by Burke Mudge

-possible spoiler alert warning-

Warrior is a film whose time has come. There, that loaded sentence is out of the way and I can now freely explain how a movie seemingly about mixed martial arts (MMA) has managed to well, marshal in mixed arts. Yes this film blends and bends genres and soundtracks, sports and story into something both artful and compelling. Warrior is a film that really could not have arrived at any other time than now. It is a film (and yes I use that word intentionally) this is not just pugilistic popcorn fare where ‘Fight Club’ meets ‘You Got Served’ and gives birth to Warrior and inevitably spawns I, II and III and of course the Lucasian prequels. This is a stand-alone work that Hollywood has been trying to work towards for sometime (see Fighting, Redbelt, Never Back Down).

It is no surprise then that there are three writers here who are credited with both screenplay and story. Thankfully working as a team didn’t affect the cohesion of the film whatsoever. Often, when multiple writers collaborate, you risk ending up with “Hancock” (a movie that literally looked like someone got halfway through a screenplay and handed it to their writer friend saying, “Ok, can you finish this? Write whatever you want.”).

Gavin O’Connor who also directed this film (known mostly for hockey movie, Miracle, 2004) Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman were mad alchemists at work, mingling together facts, fiction, history and present into an emotionally poignant story that succeeds at pinching the right dramatic nerve when coaxed. A good sports movie often does just that, however I don’t think too many would necessarily call this a typical ‘sports movie’ per se or even a martial arts film any more than Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler” was a movie about wrestling. It is a major and necessary part of the film but there is far more to this than just a few leg kicks, accurate striking and a knee-bar here and there.

It’s clearly established, Warrior succeeds first with the subject matter. Mixed martial arts has quite literally never been more popular than it is right now with major events being held all over the United States, Canada as well as Europe and most recently Brazil. The time to make not just another weakly written fight film but one with an actual story to tell is now. Warrior is the much more highly evolved version of what the Neanderthal-like sport started out as in its early days. By virtue of the history and maturity of the sport, this movie could not have been made two or even three years ago or it surely would not have been the same film or even had the same potential audience. MMA as a sport had to first grow and do so thoughtfully without overextending itself too quickly. It’s fair to say that the sport of mixed martial arts has been eagerly seeking two things since it’s inception: legitimacy and acceptance. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (known as the UFC is the largest MMA organization in the world) took one step closer to both by landing a major network TV deal with Fox recently. New York state is that one last bastion in the United States that has so far, refused to sanction the sport. As the culture around the politicians begin to swirl a certain way and the perceptions begin to change in slow and imperceptible ways, sometimes it’s in art that you first notice it. Something authentic that is not easily mocked but respected, like Warrior comes along. MMA needed this film. At the end of the day, politicians are merely supposed to be representing the people’s interests and as films like this become more popular and the events increasingly global. You can bet the sport of mixed martial arts will attain those things they seek.

On top of all that, based on box office history alone, audiences love a film that involves combat and well-choreographed fight scenes whether it’s crouching tigers and swashbuckling Errol Flynn’s or Ed Norton squaring off against his effeminate IKEA life by channeling his testosterone-filled rage into a fistic sport. Why is this? On a surface level at least, it seems pretty obvious. The word “fight” by itself is a verb that resonates with everyone a little differently, but it’s a powerful word that evokes equally strong responses and reflects something about what you believe in and what you stand for. You can fight for things. You can fight for your country, for love, for what you believe in, for a good cause. You can fight against things, diseases, injustices, ideas and systems. You can fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. You can fight for money. To fight, arouses passions within people as it suggests notions of positive as well as some negative. Fighting connotes violence and someone or something getting hurt. There simply is no denying it, fighting is what humans do. It truly does seem to be in our DNA. The moment we begin life, we are fighting against death itself, against age and time. We are fighting to maintain our integrity and identity as we stumble stubbornly through our various paths in life. Warrior embodies all of these things. This film has a veritable fight in every corner of the screen on some level whether it’s one of the main characters Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) fighting for his family or his brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) battling his own demons of drugs and alcohol and a troubled past. Fighting seeps into every element of this film, much like it seeps into the daily struggle of life.

The UFC President Dana White has famously stated “If you take four street corners, and on one they are playing baseball, on another they are playing basketball and on the other, street hockey. On the fourth corner, a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They all go to the fight.” Well stated.

The Warrior writers here have penned a piece that uses mixed martial arts to tell the story of the highly dysfunctional Conlon family. When I described the writers before as mad alchemists and how this story could not have been written at any other time, it is also because now that many things in a variety of areas have come to pass that there was a rich history of things to draw from in terms of fiction and reality. This does not lessen their accomplishment, in fact, it enhances it because they took the wealth of available material and distilled it into a riveting, well-paced story that let certain moments linger and build rather than have one typical linear arc and then a denouement. Like the modern volatile stock market, this story is a spiking ascent.

