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Dustin Putman

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Warrior  (2011)
1 Star
Directed by Gavin O'Connor.
Cast: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn, Noah Emmerich, Bryan Callen, Jake McLaughlin, Denzel Whitaker, Fernando Chien, Laura Kenley, Frank Grillo, Kurt Angle, Vanessa Martinez.
2011 – 139 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, some language and thematic material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 15, 2011.
If 2010's stirring, raw, passionately written and performed "The Fighter" was something of a modern-day answer to Martin Scorsese's 1980 boxing opus "Raging Bull," then "Warrior" is this year's answer to 2009's "The Blind Side." An immature, contrived, sap-infested drama of feuding family members, feel-good histrionics and mixed martial arts, the film opens with a certain cautious promise before falling into rote, melodramatic formula. It's a shame watching the cast act their hearts out while nothing around them is working. The longer it goes—and at 139 minutes, it goes on forever without adequately developing the characters' relationships and their pouty interpersonal gripes—the more insanely moronic, supremely annoying and egregiously manipulative it dares to become. If writer-director Gavin O'Connor (2008's "Pride and Glory") and his co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorman have achieved anything, it's in successfully rubbing this viewer the absolute wrong way.

Iraq War vet Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) returns home to Philadelphia drunk and ready to berate his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic whom he still blames for tearing their family apart and not being there when his mother was dying. At the gym, Tommy blows the owner away when he puts the beat on the #1 middleweight contender of the world. For reasons left intentionally in the dark (at least at first), Tommy begins preparing to compete in Sparta, a mixed martial arts tournament taking place in Atlantic City with a $5-million prize at stake. He hires Paddy as his trainer—"that much you were good at," he coldly tells his father—and then proceeds to mopishly refuse acknowledging him as his dad. Nearby but estranged, Tommy's elder brother, high school physics teacher Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is in a spot of dire financial trouble, threatened with the foreclosure of the home he's made for his himself, wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and two young daughters. With a teacher's salary that doesn't pay enough, he returns to MMA fighting out of desperation—something that Tess is adamantly opposed to—before finding himself participating in Sparta, too. Face to face for the first time in years, all of the pent-up anger and hang-ups from these two brothers' past is about to come to a head, both out of and inside the ring.

Individual moments that ring true are few and far between in "Warrior," a movie that aims to be a conventional sports pic and a study in familial discord all at once. The first act is rocky in its pacing and focus, struggling to get a handle on its characters and their conflicts without becoming forced. Director Gavin O'Connor sets up hurtful wounds for Tommy and Brendan to have to face in regards to Paddy's drunk ways and seeming abandonment years earlier, then doesn't explore them or go into any enlightening detail. As far as can be told, Paddy was suffering from alcoholism and wasn't always there for his wife and sons, but he also wasn't an abusive monster and genuinely is sorry now that he has a clearer mind. Instead of being happy to hear that his father is in recovery, coming up on his thousandth day of sobriety and trying each day to amend his mistakes, Tommy remains a cruel, flippant, uncaring ass whose only need for people is when he wants to use them to get ahead. Brendan, meanwhile, is blamed by his younger bro for not standing by him and his mother after they left, choosing instead to remain in Philadelphia to be with then-girlfriend Tess. Tommy would be wise to grow up and move on, but boo-hoos his way through his confrontation with Brendan on the Atlantic City beach. Brendan has bigger things to worry about with his own current family, anyway, though it's a shame the film has no time to develop Tess beyond that of a disapproving nag or make his two young daughters anything more than brief background extras. Because of this negligence with the portrayal of Brendan's wife and kids, it's difficult to put much of a stake in whether or not they'll be able to keep their home. It's way too trite, and far too impersonal.

As unevenly as the early human drama plays out, there is no way to guess how many ways "Warrior" goes wrong once the action switches to the Sparta tournament. Shameless in its strict adherence to a laundry list of moldy, overripe clichés over emotional honesty, the film eventually settles into a series of scenes where contestants beat the crap out of each other. Of course, it all comes down to Tommy and Brendan facing off in the final showdown, intercut with acquaintances from their lives anxiously watching on television and cheering from their homes. In one ridiculous turn of events, Brendan's high school students rent out a drive-in theater and watch from there. "His bravery could get him killed," says one tournament commentator, apparently confusing courage with stupidity. Later during the match, he exclaims, "Brendan has done the impossible! What's happened is a miracle!" What's really a miracle is how such a painfully hamstrung screenplay could be made into a major motion picture from Lionsgate.

Clearly, Tom Hardy (2010's "Inception") and Joel Edgerton (2007's "Smokin' Aces") have trained hard for their physically demanding roles as Tommy and Brendan Conlon, and it shows. They are both solid actors besides, though sadly they're not done any favors by having to utter the nonsense penned in the script. Edgerton's Brendan is more likable if only because he doesn't act like a raving lunatic, but he's still someone who disregards his wife's feelings and, by risking his life when he doesn't have to, ends up selfish even in his selfless actions. Hardy is an untamed force as the wounded Tommy, but this character goes so overboard so frequently that it's a chore to be around him. Tommy's virtuous reason for competing is only revealed at the end, but is it good enough to redeem him? No. Too often, he acts like everyone should bow down to him no matter how awfully he treats them. As the worn-down Paddy, desperate to correct his wrongs for his children, Nick Nolte (2011's "Arthur") puts his all into an implosive character rather than his usual exploding ones, and it's depressing to see his work go to waste by the weepy, cheeseball directorial treatment of it. When he says, "We're lost, Tommy," equating his father-son troubles with "Moby Dick," the audiobook he's currently reading, it's so contrived and patently on-the-nose as to be embarrassing. Finally, Jennifer Morrison (2009's "Star Trek") is terrific in a hackneyed part with no chance to explore a character with the layers of, for example, Amy Adams in "The Fighter," who refused to just be another thankless love interest. Alas, that is precisely all that Morrison can be under the circumstances, but hand it to her for this: she knows how to scream and cheer from the stands very well.

There will be people who claim "Warrior" uses the bizarre sport of punching people's lights out as a metaphor for a family in distress and the ties that ultimately bind them. Yeah, right. Small-town football may be a far cry from the world of professional mixed martial arts, but memories of the vivid, authentic, heartbreaking eloquence found on television series "Friday Night Lights" week after week—a drama deep and attentive enough to truly be about people rather than a game— only serves to put the soppy, pandering, threadbare "Warrior" to even greater shame. Overstuffed with stomach-churning macho posturing and chestnuts of rah-rah jingoism about a competition that consists of people getting beat up as bloodthirsty entertainment, "Warrior" finally makes its lasting point be known. Without adequately dignifying what their problems with each other are, there is nonetheless hope for Brendan and Tommy. That is, if the problem-solving violence they commit upon each other's sweaty, muscular, black-and-blue bodies don't get them killed first.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman