‘Holy war’ via mixed martial arts
DVD review: “Warrior.” Lionsgate Films. 139 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Using physical conflict as a symbol of inner battles is as old as the Bible, which says the patriarch Jacob wrestled an angel. But in Warrior the conflict is so brutal and in-your-face — as you’d expect in a film dealing with mixed martial arts — that its themes of redemption and forgiveness are in danger of being overwhelmed.
The story revolves around two brothers and their father: why they hate him and each other, and how they resolve their anger.
The fight scenes are ferociously realistic, benefiting from UFC champions Nate “The Great” Marquardt and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in the cage, plus Rashad Evans as a sports commentator. Fighters punch, body-slam and throw Muy Thai kicks. More than one actor came away with bruises and worse during the filming.
But for a martial-arts movie, Warrior starts out really, really slow. Brendan gets a visit from father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic. Paddy asks forgiveness for deserting his family for the bottle, but Brendan tells him to stay away from himself, his wife and his children.
Brendan also has more pressing matters: His teaching job isn’t paying the bills, and the bank is weeks from foreclosing. He decides to return to his MMA career and grudgingly asks his dad to train him. Then he then gets mad all over again when he learns Paddy is already training his ex-Marine younger brother, Tommy.
Brendan gets another trainer and surprises everyone: He has a knack for getting beat up, then winning suddenly with a well-timed arm bar or leg lock. But his wife begs him to stop before he gets hurt or killed. Brendan waves her off, saying that it’s down to fighting or losing the house.
Meanwhile, brother Tommy is tearing through opponents, typically knocking them cold with a single blow. Fellow Marines show up at his matches and cheer him on.
What drives his fury are three things. He resents Brendan for choosing family life instead of following him into the military. Tommy also shares Brendan’s contempt for their father. And, as it develops, he’s hiding some shame of his own.
There’s a subplot about a big, scary Russian fighter (think Drago from Rocky IV), but by then the climax is clearly looming: a faceoff between the brothers. That makes for an interesting question. Both are the good guys. Who will win the match? Who should?
The story has obvious echoes of Raging Bull and Cinderella Man as well as Rocky. The main difference, besides the MMA angle, is how the cage fights and family fights affect each other — and what it means to win the latter. Warrior deserved more attention at the boxoffice; it was probably overshadowed by The Fighter, which came out nine months earlier.
For some reason, most of the main actors in Warrior are sci-fi and fantasy veterans. Joel Edgerton (Brendan) is fresh from the remake of The Thing; Tom Hardy (Tommy), from 2010’s Inception. Playing Brendan’s wife is Jennifer Morrison, late of Star Trek and currently in TV’s Once Upon a Time. She does a surprisingly good job in a minor role: smooth, natural, underplayed.
For his part, Nolte is a longtime respected actor, but it’s no stretch for him to play a jowly, blubbering former drunk.
Spiritual issues? Well, Brendan speaks bitterly about how Paddy deserted him and Tommy and their mother. He also has to find a way to reconcile with his brother and calm Tommy’s rage.
But it’s a thin premise for a “spiritual” film where no one prays, meditates, attends church, reads any holy book, consults a guru or clergyman, or mentions Jesus except in contempt. That’s the unspoken conflict in Warrior: between spirit and flesh.
James D. Davis