I’m not going to mince words here. Warrior is the most moving, most powerfully cinematic achievement since…The Fighter. Damn it. That makes it sound less substantial. OK, head over to “The 10 Best Fight Films of All Time”, and by the time you get through #3, maybe you’ll understand my great admiration for both of these films. I honestly believe them both to be the best movies of their respective years. Granted, it’s a little early for me to say that this time around, as I do not live in New York or L.A., hence I have not seen some of the late 2011 releases. But Warrior is #1 right now, and here’s why:
1. It’s Not an MMA Movie
It would be much easier to write this review if all I had to say was “Warrior is Rocky with mixed martial arts.” Sadly for the writer-me but gladly for the movie-lover me, Warrior is much more than an advertisement for a sport that’s growing rapidly in popularity. I firmly believe they only used MMA because it allowed them more freedom in the physical depiction of the brothers’ tension. Also, the beautifully blocked ending would never have worked had they been boxers.
2. The Characters are Dynamic
Listen, I didn’t expect to find these textured, layered individuals here either, but I’m not going to deny their authenticity. Helped by a script designed to keep secrets as long as possible, every member of the Conlon family has an air of mystery around them – intentional or otherwise.
Tommy (Tom Hardy) shows up on his father’s doorstep without so much as a hello, let alone an explanation for where he’s been the past 14 years. Not that his dad Paddy (Nick Nolte) has the right to ask – he’s a former drunk who’s past includes enough egregious acts to drive his sons away from him. Now on the wagon he tries to reconnect with Brendan (Joel Edgerton), but the eldest Conlon son wants nothing to do with him. He has a family to take care of, and his “toxic” father is only allowed to write or call.
Do these sound like the standard character fare found in lesser fighting films? I think not. Each actor infuses his role with a raw power unseen by any of the fine thespians before, which leads me to…
3. Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte All Deserve Oscars
If Warrior would have been released in October 2012 instead of September 2011, two of the three leads could have won gold. There would have to be a compromise over who gets Best Actor and who gets Supporting Actor (and who only gets a nomination), but voters could always decide for them. Why the year difference is key, though, is because of the big budget projects Hardy and Edgerton have on the schedule this coming summer.
Hardy, despite parts in Layer Cake, Inception, and Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, is already best known as playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. The movie will undoubtedly make buttloads of cash and will almost certainly receive glowing reviews. And, lest we forget, the last villain in a Batman movie won Best Supporting Actor.
Edgerton is slated to appear in the live action Disney drama The Odd Life of Timothy Green and a little movie with Leonardo Dicaprio called The Great Gatsby. Though they won’t make as much money together as The Dark Knight Rises earns in its opening weekend, more than just Star Wars geeks will be able to identify the Aussie actor come 2013.
Why is it so important these actors be popular in order to garner Academy recognition? Look at the Best Actor nominees over the past ten years. They’re all either movie stars or veteran character actors with a breakthrough role. The only one who qualifies from this group under those requirements is Nolte. It’s a tough field to break into, and you need some recognition prior to your nominated role to do it. It doesn’t mean these guys don’t deserve to, though.
Oh, and in case you forgot (because I did), both Edgerton and Hardy are foreigners. Edgerton has a thick Australian accent and Hardy sounds very much like his British ancestors in real life. In the movie, they both sound straight out of the Burgh. American accents are some of the most difficult to master, and these two are so convincing they make us forget where they’re from in a matter of seconds.
4. Gavin O’Connor Did What Paul Greengrass Could Not
My disdain for cheap, shaky, handheld camerawork has been well documented. To be frank, I hate it. It almost never works like directors think it does. “Oh, yeah, Paul. I totally think everything in The Bourne Supremacy felt more real because you used a camera my niece could operate. It also really helped that you cut it together so fast it’s impossible to tell what happened.”
So when I saw the frame start to bounce early on in Warrior, I thought I was in for another head-spinning trip towards nausea. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised with the director’s control over the medium. O’Connor used the steadicam’s ugly cousin sparingly, and only when its desired affect would hit the hardest. He lured me into scenes with it, making me feel like I was inside the octogon with them. I have to admit, as much as it pains me for future imitators, it worked here.
5. There is a Split-Screen Training Montage
For anyone dead-set on watching this solely to replicate the experience of watching Rocky 1 – 4, O’Connor provides the requisite training montage. He doesn’t settle for just one, though. He doesn’t even cut both of them together a la Rocky and Ivan Drago. He brings them both together at the same time through split-screen shots and floating panels. The only complaint – you have to watch it a few times to see each second of footage.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when I see a great movie in theaters and then get screwed on the special features when it hits the DVD stands. I expected it with Warrior after its disappointing box office run. To my pleasant surprise, though, the DVD is absolutely packed with goodies for those few die-hard fans who are dying to see them.
There’s more than an hour and a half of bonus material on the single disc DVD release. First and foremost, there’s a 32-minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with the key cast and crewmembers. It offers plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and insightful excerpts from the subjects (for instance, O’Conner briefly discusses growing up in a different home than his brother). How they managed to shoot this entire film in six weeks is an astounding feat I may never understand. Also, the director’s description of the film’s moving climax is the best I’ve heard yet – “an intervention in a cage”.
There are a few inclusions that feel designed specifically for Academy voters. Selected Scene on Camera Commentary: With Filmmakers and Nick Nolte is first off a ridiculous title, and it’s actually a slightly preposterous bonus feature. We watch as Nick Nolte and O’Conner watch the film and talk about it. It’s like a mini-feature commentary, but we can only see the movie in a small, floating panel in the lower right corner of the screen. There’s still some intriguing content, but it mainly works because Nolte is fun to listen to and watch.
Brother vs. Brother: Anatomy of the Fight also uses picture-in-picture. One panel has storyboards and rehearsal footage cut together to match the finished film being shown in the second panel. It goes all the way through the film’s climactic fight scene, breaking it down for voters who may not have realized just how much preparation went into the scene.
Also included on the disc is an actual feature-length commentary track with Joel Edgerton, a deleted scene, gag reel, and a tribute reel to Charles “Mask” Lewis, Jr. There’s also a 21-minute documentary with MMA trainer Greg Jackson who discusses the various fighting techniques used to depict personality traits in the film. All in all, there’s more than enough here to entertain the most devout fan.
I know, because I’m that fan. I’ve recommended it to all my friends, written about it more than it’s fair share for PopMatters, and now lent out the DVD to people just so they’ll watch it. Please, please check out Warrior and join me in the fight for this brilliant film’s deserved immortality.