Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Warrior as nothing more than a testosterone delivery system for meatheads. It revolves around mixed martial arts, a brutal sport that combines the grace of boxing, the athleticism of wrestling, and the elegance of the Rodney King beating. Apart from David Mamet's little-seen Redbelt, it's the first wide-release film to focus on MMA as an organized sport; before now, when MMA has come up at all, it's usually been as an underground "fight club" kind of thing, and usually only in bad movies like Never Back Down.
But while Warrior does eventually give MMA fans what they came for (i.e., thrilling sequences of strong men beating one another to death inside a cage), it isn't just some cheap thing slapped together to capitalize on the recent upsurge of MMA's popularity. I wonder how many MMA fans saw it this weekend and were surprised to discover that it also features emotionally powerful performances and an examination of what it means to be a brother, husband, father, and man. A person with no interest in MMA as a sport -- indeed, a person who finds MMA repellant on principle alone -- could find Warrior compelling, too.
Then again, maybe it's a moot point. Hardly anyone, MMA fan or not, saw Warrior this weekend. It got the same percentage of good reviews as Contagion, opened on half as many screens, yet made only one-fourth as much money. Were people who aren't MMA enthusiasts skeptical that it would appeal to them? Or did the movie's laughable trailer turn them off?
Let's talk about that trailer. It's a travesty. For one thing, it gives away a major plot point that isn't revealed until late in the film: "This is impossible!" the announcer cries. "The two men fighting for the championship tonight are brothers!!" The spoiler isn't that Tommy and Brendan are brothers; we learn that early in the film. What we didn't know (or what we shouldn't have known, but did because we saw the trailer) was that they'd make it to the final stages of a tournament and wind up fighting each other.
Furthermore, the way it's hollered in the trailer makes the whole movie sound ridiculously contrived. There are these TWO MEN, you see? And they're fighting for the CHAMPIONSHIP, right? And get this: THEY'RE BROTHERS!!!!!!!! How fitting that the announcer starts by saying, "This is impossible!" He's using a figure of speech, but he's more right than he realizes. If it's not literally impossible for two unknown amateur MMA fighters to get into the same $5 million tournament on their first attempt and then get to the finals together, it's at least very, very improbable.
But that's just the trailer distilling the movie down to one lame-sounding declaration. In the movie itself, we are eased into the idea. We're treated to a heartbreakingly pained performance by Tom Hardy and a nobly desperate one by Joel Edgerton. We're caught up in the relationships between the brothers, between each of them and their recovered-alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), between Brendan and his wife and kids. These relationships feel authentic. By the time we get to the tournament, we're invested enough in the story and the characters to be a little, shall we say, forgiving of the outrageous plot points we're asked to swallow. I still winced when the announcer yelled his line -- "The two men fighting for the championship tonight are brothers!!" -- because it's so on-the-nose. It's a terrible line. It's like somebody said, "Hey, we need to summarize everything that's happened in the movie so far, in case someone went to the bathroom and missed the last 30 minutes." So the line is cheesy. But I was at peace with the idea of the two men fighting for the championship being brothers, because the movie had won me over.
The tournament's final round is exceptionally well staged, filmed, and edited. This is where the movie earns the right to be called a Sports Drama, delivering an exciting competition and keeping us in suspense about how it will end. It's even more exceptional that we care so much about both fighters. (We're usually rooting for only one side, if we care at all.) That last round is strangely cathartic and emotionally effective. On paper, it sounds absurd: two brothers work through their complicated feelings toward one another and find closure by fighting in a steel cage. And yet it works. As incongruous as it may seem, savagely beating each other brings out the brotherly love between Brendan and Tommy. It made me want to hug my own brothers, and then kick them each in the stomach, and then hug some more.