It’s no stretch to say that Warrior is the greatest MMA movie ever filmed, considering that its rivals for the title are Never Back Down 2 and the upcoming Paul Blart: Cage-Fighter. But even removed from its often-embarrassing peers, Warrior still holds its own as a great sports movie that succeeds by building itself on familiar sports movie hooks then subverting them whenever possible.
The film centers on a pair of estranged brothers, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy Riordon (Tom Hardy), and their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) — a former abusive alcoholic who drove away his entire family and is playing out the rest of his life as a lonely, sober old man. When Tommy returns from Iraq following a stint in the Marines, he seeks out Paddy partly to exact some emotional revenge, and partly to ask his dad to help train him for ‘Sparta,’ a 16-man middleweight MMA grand prix that promises $5 million to the winner. (Tommy was a wrestling prodigy in high school, and its implied that his father was a Marv Marinovich-esque coach/maniac.)
For Brendan, a physics teacher whose past includes a stint as a UFC journeyman, the motives are much simpler: He needs the money. His daughter’s heart illness has left his family a month away from losing their house, and his moonlighting gig as a local MMA fighter gets him suspended from his teaching job without pay. $5 million would solve all his problems. And so, Brendan seeks out his old trainer for one last run at glory, despite his wife’s protests.
After a fateful gym session in which Tommy beats the crap out of a top-ranked loudmouth named Mad Dog (WEC/Strikeforce vet Erik Apple) — and an equally fateful injury to Brendan’s training partner Marco Santos (UFC vet Roan Carneiro) — both brothers have punched their tickets to Sparta, where they should logically be blown out in the first round. But since this is a movie, it doesn’t go down like that.
The ensuing fight scenes struck me in how different they are than their counterparts in boxing movies. Think of the Rocky films, and the long, dramatic build-ups when a fighter is knocked down and has to find the courage to stand up again. In Warrior, there’s barely a chance to catch your breath. It’s just frenetic, brutal action. Obviously, there’s no lay-and-pray and no stalling against the fence in the movie version of MMA — only strikes, slams, and submissions, from bell to bell.
There’s also no real “bad guy” in the film, which sets it apart even further from your average fight flick. No Tong Po, shin-kicking posts in the dressing room and paralyzing your brother. No rich asshole brat who gets off on humiliation. Sure, Mad Dog is a bit of a douchebag, and tournament-favorite Koba (a mighty, mythical Russian played by Kurt Angle!) is sufficiently intimidating. But the real antagonist in Warrior is the pressure of these men’s lives. And since the two brothers face off in the finals — hey, it’s in the trailer so it’s not a spoiler — winning comes at a cost as well.
Without giving too much away, there’s a giant yeah, right moment in the climatic fight — something happens that would never be allowed to happen in a real MMA match — but if you can suspend disbelief, you’ll appreciate the uniqueness of the scene, which goes a different direction than the epic back-and-forth battle you might be expecting, and turns the “submission” into a symbolic act. In the end, not everybody gets what they want, and Brendan, Tommy, and Paddy won’t be enjoying any family dinners any time soon. The happy ending is contained to a single moment of triumph, as the brothers leave the cage together, their old wounds healed through shared agony. Everything else can wait until the morning.
To uneducated observers, MMA is a brutal, simplistic sport — but fans and fighters know that there’s a much more complex (and humane) experience waiting if you dig a little deeper. The same can be said for this movie. I won’t say that Warrior is the first MMA film that “gets it right” — your MMA nerd bullshit-meter will be ringing off the hook a couple times — but it’s a gigantic leap forward for the depiction of MMA on screen. Your move, Kevin James.