Blu-Ray Review: ‘Warrior’

Sports movies are a lot more complicated than they look, and when they actually succeed at the elaborate juggling act of combining believable athletic choreography with an emotionally involving story and presentation, they often don’t get the full credit they deserve. Fortunately, Warrior, director Gavin O’Connor’s drama from earlier this year, about two brothers’ parallel ascension in the world of competitive mixed martial arts, does such an effective job balancing its dramatic elements with lovingly detailed and emotionally powerful fight choreography that the quality of the finished product is difficult to ignore. Warrior is available this month for Video on Demand, Digital Download, and in a Blu-Ray combo pack from Lionsgate.

Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) are estranged adult brothers raised by an alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) whose drunken rages and physical abuse ultimately caused their family to break down and split in half while both sons were still in high school. Following the death of their mother and a devastating aborted tour in Iraq, Tommy returns to the Pennsylvania suburbs of his youth to tersely reunite with their father, who has sobered up and become contrite. Brendan, a former cage fighter turned high school physics teacher, is married to his high school sweetheart, but he and his wife are struggling with unpaid medical bills and battling foreclosure on their home. Through separate channels, Tommy and Brendan both drift back into competitive mixed martial arts, a sport they indulged in as teenagers under their father’s, often harsh, tutelage – Brendan because he needs the money, and Tommy for reasons that at first remain enigmatic.

Fight movies typically follow an underdog protagonist, beset by life’s assorted foibles, through the trials of adversity associated with an eventual rise to fame and glory, often against a cartoonishly swaggering and overconfident antagonist. Warrior turns the standard formula on its head by eliminating the role of the villain entirely, and instead establishes two separate protagonists, at odds with each other for understandable but complicated reasons, and both struggling with individual sets of obstacles and motivations. It’s a surprisingly involving and affecting narrative strategy, and it dovetails nicely with one of the most interesting and exciting facets of MMA itself – the variation and range of styles fighters can use to gain a competitive edge in a tournament. Tommy’s glowering rage and armor-like bands of chiseled muscle make him a fearsome deliverer of blunt destructive force, while Brendan’s more nuanced fighting style reflects his physically lithe versatility and more complex strategic approach.

I’m not as fanatical about MMA as some people I know, but even without a primal connection to the sport, the staging of the fight choreography was gripping and engaging, and the dramatic presentation made me really wish I understood its dynamics even better. Whether you’re like me, or whether MMA has been a burning passion of yours for many years, the disc’s special features are likely to keep you busy for awhile, and they project the same awareness and respect for the sport’s creative nuances as the film itself does.

The Blu-Ray includes a detailed storyboard breakdown for the final, climactic fight sequence inter-spliced with rehearsal footage of Hardy and Edgerton, as well as a behind-the-scenes video feature with Greg Jackson, a real-life MMA trainer and fight choreography consultant for the film, who gives a tour of his gym, discusses his signature training techniques, and briefly outlines some of the basic antecedents for MMA fight styles (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muy Thai, etc.). Charles “Mask” Lewis, the founder of Tap Out, was set to play a role in the film as a fight promoter before his untimely death, so there’s a classy, misty-eyed tribute to him included as well. There’s also an Extended Viewing Mode feature, with shifting multiple video windows juxtaposing behind-the-scenes training and production footage with video of the film’s writers, directors and stars hanging out in a big chain-link fight cage in a warehouse someplace and watching the movie together, which is a lot less cool than it sounds, but it’s still watchable. The obligatory behind-the-scenes mini-doc is informative and cute; commentary track with Edgerton and director Gavin O’Connor is solid, but nothing particularly special.

Warrior is pretty much the first film of its type to focus on mixed martial arts, and it’s also one of the strongest American movies about competitive fighting to come along in years. Screenwriter Anthony Tambakis comments in the Blu-Ray’s making-of documentary that MMA “hasn’t had its Rocky yet,” but with Warrior’s release, this may no longer be the case.