There is no better film right now that holds up a mirror to a post 9/11 America than Warrior. If we want to see what the role of ideology is today, then sit through this intoxicating cocktail of paternalism and good ol’ fashioned American patriotism masquerading itself as a ‘fight to death’ film between brothers from a broken family. Superficially, it’s a powerful drama underpinned by an outstanding performance from British actor Tom Hardy, and emotionally matched by Australian hotshot Joel Edgerton, literally filling their roles with method precision. Nick Nolte as the apologist recovering alcoholic father completes the ‘coalition of the willing’. For practitioners and supporters of Mixed Martial Arts however, a discipline with a long proud history, I can only feel the displeasure of seeing the sport being hi-jacked and exploited in an effort to spin this populist neo-conservative propaganda in the name of good christian entertainment.
The very system of rampant free market capitalism that sold a piece of the ‘American Dream’ is now foreclosing on hard working families who failed to read the fine print as they over extended themselves in the pursuit of happiness. School teacher, Brendan (Edgerton) is, like many Americans, facing such a situation. That frustration and the ignominy of repossession becomes the ex-fighter’s ‘Call-to-Arms’ so to speak. A motivation so inflated with cheap sentimentalism, that it almost embarrassingly betrays the film. The struggling family man, beloved teacher must now ‘fight’ for his survival and thus enlists in a winner-takes-all tournament of professional Mixed Martial Arts known as SPARTA. The Superbowl of cage fighting. It’s interesting to note that the prize money of $5million, is being waged by an ex-Wall Streeter, the irony here could not be more bitter… What was sold as a dream is offered back as a nightmare. A double or nothing chance at salvation, but you have to fight for it. To add insult, it’s a televised corporate sponsored farce on the one day where you can sell such a spectacle, the 4th of July. Independence Day. The closest thing America has to carnival. A day when everything is permitted. Where all fetish desire is allowed. What is America’s greatest fetish? War… In this case it’s man-to-man combat, but part of the same tradition. As the late great American Comedian George Carlin said in jest ‘ We like war. We are a war-like people. We like war because we are good at it. We are good at it because we get a lot of practice..” Cue regiment in the grandstand. All stand please as we salute the flag.
Now, the other brother, US Marine Tommy (Hardy ) is far more rewarding to watch. A brilliantly disintegrating character, held together by guilt and driven by honor. Hardy’s embodiment of the nihilistic fighter is grotesque and beautiful in equal measure. His motivation for ‘war’ stems back to his fathers betrayal. We pick up the story as the God Fearing Paddy (Nolte), finds his estranged son inebriated on his door step after a 14year absence. Harboring the deep scars of losing his mother, Tommy resurfaces to confront his father for abandoning their family but his real motivation is to seek his fathers brutal training regime. They strike an uneasy truce, which the now sober remorseful Paddy sees as a sign of possible redemption. It transpires further into the film that Tommy has an even higher, more noble cause in his decision to enter the same tournament. With these fixed and unwavering agendas now in place Writer-Director Gavin O’Connor begins to rev-up the action, with obligatory hard-man training sequences, the all to familiar un-approving but ultimately supporting psuedo-authority figures (the wife, head master, trainers) and an infantile split screen montage sequence that dismantles much of the cleverness instilled in his characterisations. Nolte, for his part, though, is perfectly cast.
The all important fight sequences, which a lot of the film hinges on, are rather jerky hand-held close ups that fail to fully capture the intensity and dynamic scope of the sport’s complexity but are brutal and physically demanding nonetheless. Some wider shots might have helped build more tension, but it’s Hardy’s menace, sheer size and inner turmoil that’s the real action. He dispenses with opponents with terrifying malice. The brothers final confrontation is a fantastic sequence, the resolution should be appeasement enough for its intended audience. There is no escaping the feeling however that the sport was reduced to a novelty, the many extras who were pro-fighters do lend that necessary realism, but are reduced to caricatures to fit the drama.
This is a cynical film but technically proficient at the same time. One that will appeal greatly to the blood thirsty and emotionally bankrupt who easily recognise and respond to simple stereotypes. Evoking religion, individualism, and codes of honour amongst other things are hallmarks of the more right-wing orientated and it’s where this film should find its greatest support from. Of course the performances are outstanding and for those seeking a physical study it’s not a bad watch. Again, the underlying subtext is all too permeating and it leaves the viewer feeling slightly cheated at seeing some genuine emotion exploited in the context of prize money. But putting a dollar sign on things is also a very American tradition.
Warrior is in cinemas 21st September 2011.
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolt, Joel Edgerton
Runtime: 140 min