For a film about mixed martial arts, it would have been cool of Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR to demonstrate some mixed martial arts. But maybe I’m projecting my own priorities onto a film more interested in showing us, ad nauseam, how this great whatsit is provoking the audience. No matter how fly-on-the-wall the angles or how human the camera, this isn’t FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. That film and TV series is all about the community investing in the game, whereas WARRIOR is a stage piece with a spotlight just big enough to illuminate its hero-brothers and their father. All the cutting pretends this match means more than it does, desperately seeking entry into the Hall of Fame. I see the potential, but in practice it’s a deathless conceit that clarifies its own redundancy not only with twelve shots of the exact same person doing the exact same thing but also by mimicking the real life audience in every way except one: our furious cries to get the camera back to the ring!
This is just one example of WARRIOR’s overinflation, but most of the two-and-a-half hours is actually muscle. Sure, it’s largely masculine melodrama, but like the MMA process* it’s painstakingly procedural, showing every step of the characters’ reunion. [*Well, every step of the physical MMA process; for some reason they elide the scene where Joel Edgerton gets his vanity shot taken for the program.] It may be lengthy, but that’s because the characters—especially the unstoppable Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte—are so damn restrained, so unsure of how to say the things they’ve bottled up for fourteen years. There are fatty moments— like when the principal refuses to let Edgerton’s students watch the fight in the auditorium, and it’s played like a cancer diagnosis as the sound drops out and thuds boom and they walk away for nine minutes—but WARRIOR doesn’t pretend to be any grand artistic statement. It’s a sports film, right down to its costumed predictability. It’s not trying to be Greek myth, but it sure would like to be a statue.
Unfortunately, they don’t give statues for pretending. The clearest sustained shot of MMA is from the nosebleed section, although there are a few exciting fly-bys including a gasp-worthy body-slam. But mostly O’Connor just wants us to know that two bulls are charging each other, not the specifics of their athleticism. This isn’t the first film to cover for its actors-not-athletes as they manage a demonstration of physical performance sufficient for the film’s purposes and no more—BLACK SWAN, GLEE, BUCKY LARSON—but WARRIOR is practically embarrassed of its sport, like a weedy kicker refusing to take his shirt off at the football team’s pool party. Oh, we get plenty of that, by the way, in this beefcake parade, and it only puts the rest in relief: WARRIOR may be a film about muscles and physicality, but it has no interest in the particular application of those muscles, which is what sports is all about (thereby honoring strength, perseverance, character, and other poster slogans). It gives us trains and factories and old-fashioned crank slot machines and a story about someone ripping a door off a vehicle and a philanthropist who pointedly turned his back on digital Wall Street in favor of sports, but the only physical labor we see is Nick Nolte struggling not to laugh at how typecast he’s become. It’s an exciting, moving male weepie, but it’s hard to concentrate on the fight between the heroes when the real tension is between the filmmaker and the film.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the AV Club, the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.