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The Heart is a Lonely Fighter

May Contain Spoilers

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Thinking about this movie, I had to go to a thesaurus to find any synonyms for "underdog." Try it. The point is that I had little interest in watching another dark horse movie because they tend to follow the same unique long shot formula to such a degree that there are not many synonyms even for the word that describes them. Further, the admittedly exciting trailer for Gavin O'Connor's geometrically constructed "Warrior" (2011) seemed to give away all of the film's secrets, including the most preposterous plot points. More than that, all the villains in these Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) matches seemed too familiar and too cartoonish. But, a few friends recommended the movie; then, my fellow Far Flung Correspondent from Cairo, Wael Khairy, appreciated this movie somewhere in his list of the Best Films of 2011.

Film stills and page design by Marie Haws,

And, when the film opened with the all too familiar shots of small town factories and churches, my skepticism against any originality only grew. But, Wael was right: this is a great movie. This film is indeed an underdog movie, and the story is indeed appropriately preposterous, but it has only one real villain: pain, of the body and heart, of course. Now that I think about it, maybe pain was the real villain in most of the "Rocky" (1976) movies also.

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"Warrior" takes us through three character driven subplots that all meet in the same empty chain link hexagon. There is no overarching plot, except that Sparta must find a winner. Like most movies about fighters, it is the story of broken souls seeking healing in an arena of broken bodies. The secondary characters are mostly happy and healthy and eager, though the central characters spend plenty of time brooding. Nick Nolte is a recovering alcoholic working beyond his thousandth day of sobriety. Joel Edgerton is a physics teacher struggling to pay his upside down mortgage. Tom Hardy is a mysterious recluse returning home. And, the three face each other at Sparta, the world's largest UFC MMA (Ultimate Fighting Championship) competition. One seeks redemption. Another seeks the jackpot. The third seeks redemption through the jackpot.

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Does the trailer reveal too much? It does and it does not. Any moviegoer with even a little experience will not be surprised by the final showdown. Should I tell you the secret? No, I won't. Still, the film is thoroughly predictable. The secondary characters are too animated for this film to be anything but optimistic. But, you know the alcoholic stumbles closer and closer to relapse. You know the physics teacher is going to have moments with his family, fearing the future. And, you know the recluse is going to have an elaborate story hidden somewhere in the capillaries in his heart. And each of those scenes appears on schedule, tugging at all the tender spots. The moments are completely expected, but they are played well. Very well. The movie works because it is more than the story of broken men seeking money and/or redemption. It shows modest men struggling against the rules of the big institutions: the bank, the school, the military, the media, and (to lesser degree) the church. Further, the film repeatedly portrays reunions. Athletes reconnect with their coaches, rival fighters have rematches, sons reconnect with their father, a soldier reconnects with someone he spots in an online video, and it seems as though every male is a "brother." Most of all, however, "Warrior" succeeds because it's the story of a broken institution - the broken family - unexpectedly repairing itself through a series of fortunate events.

Beyond this, the real secret is neither the plot, nor the showdown. The film's secret is Tom Hardy. All of the characters in the movie are so likeable, in the way that we tend to like poking, blue collar Irish guys in the movies. But Tom Hardy excels with his blunt, vulnerable ruggedness, recalling the subtext of anger in Russell Crowe's performance as "Gladiator" (2000) and Stallone's subtext of woundedness as "Rocky." Unlike Crowe and Stallone in those roles, however, Hardy's Tommy Riordan seems like someone with the ability to explode, but has exhausted himself, now replacing moments of fury with sighs, hoping to exhale away thick memories of dysfunction. I imagine he could spend some time with Mike Tyson, staring at pigeons.

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The movie, like so many such films inspired by "Rocky" pays its homage. Among the challengers, one is a Mohawked competitor recalling Clubber Lang ("Rocky III") and another is an unstoppable Russian, recalling Ivan Drago ("Rocky IV"). Like the training sequences in the "Rocky" saga, one fighter trains in a luxurious gym with a Beethoven soundtrack, while the other pounds old truck tires. Further, if "The Karate Kid" shows a sort of "Rocky doing Karate," and "Rudy" shows "Rocky doing Football" and "Hoosiers" shows "Rocky doing High School Basketball," and "Moneyball" (2011) shows "Rocky managing a Baseball Team," then this film shows "Rocky doing MMA." The difference here is that in "Warrior" all the central characters are underdogs, as though we are watching Rocky fight Rocky.

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I wonder about the future of MMA. Like most theologies, it traces itself to ancient traditions that may not hold any organic relationship. It seems so hyperkinetic that I wonder if it can some day give birth to a Muhammad Ali or those political rivalries we watched play out in the boxing ring. In terms of the filmmaking, however, I have complained again and again that movie fighting lacks choreography, resulting in clunky cuts that narrate but do not perform. This film is no different. While some fight films sacrifice opera for MTV, this film seems to take a butcher shop style of pugilism. It relies too often on body slams, miscellaneous names for moves I do not know, and a whole lot of crunching and tearing. That might be the approach of this immensely popular sport, but as a film method it does not work.

So, in my search for a satisfactory synonym for "underdog" I found only "dark horse" and "longshot" (also the name of a recent underdog movie, featuring "Rocky as a high school girl playing boys football"). And, I haven't seen enough movies to agree with Wael that "Warrior" is one of the best films of the year, but it does take some unique turns and is certainly one of my favorites.

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