The International Writers Magazine: Review
Theoretically, Warrior is the type of film that audiences should flock to in droves. It is a sports drama (Mixed Martial Arts, in this case) with familial conflict at its center and the notion of overcoming all odds at its heart.
Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) have been estranged from their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former fighter and former alcoholic, for the better part of their adult lives. They have also been estranged from one another. When Tommy unexpectedly appears on his father’s doorstep, domestic tension bubbles to the surface once more. Hoping to return to the cage, the wayward son enlists Paddy’s combat expertise, despite the fact that Tommy’s bitterness indicates no possibility of budging from his hardened heart. As these events unfold, Brendan, barely financially afloat in suburban life, also stages a comeback in the world of MMA. The brothers eventually find themselves in the same competitive tournament, and it is there that deep-seated issues will forcibly be dealt with.
Unfortunately, the writing and pacing of director Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle) film inhibit it from reaching the pantheon of sports dramas; in fact, they inhibit it from emerging as little more than a middle-of-the-road popcorn flick. "Conventionality" need not be a swear word, but here, the scales tip from it to downright cheesiness. Extraneous subplots weigh down the duration in all the wrong places, and their intended purpose appears as unclearly as their execution. Emotional investment through cookie-cutter conflicts and one-dimensional characters inhabited by one-dimensional performances? Comic relief? Light diversion from the apparently heavy proceedings? It's tough to say, but I admit that I was near laughter for inadvertent reasons. A fair helping of the tacky can be overlooked, but not when it comes at the expense of an underdeveloped thru-line at the film's center.
In other words, thinly drawn, obviously acted peripheral characters and needless, tonally skewed subplots can be ignored if we get them as fatty additions to the lean meat of the central plot. In this case, the father-son(s) dynamic does not delve deeply enough to tap the emotional well. Nor does the brother-brother dynamic, which is strangely given only one scene as build-up (a not entirely satisfactory scene, at that). The major characters are as underwritten as the minor ones. I understand that a great deal can be transmitted through silences and facial expressions and subtle inferences. I just didn't find such transmitted here. Paddy was clearly a terrible father; we know that he was an alcoholic, and an oblique comment suggests spousal abuse. When we meet him in the film's first scene, he's near 1,000 days sober and repentant. I don't expect his sons to erase all done damages and welcome him with open arms. Initial resentment is warranted; two hours of repetitive, unrelenting expressions of it are not, at least with regard to what the director allows us to see. When the father is training his son and is met with nothing other than continual vitriol, I can't help but feel sympathy for Paddy and irritation with his boys. If we were given some sort of specificity as to why Tommy and Brendan view their father with such disdain, we would more willingly side with them–which would be important, because sympathizing with at least one of them is the only thing that can lead to cathartic payoff in the final showdown. Yet, perhaps fearful of explaining too much, O'Connor does not give us enough.
This is where pacing and structure come into play. Instead of–as opposed to in addition to–fleshing out the central conflict, Warrior throws out ludicrous, muddled, and ineffective strands of story like they're candy. Its structure before the tournament is one of cross-cutting between the brothers' narratives. As we've seen in a number of films that deal in parallel build-up or a mosaic of characters, this device only works if all the plots are equally compelling. In this film, Tommy's is much more interesting than Brendan's, and the cross-cutting requires that just as we become invested in Tommy, we switch to the more conventional brother–you know, the one with the threat of foreclosure and the wife that doesn't want him to fight–all the while hoping that we can move back to Tommy as soon as possible. Once the tournament begins, not enough has been established between Brendan, Tommy, and Paddy, regardless of how many scenes we are subjected to watch involving clichéd, half-hearted domestic disputes about bills to pay. And in tournament mode, there are so many fights one right after the other that a great deal of anticipation toward the climax, as well as any potential for further character mining, is almost lost entirely.
You could say that the climactic showdown is thrilling because you want both brothers to win. Because of my aforementioned sympathy for their father, I’m not sure that I wanted either brother to win. The All-American, family-man Brendan will likely capture the audience’s heart, but if I had to pick a corner, it would be that of the tight-lipped, recalcitrant Tommy. Hardy infuses the near cipher of a character with so much incendiary charisma that it’s impossible not to like him, even if Brendan exhibits more likeable qualities. The British sensation of Bronson acclaim has a mostly white canvas to paint on here, and he makes the most of it, balancing his trademark charm with his equally trademark boiling intensity and utilizing his physicality to the fullest. He summons a rage in the final fight that is a wonder to behold, scarily close to inhuman. Despite my reservations with the steps leading to it, the climax is nevertheless very well done, providing in the visceral what it lacks on the page.
As the risk of sounding overly negative, I must admit that Nolte, Edgerton, and especially Hardy are fascinating here, and the MMA competition is bone-crushingly thrilling. Many might find this film to be a nice piece of popcorn fun, but those hoping for something deeper will be no doubt disappointed. While my problems with Warrior finally outweigh my points of praise, one could do worse on a Friday night diversion.
© Rob Myers September 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer:Hossein Amini (screenplay),
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan
Deliberate but pulsating, Drive is both as lean and as powerful as the machines it showcases.