I’ll be honest and say that I approached you with… trepidation. I have never been a fan of mixed martial arts as a sport, and even boxing movies have been rather hit or miss with me. Almost every successful boxing film I have seen focuses on the way that man and sport find one another, and feed off of one another to create an almost unstoppable force. MMA movies, though, have almost uniformly looked to trade on the “nowness” and popularity of the sport as a means of sidestepping and kind of story or character building.
As such, I was concerned. I was nervous that I would get stuck in another movie where platitudes about “honor” and “courage” and thrown around in between over-produced fight scenes that lack and impact beyond watching two men hurt one another, with one set up to be the obvious victor.
So I was thankful to find, at the outset, that you were nothing like my expectations had led me to believe you would be. Rather, you take a tried and true method of movie storytelling and invert it slightly and deepen is greatly, creating a cinematic experience that – while not transcendent or challenging – rightly stands as one of the more entertaining and fulfilling ones to be had this year. And even though you are riddled with the cliches of the sports movie genre, you attack and execute them with such aplomb and dexterity that they feel fresh and immediate.
You are the tale of two brothers and their father. This trio is deeply flawed, broken, and ultimately toxic to one another because of years of resentment, abuse, and slights both real and perceived. Thanks to their father Paddy’s alcoholism, Tommy and Brendan grew up into very different men than they feel like they should have become. Tommy fled with his mother at a young age, abandoning the promising wrestling career that he had been cultivating with his father’s help. Brendan, meanwhile, stayed with his father to be close to the woman he loved, and had to suffer through his father’s continued indifference as a result.
From this divergence both boys become men, and both men view each other and their father with varying degrees of disdain and regret. The one thing that binds them all, though, is the spirit of competition and indomitable strength that lives within them. It is a primal, enduring spirit that drink and abuse and domestication and estrangement have failed to drown out completely. To save his family’s home, Brendan re-enters the ring for the first time since a close call landed him in the hospital years ago. To overcome his own demons following service in the Marines, Tommy swallows his pride and begins training with his father once more. And to find the family he lost, Paddy cleans up and suffers all the abuse he can take to prove his worth.
Every one of these characters is fully realized and brought to life by your strong cast of actors. Tom Hardy is note-perfect as the broken, angry Tommy, and imbues his character with a kind of stubborn ire that could have been disconcerting and repellent were it not for the wounded undercurrent that is always just out of focus. Joel Edgerton has a more clear-cut, good-guy role, but his sincerity and selfless devotion make his boy scout of a character easy to swallow and easier to root for. The best by far, however, is Nick Nolte, who plays the newly Christian and newly sober Paddy with a kind of shameful regret and hopefulness that your heart breaks every moment he is on screen. This is a man who has done terrible things, but whose recovery is so genuine and deeply felt that you can’t help but wish he hadn’t inflicted scars so deep on his sons that they might never forgive him.
Each of these battles weaves itself into the background tale of an approaching MMA championship, which each brother hangs his hopes on and works fervently toward. It is here, in this final passage of your narrative, that you subvert the expectations of a usual competition-movie narrative. Each brother has been given, throughout the course of the film, a nemesis to defeat. Each match-up at this stage could have served as its own film, so rife are they with symbolism and thematic import. We want each brother to succeed, and so it is all the more heartbreaking when they do, and then must face one another.
It is this final scene, with its breathless energy and moral uncertainty that truly lends you your staying power. Each man must wrestle not only with his brother/opponent, but with his own desires and assumptions. The full context of the fight has a complexity and weight that is truly something special.
I hope, Warrior, that others who feel the way I did initially will give you a chance. Anyone willing to trust your story and actors will be rewarded heavily, even if MMA fighting is not their particular cup of tea.
Cheering you on,
Brian J. Roan