Friday, January 27, 2012

Overlooked Gems #20: Warrior

Grade: 73 (B+)

Warrior certainly seems like the kind of film that would be at least a sizable hit. Inexplicably, it was not. It’s hard to see what went wrong: it’s a sports movie (mixed martial arts). Its plot involves two brothers with a difficult relationship and an unreliable parent trying to make right (not too far off from 2010’s bona-fide hit and Oscar-winner The Fighter). It was directed by Gavin O’Connor, who helmed the mostly solid hockey film/Kurt Russell vehicle Miracle in 2004. It stars up-and-comers Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) and Tom Hardy (Bronson, Inception), not to mention the reliably great character actor Nick Nolte. But Warrior came about $2 million short of recouping its $25 million budget. It’s a shame, and hopefully the film will find an audience on DVD. Sometimes an Overlooked Gem is not a work of great ambition by a major filmmaker, but an example of a formula done exceptionally well.
Paddy Conlon (Nolte) is a former Marine and recovering alcoholic in Philadelphia. He has two estranged sons: Brendan (Edgerton), a high school physics teacher and former UFC fighter struggling to pay the bills for his family’s house, and Tommy (Hardy), another former Marine addicted to painkillers and trying to support the family of a fallen comrade. Both sons hate their father for the way he treated them: Brendan has forbidden Paddy from seeing his grandchildren, while Tommy still blames both his father and his brother for leaving him with his mother as she died of cancer; he goes so far to use his mother’s maiden name, Riordan, rather than be identified with his family. When Tommy knocks out a top MMA contender at a local gym, he turns to his father to train him for an upcoming tournament for the toughest men in the world. Brendan, meanwhile, turns to an old friend/trainer (Frank Grillo) to train him, as his house faces foreclosure.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two will end up in the final match, facing each other, settling all disputes in a brawl. But it’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters. Warrior doesn’t go to very many unexpected places, but the fight scenes are genuinely exciting (and often brutal), the sport itself isn’t glorified, and the relationships are believable (although the references to Moby Dick and Greek classics are a bit shaky). It’s impossible to argue that the film isn’t manipulative, but the emotional moments are refreshingly low-key and non-melodramatic (with one notable exception). Edgerton’s character’s wife is thrown in entirely to doubt whether or not he should be doing this, but their arguments never devolve into screaming matches; it’s genuine concern that powers their quarrels. Edgerton and Hardy have only one scene together before their climactic fight, and while it’s a conventional “you should have been there for me” scene, it’s handled exceptionally well. Like Moneyball, it’s another immensely satisfying piece of work, possibly more so.
The three central performances are the real reason to see the film (although many side characters, particularly Grillo’s trainer, are also good). Edgerton’s brings a likable and intelligent presence to his character; it’s easy to believe that this macho-guy could also be a physics teacher. Hardy, one of the finest British actors working today (along with Michael Fassbender and Christian Bale), is even better as Tommy, a man whose posture and face expresses what he’s gone through more than his words (he has fewer lines than the other leads for a reason).
 Best of all is Nolte, a surprise Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor this week, and the man who should win. Paddy’s status as an ex-marine and alcoholic is wholly believable with Nolte in his shoes: a former leading man (and People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” of 1992…yes, really), the actor has gone through a decade of personal disaster (his infamous DUI mugshot) and a series of lousy films (the direct-to-video Neverwas, the sad self-parody of Off the Black). Nolte knows what it’s like to make big mistakes and go through hell because of it. He knows the nature of addiction, how it numbs pain. That knowledge shines through in Paddy, a man who wants to make things right with his sons. He put his family through hell, and his sons have a reason to resent him for it. But he’s a sympathetic character nonetheless, a man who sees his son’s problems and wants to reach out to him. Nolte gets a Big Oscar Moment, but it’s not the most impressive scene in the film. Far better is when his sons rebuke him, and the pain shows through on his face in subtle but heartbreaking ways. It’s a great performance by a great actor, and one that deserves an audience.

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