Brothers Up in Arms
Even the non-sports or only casual movie fan should have little trouble rattling off better, often classic, often boxing, often one-word titles reprised in Warrior, which sneak previewed -- accompanied by director Gavin O’Connor and costar Joel Edgerton -- at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Pictures are entertainment, snorted Samuel Goldwyn, and should leave delivering messages to Western Union. Though sports films seldom resist stuffing in both -- here, for example, “inspirational ode to redemption, reconciliation, the human spirit, bonds of family” -- this newest member does a good job in the entertainment ledger, for those not put off by the surprisingly blood-free violence. And to its merit, there is no attempt to milk competition as metaphor for life or the all-American Lombardi tripe that sport is life.
Also co-original story and co-scriptwriter O’Connor comes to the field with the credentials of fictionalized Miracle and HBO’s documentary The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Mark Kerr. Literally a no-holds-barred up- (or down-) grading of Thai kick boxing, with a touch of WWF alpha hysteria, Mixed Martial Arts is tangentially if at all on most people’s radar, but prior familiarity is not called for. In an octagonal “cage,” chaperoned by a gloved referee whose “Let’s go to war!” opens each round, two “gladiators” slug, kick, throw, gouge, jump on, bend and pin each other, may the best man survive.
The plot’s grand finale, J.J. Riley’s five-million-dollar winner-take-all single-elimination tournament is held in glittery Atlantic City and incorporates Super Bowl glitz of ESPN; the training, fight montages and unbeatable Russian from other films; trash talk, roving colored spotlights, music, celebrities, with – thankfully -- experts, announcers and commentators toned down from their obnoxious real-life selves.
The road to this payday is not film-unexceptional, in fact “thoroughly classic.” Obviousness and underdog improbability are not necessarily flaws -- “eliminate the impossible, and [the] however improbable remains.” The core combats are brief but convincing in building tension even if the outcome is a given and there are too many side shots of rooters and converted family and associates jumping for nerves and joy.
The “entertainment” part is done well, so that in spite of the derivativeness -- without any sense of satire -- today’s moviegoer should be happy. The “message,” however, is quite another thing, “delivered” so often in the past as well as here that, to be fair, any novel approach would be difficult. Now it is two brothers, different in personalities and hidden but different family motivations, going mano-a-mano back to the oldest story told three chapters after the Genesis of all, estranged from each other and, for complication, wanting nothing to do with their father.
Bottle and phials in hand, Tommy (Tom Hardy) pops up on dad Paddy Conlon’s (Nick Nolte) steps in laboring-class Pittsburgh. Getting by on coffee and Moby-Dick audio recordings, dad is proudly sober going on a thousand days, but the hard and cynical prodigal son won’t swallow it and rejects guilty apologies from the man who drove him and his terminally ill mother away, to Tacoma.
Though learning of her death, neither Paddy nor ex-fighter other son and brother Brendan (Edgerton) was aware of her illness or of the poverty into which the two had fled. At that time fourteen years before, Brendan had been all-consumed by his love for Tess (Jennifer Morrison), now his wife. If angry Tommy ran as far left as possible in the United States, Brendan went farthest right within the state and is now a popular Philadelphia high school physics teacher.
With a George Foreman-like defiance of age, the estranged siblings regain form and prowess. Hiding behind their mother’s maiden name, Tommy wants the money for the El Paso widow (Vanessa Martínez, as Pilar Fernández) and children of his brother Marine. His own heroism there in Iraq, and his disgrace, is left to the omnivorous media to ferret out.
Lone wolf Tommy works out of Colt Boyd’s (Maximiliano Hernández) rough gym and is trained with, in theory, no emotional attachments by his father. Against the wall after younger daughter Rosie’s (Lexi Cowan) heart surgery, and about to lose their house to foreclosure, Brendan earns more in one parking-lot bout than in two months moonlighting as a strip-club bouncer. His school principal (Zito, played by Kevin Dunn), has no alternative but to suspend him for the activity. Against Tess’ wishes, Brendan begs gym-owner and friend Frankie Campana (Frank Grillo) to train and ultimately enter him in the “thrilla” in Boardwalk Hall. Stressing mental preparedness, Frankie employs classical music, specifically the conveniently fitting Schiller Choral ode from Beethoven’s Ninth: “Brothers! above the starry canopy a loving father must dwell.”
Story, character, development and outcome are hackneyed, done elsewhere, sometimes worse, often better, but you can’t keep a good story down for the count. Like Rossen, Robson, Wise, Stallone, Scorsese, Fincher, Aronofsky, et al., O’Connor knows how to ring the bell.
(Released by Lionsgate and rated “PG-13” for sequences of intense martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material.)