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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Warrior


Warrior (Three  Stars)

U.S.: Gavin O’Connor, 2011

Improbabilities won’t necessarily knock out a good fight film, if the feeling and the footwork are there. Warrior is a movie about a high profile, multi-million-dollar TV Mixed Martial Arts tournament in which too long-estranged brothers are both competing, and in which they finally meet in the ring. Improbable? Sure. But Jesus Christ almighty, the crazy thing works anyway. It’s a sports movie that tries to inspire thoughts of brotherhood and humanity, in the midst of showing us guys getting their guts crunched and pummeled and their brains beaten in — and it’s surprisingly effective at it.

Now, Warrior is not really a great fight film, in the way that boxing or semi-boxing movies like Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, The Set-Up, Fat City, On the Waterfront or Body and Soul are great, or in the way The Wrestler and The Fighter both almost were great recently; the story is a little too unlikely, the resolution too obvious. But it’s capable of moving us just as those movies all do, of both quickening the pulse and opening the floodgates of compassion.

The two brothers are Tommy Conlon, alias Tommy Rourke (Tom Hardy), an ex-Marine in the Iraq war, and Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) a high school science teacher in Philadelphia. Their father, who taught the boys their ring skills, is Paddy (Nick Nolte) a recovering alcoholic, with a lined, weary mug seething with shame and guilt, a mean drunk now nearing 1,000 days of kinder sobriety. Paddy taught the boys everything they know about fighting and nothing that they know about love.

All three have touchy relationships and haven’t talked for years: Tommy moved out with his cancer-stricken, dying, much-abused mother long, long ago, while Brendan stayed with his dad and then married Jennifer and started a family, and tried to make it as a teacher. Now Tommy turns up, not feeling any kindlier toward his pop, but wanting his dad’s help to train for Sparta, the big bucks TV Mixed Martial Arts tourney. Brendan, whose home is about the be foreclosed by another damned bank, enters the tourney too, with the help of his buddy/manager Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) — and the professionally brash and mouthy TV announcers immediately brand Brendan as the underdog, longest of long shots, while Tommy, who turns out to be a missing war hero (and also a deserter), is cast as Sparta‘s finest.

Along for the ride are a wild bunch of colorful fighters with names like Midnight (Anthony Johnson) and Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple) — and other monikers (and dispositions) suitable for a Rocky sequel. And, unless you’re a seasoned MMA fan, you may be amazed at what the MMA contestants get away with, from kung fu kicks in the head to strangleholds. I didn’t see any biting (no choreographer jobs for Mike Tyson). But, as for that old signature move once considered the dirtiest of dirty fight tricks — hitting a man when he’s down — I can’t remember one Sparta warrior who didn’t indulge in it, frequently.

If your eyes are rolling by now, all I can say is that you’ll be amazed at how effectively director-cowriter Gavin O‘Connor, his fellow screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, and his virile, top-notch cast put this rock-‘em, sock-‘em hokum across. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if a movie seems or sounds or is written real, if it just feels real, and, in Warrior, you’re likely to suspend disbelief at all this preposterous preliminary, just long enough to choke up a little at the ending.

Mixed Martial Arts, whatever its ethical flaws, provides a genuinely rousing arena. O’Connor (who made the inspirational Badgers-vs.-Russkies ice hockey movie, Miracle) takes us to the gray, dingy purgatory that is his Pittsburgh, where Tommy and Paddy now live, and to sunnier working class Philadelphia, home of Brendan and his wife Tess, and finally to money-mad Atlantic City, site of the tourney, with its windy boardwalk, gray beach, and Trumped-up casinos, and all the gambling city’s echoes of those great low-life films Atlantic City and The King of Marvin Gardens. And somehow, he and his cast and crew, make us buy the story and buy the Conlons.

Fighting and love (or the lack of it) is what this movie is all abut, from the moment we see Tommy emerging out of the shadows to greet his shambling, mumbling, dry, squeezed-out dad (almost 1,000 days sober and full of shameful pride), to the dark, shivery scene with the ferocious sibling argument in the dark of the city, between the brothers (Brendan reaches out, Tommy slaps him down), to the end we’re all waiting for, when the two brothers, we’re pretty sure (unlikely as it would seem in real life) will wind up facing each other in a caged ring in a neon wilderness to compete for the big prize, and make monkeys out of the announcers.

It’s a violently emotional movie that works much better than it should, because the actors — mostly Edgerton, Hardy and Nick Nolte, but also Grillo, Morrison and Kevin Dunn as Brendan’s sports-fan school principal Zito — give it their all, and because the movie, rather ingeniously, contrives a way to have is rooting for both fighters at the same time

We’re sympathetic to Tommy, even though he plays the roughest and meanest of all of them (watching Tommy, we recall what a bloody beast Hardy made of the pschopathic prisoner “Charles Bronson” in Bronson), because he‘s a war hero, who pulled off a tank door to save the guys trapped inside, and because he helped his dying mother. And we’re sympathetic to Brendan — played by Australian film noir specialist Edgerton with the split, aching vulnerability of a Nick Ray character — because the damned bank is foreclosing on their house and because, when he tries to make a little extra money fighting, the school bigwig fires him — and, most of all, because he’s a good family man, willing to take awesome punishment and get beaten to a pulp to try to save his home.

That makes the final fight in Warrior — a brother bout on Hell and cable TV — one of the more unusual and interesting in the annals of fight films, because our sympathies really are effectively and potently divided, and the ending really is capable of surprising us. Or at least, of not being a sure thing.

In some ways, it’s an unusually classy sports drama: Manager Campana marches Brendan into the arena to the strains of Beethoven‘s 9th Symphony and its overwhelming choral finale “Ode to Joy.” Paddy keeps taking sustenance from an audio book of Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick. I’m surprised O‘Connor didn’t somehow tie Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Hotspur to Brendan and Tommy.

Even so, Warrior is no operatic instant classic like Scorsese’s Raging Bull, no lower-depths classic like Huston’s Fat City, and no grimly realistic Greek fight-drama like Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, with Robert Ryan as the old boxer who won’t throw his last fight, won’t give up, won’t lie down, even though the local mob has money down on his defeat. There’s nothing in it to match Brando’s “Coulda Been a contendah” speech in On the Waterfront. Warrior is not even as moving and honest an overall show as Rod Serling’s and Ralph Nelson’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, with Anthony Quinn losing his last fight to the young Cassius Clay (later Ali) and learning the pain of endings.

But it’s good by comparison. Anyway, we just don’t see many thoughtful and realistic fight movies like The Set-Up any more, not since the Rah-Rah spectacle that became the norm after Rocky — where, we should remember, Stallone lost his climactic first fight with Apollo.

Nah. Warrior, like most recent fight films, is a fantasy, and its full of baloney and coincidences that strain credulity to the snapping point, and you‘d be a sucker to swallow it whole. But you can swallow part of it. It’s a good fantaasy, likable baloney, served up tastily on Hearty Italian, or , in this case Hearty Irish-American (played by a Midwesterner, an Australian and a Londoner). It’s a movie that moves you, because of the three main actors and the way they play their parts and the way O’Connor directs them. And believe me, it takes a lot to sell me on a movie, and a sport, where it’s all right to hit a man when he’s down. Shouldn’t we leave that to politicians?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon