Fight films are their own genre. 1976's "Rocky" immediately comes to mind as the grandaddy of all fight films, but there were, in fact, movies about combat sports even before "Rocky" came around. It's a long tradition that goes back as least as far as 1947's "Body and Soul," quite possibly the first-ever boxing movie. But what makes the fight-movie genre so perennially popular? There might be a few reasons. Here are three.
The first and most obvious reason is that combat is distilled drama. If, as your old teacher liked to say, the essence of drama is conflict, then what purer conflict is there than a man versus another man in a defined space? As we now know thanks to a million fight-scene clips on YouTube, you don't even need context to get hooked on combat: it's enough just to see two people fighting. So on one level, we watch fight movies for the fights.
A second reason is that we get interested in the characters' histories. While watching a fight in a context-free way might be viscerally interesting, the added layer of emotional investment makes a fight that much more watchable. Think of it this way: it might be compelling to witness a street fight between two guys you don't know, but how much more riveting would it be if you discovered that one of the dudes in the street fight was your best friend? When we're interested and invested in the characters, we have someone to root for.
A third reason is the story itself—the larger situation in which the characters of a fight movie find themselves. A typical scenario might be something like, "youth/man from humble circumstances must prove himself" or "one man wronged another long ago; the two meet in the ring with nothing but revenge on the hero's mind." The "Rocky" movies had certainly covered all this ground by the time we got to "Rocky IV." (A new Rocky film, "Creed," is coming out soon: Stallone plays the trainer to Michael B. Jordan's AJ Creed, son of Apollo.)
"Warrior" (2011) is an excellent film that gives us all three of the above reasons to watch it. At its heart, it's the story of three estranged people: two brothers and their father. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) used to be a raging, abusive drunk. He's an ex-Marine who saw plenty of blood and guts, then came home and unleashed his inner demons on his wife and two sons, only one of whom—Tommy (Tom Hardy)—he saw fit to train as a wrestler. Tommy's older, gentler brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), eventually abandoned his father in disgust, fell in love with a good woman named Tess (the eternally troubled-looking Jennifer Morrison) and started a family. Tommy, for his part, joined the Marines—a fact that becomes important later in the story.
The tale begins with Tommy appearing on Paddy's doorstep. Tommy has no real love for his father, and after a tense greeting, he lets Paddy know that he wants to start training again in order to sign up for Sparta, a massive competition in mixed martial arts (MMA) that will be open only to the top sixteen middleweight MMA fighters in the world. Tommy insists he's not doing this to rebuild his broken relationship with Paddy, and Paddy gruffly consents to train Tommy again. Tommy also joins a local gym and proceeds to knock out the current top middleweight MMA contender, a guy named Mad Dog Grimes, in mere seconds. The gym manager records the knockout on video and uploads it to YouTube, where it becomes an instant sensation: seeing the invulnerable Grimes knocked out so quickly by a nobody is a shock to the viewing public, and suddenly Tommy is on the map. Although Tommy seems to care about nothing and no one, he cares deeply about the wife and kids of one of his fellow soldiers, a man named Manny, who was killed by friendly fire. Tommy hopes to donate his Sparta winnings to Manny's wife, Pilar.
Brendan Conlon is a high-school physics teacher moonlighting as a low-tier MMA fighter to earn extra cash. He's about to lose his house to foreclosure (he'd had to pay for his daughter's heart surgery), and he's so far in the hole that he can no longer afford to refinance. Some students begin to buzz about one of Brendan's fights; word reaches the principal and the school superintendent at the same time, and although the principal is sympathetic to Brendan's situation, Brendan is suspended without pay: you can't seriously expect to teach at a high school during the day and fight at titty bars in your spare time. Brendan turns to his old friend Frank Campana (real-life training enthusiast Frank Grillo), humbly asking Frank to train him. Tess, meanwhile, has grave misgivings about Brendan's getting back into the ring. She's initially angry with Brendan for having lied to her: he'd told her he had been working as a bouncer. Eventually, Brendan also gets wind of the Sparta competition, and when Frank's best MMA fighter gets injured during training, Brendan asks Frank, who has connections and clout thanks to his reputation as a great trainer, to put him in the roster for Sparta. Miraculously, Frank does this.
Both brothers, meanwhile, have trouble dealing with Paddy, who wants to reinsert himself into his sons' lives. Their mother, Paddy's wife, had died years before; Tommy had taken care of her himself, keeping her far away from Paddy's drunken abusiveness. Brendan refuses to let Paddy into his home to see Brendan's wife and daughters even though Paddy insists he's been sober for a thousand days. Tommy, meanwhile, rebuffs every attempt that Paddy makes to reestablish any sort of normal human contact with him, preferring to view Paddy merely as some old man who's training him.
