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Movie Review: ‘Warrior’

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.

(Ben Goldstein)

Cagepotato Comments

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spycams21- June 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm
this movie could be exactly what you've all been looking for.

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Rockstar- September 6, 2011 at 1:34 am
I agree with this fact that this is a worth watching movie, And the trailers seems to be good and interesting. As far as the story is concerned I think the story of the movie will hook the audience till the end,.
SteveFrench- August 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm
Can't wait to see this movie. I love UFC and MMA. Looks great.
Neil113- July 28, 2011 at 5:19 am
REDBELT was the best MMA film.

@Rex13 - Tom Hardy was huge in BRONSON, too.
jingzias- July 27, 2011 at 8:18 pm
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intercept440- July 27, 2011 at 4:14 pm
ill give it a watch when it goes dirctly to netflix and dvd. who knows it could be ok. lok at carano's movie, the trailer actually looks ok. maybe they both wont be steaming piles, of horseshit
FilmDrunk- July 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm
OH COME ON! Everyone knows Paul Blart: Cage Fighter is actually called Mixed Martial Farts, or alternatively, Paul Blart: Mall Cro-Cop.
AndyInflammatory- July 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm
Its a goddamn movierequiring the suspension of disbelief. Don't nit-pick like a bunch of Marvel reading nerds.

Tom Hardy is great, Joel Edgerton is Australian (i.e Great) - this movie could be exactly what you've all been looking for.

...and I KNOW you all secretly loved Never Back Down
Fried Taco- July 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm
@KCC - Or Dancing Queen!!
Kid Clam Curtains- July 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm
Tom Hardy is the shit. I'm definitely going to illegally download this film. I'm just praying there is one iconic song on the soundtrack that I can do arm curls to and grunt. Like eye of the tiger, no easy way out...or cruel summer.
Fried Taco- July 27, 2011 at 2:31 pm
@ReX - it's the tiny balls, man, tiny balls.
ReX13- July 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm
Anyone know what kind of HGH/designer steroids Tom Hardy is getting? Dude looks fucking gargantuan as Bane.
DirtehSneakehs- July 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm
What, no gratuitous sex scene between one of the brothers and a female MMA fighter that was training in the gym together?
And no Mark Wahlberg?
Fried Taco- July 27, 2011 at 1:41 pm
Does Nick Nolte show up on top of a roof, and then suddenly he appears on the ground? That's what I want to learn.
Maine Blazer- July 27, 2011 at 1:30 pm
Sounds like the Yakuza got their hands in this 'Sparta'... how else do you explain $5,000,000 grand prize?
Cryptococcus neoformans- July 27, 2011 at 1:21 pm
What that guy said ^^^^^^^
Pen Fifteen- July 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm
The only part about this that sounds remotely believable is Nick Nolte playing an alcoholic. I mean, a $5 million grand prize, a conveniently ill child...this is shit straight from the "Movie Cliches 101" handbook.