Netflix Instant Pick of the Week: Warrior

By: Danny Marroquin

Someone had told me that “Warrior” was a good movie and that I should see it because Tom Hardy was in it and he is good in everything. I let that comment sit on the shelf for probably a year before catching it on my cable box. I have since watched it 3 times. It is a movie about mixed martial arts, a phenomenon I generally regard as the plague, but stylistically it had enough of a Steven Soderberg feel to keep me interested.

Five days a week I work with what you could call people of a working class background. It’s a different life from my reading life and different from the world I watch for 45 minutes on MSNBC in the morning, where anchors in promos talk about getting more people back to the middle class, while their way of speaking couldn’t be more manufactured and often more self-important than “regular” people have the luxury of being.

Thinking of all these different ways of “being” helped me take in this movie as a kind of medicine. People get annoyed when I pick on NBC’s former hit “30 Rock,” but it is an example of the kind of entertainment where the common grammar is celebrity appreciation, a kind of show that reinforces life as a kind of inside joke. Anyone who has what David Shields called “Reality Hunger” ought to side with a movie like “Warrior” which features three solid, well-rounded characters with a lot of reality up against them. And in the case of this film it makes for a high drama reminiscent of sports classics like, “Hoosiers.”

At a time when the nation’s natural expression veers toward the timid, Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior” is noticeably a hammer of a movie about big things, and for people who need big things to happen.

There are two brothers and a father. One brother was torn from the family by duty to country, serving in the Iraq war. At home, opting to be a family man, one brother is a high school science teacher. It is alluded to that the father’s alcoholism has left a wreck of the relationship with both the sons. Both sons were wrestlers. The science teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) left mixed martial arts at the behest of his wife and a hospital visit. Now brother Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) comes home from war tormented, and jumps right back into MMA training. One thing, he needs training from dad, Paddy Conlon–Nick Nolte in an Oscar-nominated performance.

The story plays out and both sons find themselves competing in Atlantic City for the championship. If Brendan wins the prize money he can keep his house from going into foreclosure. If Tommy Conlon wins, well maybe he’ll become less crazy. Mixed martial arts is more unchained and less disciplined than boxing, Norman Mailer and Howard Cosell’s often proud canvas. But Gavin O’Connor, who directed Janet McTeer to an Oscar nod in “Tumbleweeds” and Kurt Russell to the ice in “Miracle,” isn’t interested in nostalgia or cultural snobbery. He’s in the people story business; and sort of in an old Hollywood way here. The acting is great, the dialogue is given room to breathe, and suspense builds at all the right moments.

There are a lot of people, I’ve been to the Louie’s in Yukon on these nights, who have much of their interest and pent up testosterone invested in what goes on in a MMA ring or on the face of a Tapout shirt. In each cinema verite style frame of “Warrior” we see and feel, sometimes with the assistance of the subtle Beethoven, that these are big men living in small-minded times, who nevertheless have a lot of bills to pay, and apologies to make. They still have a lot of fight in them as well.

Since the recession has left many of us scrambling for what to do next, the film world has been surprisingly inadequate at capitalizing on the narrative potential, my imagination keeps going back to this terrible Mark Wahlberg and The Rock movie that’s coming out about the struggling weightlifters, who decide that the answer to their financial woes is to kidnap a quirky millionaire. Could anything be more removed from social reality? Any movie that deals with the tough times in a clear-eyed way is destined for the margins, like “Margin Call” for example. Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” featured, alas, Real People who had been laid off, winning everyone a slot on Oprah. But the glossy tone and limits of the screenplay gave that film the emotional punch of an indie rock concert attended by 16, and it naturally lost the Best Picture momentum it had upon arrival. I suppose the Batman movies were a good spiritual indicator of where things are going, but they have an elitist’s pessimism about them don’t they?

Not the Irishman O’Connor. Indeed people can sink pretty low in times like these, watch Nick Nolte revert back to the bottle as he’s listening to Moby Dick on his outdated Walkman, his son just having told him he’ll never need him again. Or look at the tense, inchoate yearning of the Brando-channeling Tom Hardy. If the guy doesn’t have a boulder on his back, O’Connor doesn’t want to film him. And big ups to Frank Grillo here, a natural athlete who abandoned dreams of professional sports after earning a business degree and landing a spot in a Miller Genuine Draft commercial. He plays trainer Frank Compana, an endless reservoir of enthusiasm and fight, part of the elemental forces in the film that keep “Warrior” from resigning to its times.

In many ways “Warrior” is a typical movie, we know the two brothers will square off in the end, the training montages come in just when we might expect them to. In other ways it is unusual. Nick Nolte plays the father figure as a parody of the tough man, this idea of our manhood as kind of a joke is ever present in the bosses of The Office, but in “Warrior” this sad sack of a man is not a funny joke at all. He needs help, and he needs his boys. This is to say “Warrior” is unusual in how it makes its earnestness work, not with cheese, but going all the way with the grotesque third act of Paddy Conlon. Contrast this with a small backstory where Tommy quietly lends an old comrade’s wife money after the war. Male friendship, love in the Whitman sense and not in the worn-out Bromance sense, is a quality surprisingly found here.

As said, the casting is perfect, and the filming is natural without being annoyingly active and zoomy. You leave the film feeling good, even though you’ve been through hard times. It is a marvelous thing.

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