It has not escaped my attention that we are now entering the last quarter of 2011, but I've only given a rating of more than 4 stars to one film. (And Black Swan is strictly speaking a 2010 release.) It also worries me that my last top 10 list of the year had no 5-starrers and quite a few 4-starrers; there've been plenty of the latter this year, what with some great summer blockbusters, but no really great films. Maybe it's just 'cos all the Oscar hopefuls usually get released around this time, although when they'll make it to Malaysian screens is anybody's guess. But I gotta say, since my tastes run to the commercial and the genre-driven, I'm kinda disappointed that there hasn't been an Inception or a Toy Story 3 or even a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this year.
Be that as it may, it gives me great pleasure to review a new movie that's virtually certain to be one of my favourites of 2011.
The Conlon family is not a happy one. Its members - patriarch Paddy (Nick Nolte) and his two sons Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) - are all estranged from one another, largely due to Paddy's former alcoholism and abusive behaviour. Then one day Tommy, a former U.S. Marine, returns from his tour of duty in Iraq and asks his now remorseful father to train him for an MMA (mixed martial arts) tournament - but all Tommy wants is to train, not to forgive or reconcile. Meanwhile, Brendan and his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) face foreclosure on their house, unable to make ends meet on his high school teacher job. He approaches his old friend Frank Campano (Frank Grillo), a gym owner and MMA trainer, to train him in amateur fights for money. Both brothers and father unknowingly enter the same tournament, one that both fighters are desperate to win - and the confrontation that they're headed for, both physical and emotional, will force them to deal with the wounds that tore their family apart.
Ah, the pleasures of a good, effective, heart-tugging family drama - the kind of film I haven't seen since Brothers over a year ago. That one was arguably more raw and honest, but this one has fight scenes. It's a sports movie with a deceptively simple twist on the sports movie formula; the genre usually demands that the hero(es) wins the big climactic fight/match/race/competition, which means the ending is usually a foregone conclusion. (Although, of course, good sports movies can still generate tension with great characters and exciting direction.) Warrior gives us two protagonists, both relatable, both sympathetic, both with a huge personal stake in wanting to win, then pits them against each other in a match that's truly unpredictable. And makes them brothers to boot.
I said deceptively simple. 'Cos it's tricky enough to create one relatable, sympathetic protagonist, much less two - much less pit them against each other and make us dread the outcome in which one has to lose. Warrior even throws a third character into the mix - their father - and makes it all work through gritty and humanistic storytelling. The writing - by Gavin O'Connor, Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tambakis - is superb, and invests even minor characters like Tess (a somewhat thankless role as Brendan's wife) and Frank Campano (played by Frank Grillo, a bit actor who's probably never been given such a great script before in his career) with warmth and dimension. But it is Paddy's scenes that earn the greatest poignancy; he is a pitiable old man, desperately scrabbling for forgiveness from his sons, neither of whom are willing to give it. His sins must have been severe for them to hate him so, yet his struggle to redeem himself - in his own eyes as well as theirs - is heartbreaking.
Which brings us to his sons, the two protagonists. Brendan is the more sympathetic, and his motivation for entering a dangerous, punishing MMA tournament the more identifiable. All he wants is to make enough money to save his family home, and he's too proud to take the bankruptcy option offered by his bank officer (played with understated smarminess by Noah Emmerich) whose bad financial advice is what got him in trouble in the first place. The film pulls out all the underdog tricks in getting the audience invested in him; he's a beloved teacher to his students, he's a dark horse competitor amongst professional (and feared) fighters, and his fighting strategy seems to be to take a good beating at the start of every match before turning the tables. But the character work works long before the fighting starts, and the scenes where Brendan and Tess discuss their bleak circumstances are compelling stuff.
However, Tommy's story is darker, more complex, and its resolution ultimately more vital to the film's climax. He's a lot less easier to sympathize with than Brendan; taciturn, emotionally closed-off, and employing a savage fighting style that takes out opponents within seconds. And he is no less vicious with his own father; when he tells Paddy, "I liked you better when you were drunk," he knows exactly what effect those words will have. His reason for entering the tournament is gradually revealed over the course of the film, but what truly motivates him didn't become clear until the final moments. It's beautifully conveyed entirely wordlessly, and I wouldn't dare spoil it here; suffice to say that it isn't what it first appears to be. In many ways, Tommy is the true wounded heart of the film - the one soul most damaged by the breakup of the Conlon family, long before the story begins.
None of this is brilliantly inventive of course; despite the twist of pitting two protagonists against each other, it still largely adheres to the sports movie formula. But where it shines is in the execution - plot, dialogue, and especially acting. Warrior boasts three of the finest male performances you'll see all year, in Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy. Hardy's is almost completely internalized and the most demanding, but he was fantastic; I was especially impressed by how his body language was simultaneously intimidating yet vulnerable. He's on his way to becoming one of the best working actors today (it's certainly a long way from Star Trek: Nemesis) and definitely raises anticipation for his upcoming role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolte is raw, soul-baring and heartbreaking, and it's one of the best in his long veteran career. Edgerton gets the least flashy role, but he'd be terrific even if the movie was a purely formulaic underdog sports film all about Brendan. I'd be very surprised if at least one of them don't get an Oscar nomination next year.
I could quibble about its imperfections - how director Gavin O'Connor's penchant for tight close-ups and hand-held camerawork tends to be somewhat distracting, how the fight scenes are spastically shot and edited (and one in particular ends a little too abruptly), and how the ending chooses to be ambiguous rather than neat and tidy. But these are quibbles in the face of how soaringly, intensely emotional that ending was. I can't exactly say I'm surprised at how good Warrior was - because I have, of course, read the glowing reviews from AV Club and James Berardinelli. But if you haven't heard anything about it, I think you'd be surprised at how such a generic-looking "ta kau" flick could turn out so amazingly effective. Want more proof? At the end of my screening, people were applauding. I felt like doing so too.
NEXT REVIEW: Fright Night
Expectations: vaguely remember the original was fun, hope this one is too