As mentioned earlier, the UFC has become a bonafide global phenomenon and has a storied past that the film was able to use as a plot device as needed. The UFC actually came into being because in 1992 some entrepreneurial businessmen wanted to see which martial art was the most superior and knew people would pay good money to see it play out in a grand prix style tournament. For the movie, the engage in the trendy use of a wealthy Hedge Fund Manager to be main the driver behind creating the lucrative tournament to which the Warrior characters would seek solutions to their own problems.

The way Tarantino and other writers have used a sort of “wish fulfillment” style of fiction to some of their stories, so did the writers here in terms of creating an “event” that would be considered the biggest in “MMA history” and actually paying the fighters accordingly, like how boxers get paid. Boxing is already there money-wise, this movie suggests MMA should be there sooner than later.

The writers and the Warrior production team are clearly well-versed in the who’s who of MMA and in turn, this world has embraced them back. Countless professional fighters make cameos all throughout. As well in the way actual news anchors from Larry King to Oprah have been used to give a backstory some extra kick and verisimilitude, so goes Warrior. They have the iconic surviving founders of TapouT the clothing brand playing themselves and many actual MMA hosts and fighters playing things out as they would if this tournament was real replete with fake interviews and former UFC Champions giving quick camera-ready quips to hype this tournament. This approach bodes very well as the characters and audience are immersed deeply into the unglamorous world of the mixed martial arts experience of intense MMA training and fighting. This is actually another key point to the film’s success. While mixed martial arts has a violent aspect to it, as any contact sport inevitably does (from football to hockey or rugby) the director rightly chose to show the diversity found in an MMA fight. Rarely is it ever simply a boxing match or a relentless pounding that won’t seem to end but rather they showed a wide array of Brazilian Jiu jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai Kick-boxing, Karate and Judo. If they had not shown the variegated fighting styles and approaches they would have weakened the overall film considerably.

The characters themselves are fully realized and complex figures and draw once again on so many different things; it’s again a credit to their writing team for squeezing so much into one film. It’s almost as though the writers said to themselves “let’s get this film right and if need be, throw in anything you feel you need.” The character of Brendan Conlon is another example on drawing on real MMA history as the character is clear allusion to former UFC champion Rich Franklin who, like Brendan, was also a high school teacher. For Rich, he was a math teacher whereas Brendan was a Physics teacher (though the joke is they mistake him for a math teacher in the film). Brendan also hints at Royce Gracie, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu champion who shocked the world in the early UFC days beating much bigger opponents with his skill, heart and tenacity. The Russian character who is regarded as the overall middleweight champion referred to only as ‘Koba’ (played impressively well by former Olympian and WWE wrestler Kurt Angle) is looking right at the legendary fighter Fedor Emilianenko.

Brendan’s brother Tommy conjures up references to several figures all rolled into one. There are hints of the media-resistant Brock Lesnar. He also fights mercilessly and powerfully and the first round knockouts speak to both Mike Tyson and Vitor Belfort. Having fought in the Iraq war, there’s a nod to top UFC middleweight contender Brian Stann, a legitimate Iraq war hero in his own right. With the issues going on between the brothers, there are also distant links to the Marlon Brando character who’s named Terry vs. Tommy in the classic “On the Waterfront.” Even youtube sensation turned “Ultimate Fighter” alumnus Kimbo Slice is indirectly referenced as that is what gets Tommy noticed as he becomes an MMA youtube sensation a la Kimbo though in a more legitimate way than Kimbo actually did with his backyard youtube brawls.

Also, this movie is cleverly self-aware in a way most films are not when there’s a quip to Tommy about whether or not “he brought Mickey and Pauley” to the gym with him. Stallone surely smiled.

Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon in Gavin O’Connor's film Warrior (2011)

Nick Nolte in his role as Paddy Conlon

The character of Nick Nolte’s “Paddy Conlon” distantly conjures up the name of Marv Marinovich, a name unfamiliar to many but he gained fame for controversially grooming and training his son Todd to be a quarterback from a very young age. The same recognition could go to Tiger Wood’s father and the many parents like the character Nolte portrays where their commitment to the sporting success of their kids becomes all consuming, and in many ways destructive and damaging to the children. Warrior highlights the lasting effects of this style of parenting.

In past fighting films, the vast majority of them concentrate on a singular protagonist and a few hangers on and the requisite ‘wet blanket’ wife or girlfriend (sportswriter Bill Simmons has spoken of this female archetype many times). However this film brings the two main principal characters of Tommy and Brendan in separate but generally linked storylines that stream together slowly as their paths eventually converge. This gives rise to the two men finally confronting their past, present and how they will proceed in life. The film’s lead up to this climactic series of events could easily have been a let-down however the filmmakers make it truly gut-wrenching to watch it unfold. The father, Paddy, connects them all and is facing a road of redemption of his own.

With nicely interwoven stories and a clear knowledge of the sport’s lexicon and how the fighters live and breathe, it makes it much easier to forgive the occasional clichéd fighter-talk with lines like “Frank, c’mon man I need this.”

So a story about the world’s fastest growing sport was obviously a sound move by the Warrior production team. However it when it comes to acting, this is where Warrior really closes the deal. Fight Club would still have been a great and transcendent film had the two stars not been Ed Norton and Brad Pitt, however it surely didn’t hurt. In fact it elevated the film on a commercial level and they breathed life into their characters in a way that only elite actors can. The kind of actor that will go so far as to physically transform themselves like De Niro in Raging Bull or Tom Hanks in Castaway. You have these very traits distinctly found in every principal actor in this piece. Not the sort who are just flexing biceps and drawn on tattoos but characters who show their angst, suffering, joy or disdain with merely a held glance.

Prior to this film, I’d not really seen much from Australian actor Joel Edgerton, but he brings a very low-key, blue collar, salt-of-the-earth persona to the screen and resembles the gritty UFC fighters Evan Tanner and Chris Lytle. Quiet outside the cage, but an unbreakable will buried deep inside that one dare not provoke. Edgerton plays a very committed and happy family man and his wife played by Jennifer Morrison does well with the limited role she’s given. As in most fighting films, the female characters are usually relegated to the role of stopping the main character from achieving something, hence the Bill Simmons’ “Adrian Balboa wet-blanket-hall-of-fame” reference earlier. Tess Conlon isn’t a hall of famer but she certainly gets an honourable mention.

Tommy Conlon played by British actor Tom Hardy is barely recognizable from his last major outing in “Inception.” Hardy plays this character as though someone lit a stick of dynamite and he decided to imbibe it, just to see if he could stifle the explosion. So as his character sees this tightly coiled character onscreen whether he’s in the gym, the ring or his estranged father’s house, you wonder when will explode into some sort of violent rage. Though more unnervingly, only it rarely does that even happen. Tommy only hints at it, and it’s only used just enough to achieve the job whether it’s deriding his father by reminding him that he is nothing but a trainer to him and nothing more or when Tommy’s viciously and efficiently dispatching a foe in the ring. No unnecessary energy expended. But the fallout, the aftermath is no less disconcerting. When he leaves any given fight, as the announcer stated appropriately, it comes off like a he’s “leaving a crime scene.” Hardy plays it sparse as the writers’ only dole out occasional insights to what is consuming this troubled character. Iraq tragedy. Addiction. There appears to be no joy in anything he does and he’s completely alienated from the world hence no walk-in music to his fights and zero entourage. Tommy Conlon is menacing. Hardy absolutely nails it and looks the part with all his pre-film training. No mean mugging required. Nick Diaz, please take note.

Nick Nolte in many ways is the heart and soul of this film. His character has had the most time to reflect on his life and the way it has turned out and as the opportunities come available, he follows his own path to recovery from his alcohol-fueled violent past to his contrite and sorrowful present. There are some notable moments for Nolte in this movie that is undoubtedly reminiscent of Rourke in “The Wrestler.” Nolte evokes the sad remorseful soul of a recovered addict who wants to make amends and his hoarse and grizzled voice strikes a tone that lingers throughout the film. The atonement sought by Paddy Conlon is what lies beneath the all of the character’s words in this story.

Going back to the many different sports and historical references this film calls upon, one cannot help but also think of Richard Williams, the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena. On more than one occasion, he has had to watch his offspring compete against each other as Nolte’s character is called upon to do in this film. When this happens, I can’t help but think the writers were familiar too with the story of Cain and Abel. When I said it seemed these writers drew on everything I meant it. Of course, this is just the prism I look through.

All the component parts playing together as needed you’re left with the film’s soundtrack. The music is often an extraordinarily vital and powerful acoutrement to any film. With Cameron Crowe films for example, one cannot imagine his films without his perfect music selection. They become as much a part of the emotional importance of the script as anything else. With Warrior I really only remember the classical music, Beethoven, and it works very well. If there is one thing that may help the uninitiated MMA viewer to understand, it is the term often associated with the actual UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, and that is the “ballet of violence.” For those unfamiliar with what truly comprises mixed martial arts, yes it has a violent side indeed and this movie doesn’t gloss over it nor does it exalt that aspect in a gratuitous manner. Canadian Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre touched on this notion earlier this year at his own film documentary premiere The Striking Truth and he has never tried to sell the sport as not having a certain arresting brutality to it at times. Indeed it does carry that weight. However the greatness is found in the discipline it demands, the intelligence to call upon 6 different combat styles in a nanosecond, the athletic gifts to implement those skills as well as a General’s ability to execute a strategy or effective gameplan. Will Warrior garner the sport new fans? I’ll look for you at the next pay per view event and we’ll talk.

As I mentioned before, although this film is not exactly a focused ‘mixed martial arts film’ in the traditional sense, it is still inexorably linked to it and has definite crossover potential. If any film has given a glimpse into this world, Warrior is the best so far and reminds us that MMA is not just the fastest growing sport in the world due to a being current novelty, but rather it is sports like this that cause athletes to rise above their circumstances and not to tap out, but to fight one more round. As they stated in the film several times: in mixed martial arts, anyone can win on any given day – so long as you don’t quit. Just like life.