The rest of the story focuses on Sparta, and if you were unfortunate enough to see the movie's preview trailer when it came out, then you know that the trailer pretty much spoiled this entire part of the film: the event starts off with sixteen fighters, but Tommy and Brendan end up the finalists, and the world is astonished to learn that the finalists are, in fact, brothers. This was bound to happen, of course; it's an example of screenwriterly predestination at work. Conflict is the essence of drama, and with this much familial anger and fury and resentment being flung around between and among the brothers and their father, a Brendan/Tommy matchup is the ultimate conflict in the context of this story. Tommy and Brendan share a tense nighttime scene at the seashore the night before Sparta begins; Tommy lays out his grievances, and so does Brendan. It's a well-scripted and marvelously acted scene—one of many such well-done scenes in the film.
With the third reel spoiled by the preview trailer, the only question left is which brother wins the final fight. Here again, if you were unfortunate enough to see the movie poster (here), this was spoiled for you as well: in the poster, one fighter is obviously helping the other out of the ring, making it clear who came out the victor.
And here's the strange thing: despite having seen the poster and having seen the preview, I was absolutely hooked by this movie. The MMA fight choreography is gritty and realistic; the moments in the ring are filmed in such a way as to bring out maximum tension, and each victory, as Tommy and Brendan fight their respective ways up the ladder, feels earned. The director, Gavin O'Connor (who also produced and scripted this labor of love), is conscientious about showing the differences between Tommy's and Brendan's fighting styles—differences that reflect the brothers' mindsets. For the unstoppable Tommy, almost all of his victories come easily, a result of brute force and naked fury. Brendan, by contrast, takes hits like Rocky, eking out his victories only in the third round of these three-round bouts, and doing so mainly by putting his opponents in a joint lock and forcing them to tap out (i.e., indicate submission by either tapping the mat or tapping the opponent).
We're meant, I think, to root more for Brendan. He comes off as the kind-hearted brother, the one who was hurt by his father, but who, in being a father himself, has refused to pass his demons down to his children. We're also more sympathetic to Brendan, at least at first, because it's obvious from the beginning that his family's lives are at stake: if he fails to win the $5 million purse that Sparta is offering, he loses his home, and his family will end up on the street. Tommy, meanwhile, is a harder sell. For so much of the movie's running time, Tommy comes off as either angry or uncaring, a powder keg of resentment. As Tom Hardy plays Tommy, we're never quite sure if he's going to suddenly lash out at his interlocutor. It's a fantastic performance, vivid in its coiled rage. Later in the movie, though, we see Tommy's good side. He cares deeply for Pilar and her family, and when his father does finally fall off the wagon, Tommy stoically takes care of him, too, in an unwonted moment of tenderness. (Hats off to Nick Nolte for his portrayal of Paddy. Nolte was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.) So even though Brendan comes off as the more sympathetic brother, Tommy, once we come to understand him, deserves our compassion.
"Warrior" is a mature film. It doesn't simplify issues; it leaves certain plot points ambiguous. It's also very well directed: I've seen it four times now, and the intensity never gets old even though I know what's going to happen. A worthy successor to stout-hearted fight films like "Rocky," "Warrior" may in fact be superior to the 1976 film. The movie is, unlike many other movies in this genre, a complex character study. It's also, specifically, a study in masculinity—how men handle and express their pain. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, neither of whom is American, both manage to pull off convincing Rust Belt accents. Nick Nolte's distinctive, gravelly voice and real-life association with the bottle make him a convincing ex-drunk. If you have the chance to catch "Warrior" on video, do yourself a favor and enjoy a fight movie that seamlessly blends teeth-grinding combat with gritty family drama. I honestly can't say enough good things about this film, which gets my heartiest endorsement.
Scratch off item 3:
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.
11. A stupid dialogue with one clueless student.
12. A post that dishes (nothing too terrible) on a friend of mine.
13. A mopping-up post that dumps all the rest of the Pohang photos from last year.
14. A review of "The Lunchbox," starring Irrfan Khan.
15. A post on prescriptivism/descriptivism, linguistic pedantry, and my disagreements with Steven Pinker.
16. Continuing my 7-part overview of A Song of Ice and Fire.
17. A response to Malcolm's response re: gay marriage.