largely to our collective understanding of the carnage inherent in kickboxing. Kickboxer may be a crap movie, wait no strike that. Kickboxer is indeed a crap movie, but it goes even further to emphasize the gladiatorial nature of the sport; a man is actually paralyzed during a fight for crying out loud!
Undisputed III (2010)
Speaking of paralyzing, along the same lines as Kickboxer—though definitely a step up in the sadistic department—the third film in the Undisputed franchise is so focused on producing the most jaw-breaking, high-flying, cringe-in-your-seat fight sequences that it doesn’t bother to notice that it’s using the exact same plot as the previous film. This film epitomizes mixed martial arts as several incarcerated fighters from all over the world, each with different styles, come together for a massive prison tournament. The tournament in Warrior is actually quite similar except that its combatants are not in prison…yet. I love this movie unashamedly, but I recognize that enjoying it means accepting a harsh, dark truth about mankind’s innate bloodlust.
Death Race (2008)
So if this is the kind of vicious cinematic entertainment we demand now, where will our evolving violent tendencies take us in the future? One possible dystopia we could be facing is one in which pay-per-view (the chief purveyor of MMA action) could broadcast mass executions of hardened criminals. Not only that, but the criminals would be executing one another with three-ton war machines on wheels. A remake of Roger Corman’s classic Deathrace 2000, Death Race matches much of the camp of the original while adding just a tinge of commentary on our ability to subsidize and profit from death sports.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Though the oldest film on the list, Irving Pichel’s legendary horror flick depicts a man, a hunter who has gotten so board with conventional prey that he now hunts human beings for sport. This film inspired countless imitators, remakes, and out-and-out rip-offs ranging from Escape 2000 and Hard Target to Surviving the Game and The Pest. The Most Dangerous Game is cinema’s warning about the only logical endpoint of this ongoing quest to find the most brutal and violent sport for our viewing pleasure. Cut out the two men in the cage beating each other half to death, progress past the spurning for the value of human life by making prisoners engage in deadly games, and just plain make a hunt out of the killing of human beings. This is cinema’s most primal gladiator sport.