Warrior: a daft movie with a kick in the tale

It may be a hackneyed promo for mixed martial arts, but Gavin O’Connor’s film still moves you in the end.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Over the past two decades, mixed martial arts (MMA) has become increasingly popular in America. The Brazilian Vale Tudo (anything goes) style was brought to the US in 1993 with the establishment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). At first the tournament was designed to find the most effective martial art, but as the UFC developed competitors began to incorporate different styles in order to get the edge on their opponents. As a result, MMA, as it is known today, was born.

While it began as a brutal cable-TV novelty, efforts to refine the rules, such as introducing weight classes and safety regulations, led to MMA finding acceptance in the mainstream arena. In recent years, pay-per-view sales of UFC bouts have even begun to challenge those of both boxing and professional wrestling.

Of course, the next natural step in the sport’s legitimisation was for Hollywood to immortalise MMA in a star-studded sports drama. Lo and behold, we now have Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, a clumsy and faintly ridiculous film which somehow still manages to tug at the old heart strings.

Warrior begins in the grey streets of Pittsburgh. Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy), an Iraq War veteran and all-round badass, pays his father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a visit. Tommy and his mother had fled their home when Tommy was a teenager, due to Paddy’s alcohol-fuelled violence, and Tommy’s mum died soon after. Returning to the family home, Tommy taunts his father about his past, but then, for no apparent reason, decides to stick around. Coincidentally, a new MMA tournament called Sparta, which promises $5million to its champion, has just been announced. Tommy decides to enter, and despite his supposed hatred of the man, enlists the help of his father, who used to train him in his pee-wee wrestling days.

We are then introduced to Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s older brother who decided to stay with his father when Tommy and his mother left. A former UFC fighter, Brendan is now working as a high-school physics teacher and living in the Philadelphia suburbs with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and two children. On the verge of bankruptcy, he enters Sparta in order to pay back his mortgage and prevent the bank from foreclosing on his home.

Not only is this a pretty flimsy preamble to the inevitable showdown/reconciliation between Tommy and Brendan, but these dual storylines are also painfully ill-conceived. Tommy’s justification – that taking his father on as his trainer is strictly business – seems somewhat insubstantial considering his torturous childhood. Also, the fact that Brendan is clearly past his prime is glazed over by the claim that anything can happen in MMA. Nevertheless, the film casually skips over each of these gaping plot holes in order to get Tommy and Brendan in that ring together.

At times, the plot seems almost insignificant as the film’s constant promotion of MMA seems to suggest it is primarily designed to celebrate and legitimise the sport. Before entering Sparta, Brendan is suspended from his teaching job as it is discovered he is taking part in smalltown MMA tournaments. The principal tells him that, as a teacher, he ‘doesn’t belong in the ring with those animals’, to which Brendan responds: ‘I used to be one of those animals.’ Moments like this seem to suggest that O’Connor is less concerned with making a believable drama than he is with challenging the sport’s image as a brutal hobby.

As the tournament begins and the fight scenes take centre stage, O’Connor provides some much needed relief from the shoddy backstory. However, while these intense sequences do indeed showcase the athleticism that the sport requires, it soon descends into shameless MMA propaganda which becomes tiresome rather quickly.

But just as soon as you think that Tommy and Brendan are mere 2D vehicles to promote the sport, something strange happens: you find yourself caring about them. While Warrior takes some very cheap shots, using everything from alcoholism to the Iraq War to try to force an emotional response, in the end it is also a humane, soppy story.

In much the same way that in Rocky, Sylvester Stallone produced a much better performance by getting his head bashed in than he ever could have under his own steam, the strained relationship between Brendan and Tommy only becomes truly heart-breaking when they’re trying to knock each other out. While this by no means makes up for the plot’s many faults, the occasional emotional intensity somewhat compensates for all the boorishness.

Warrior is truly little more than an advert for MMA wrapped up in a lumbering and predictable storyline. But if you can be bothered to stay to the end, it still packs a punch.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Warrior:

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