Monday 26 September 2011

Rolling with the punches: "Warrior"

When The Fighter opened earlier this year - to near-unanimous critical praise, and much love and respect from the various awards committees - it caused many to evoke the spectre of Rocky, a previous pugilistic sensation that came from nowhere to capture the popular imagination. Yet, as befitted a work from the director of I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter had its own rhythms, its own moves, which made it the film it was. Gavin O'Connor's Warrior, which bears the unpromising look of something greenlit once The Fighter hit a particular number at the box office, is actually far closer to the Rocky template, now updated to an age of mixed martial-arts and the new, equally brutal economic realities into which America is now locked. It has the rundown working-class neighborhoods, the same sense of broken homes and wasted lives, even an apparently undefeatable Russian foe. What O'Connor's film really shows, however, is how, in the right hands, the template can still produce cinema that's both as resonant as ever, and as corny and cheesy as nachos with dip. You could watch The Fighter any time, and - I believe - be impressed by what you saw there; Warrior is made specifically for Friday and Saturday night consumption, if you can afford the price of a ticket.

The plot is basically Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" pumped full of steroids, and relocated to a different battleground. Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) is a lank-haired, monosyllabic underdog who's washed up in latter-day Pittsburgh, on the doorstep of his recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). An Iraq War veteran, Tommy has nowhere to go save the local gym, where he begins to take out his rage, his regrets and his resentments on first the bag, then any unfortunate who cares to spar with him. Over on the other side of town, meanwhile, there resides Tommy's brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a squeezed middle-class educator who - unknown to both his wife and his employers - fights after hours to keep the bailiffs from his door. After he's suspended from his first job for showing up with a black eye, he's obliged to take up the second full-time, bringing about a makeshift family reunion at an MMA championship event in Nevada where the fighters are vying for a $5m purse.

Rocky was a rallying cry for the American underclass that came to sound increasingly hollow as Reaganomics came to take hold, and its star came to flip between that franchise and the bellowing Rambo franchise. Warrior, crucially, aspires to the standing of myth, which explains the 140-minute running time and the references to Theogenes, a Greek boxer who remained undefeated through 1300 contests. (Furthering the mythology, Paddy listens to a Moby Dick audiobook while accompanying Tommy on his late-night jogs.) The rhetoric and imagery throughout remain chiefly American, which may mean Warrior will play less well in, say, Yeovil than it would do in Vegas or the Mid-West. There's much talk of promises and forgiveness, yielding Methody acting bouts on beaches and front lawns; I'd wager O'Connor's primary direction to his male performers was to watch Brando's "contender" speech from On the Waterfront on YouTube.

What lifts it some distance out of the ordinary are those self-same actors, who put their hearts and body and soul into it, and know exactly the right emotional blows to land, and when. Hardy's physicality has never been much in question - particularly after Bronson - yet Tommy Conlon counts as perhaps his least immediately forthcoming role to date: a squat, punchy thing who slurs and mumbles his words, and would rather not talk at all, if possible. There are reasons for this, of course, and many of them are revealed through an approach to performance that is as much gestural as anything else: Hardy makes something especially iconic of the way Tommy enters and leaves the cage, as though carried by demons. Edgerton's Brendan, by contrast, is better placed to articulate what he's doing and why he's doing it, and yet we never quite shake off the feeling this fighter is punching well below his weight, and that someone - most likely the fearsome Russian champion Koba (Kurt Angle) - is likely to teach him a lesson sooner rather than later. By the time this pair eventually meet, Warrior really has moved into mythic territory, setting brother against brother, while retaining the feel of something greatly more intimate: these are squabbling kids rolling round the floor of a bedroom-substitute, in the absence of a mother to pull them apart.

Incidentally, O'Connor hands Nolte his most substantial role in years, inviting the veteran to fold some shaky vulnerability into that otherwise impermeably craggy face of his. It's Nolte who gets the film's one true grace note, a final, wry smile and a shake of the head that appear to communicate a sense he can't believe someone's doing this story again, and - more importantly - that they're getting away with it. Get away with it Warrior does, for this is very canny entertainment, doing a pretty decent Ron Shelton impersonation in working a heightened drama and realism into the live fights, then cutting away to those viewers - onscreen surrogates for those of us in the cheap seats - watching nervously or excitedly at home. It's a crowdpleaser in the best sense, recognising we respond instinctively to the sight of men doing whatever it takes to be a better man - and it may just do more in the short term to boost the flagging economy than any politician currently seems capable of doing.

Warrior is in cinemas nationwide.

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