by Richard von Busack
Pulling from a fifth of Overactor’s Choice blended whiskey and sobbing about the Pequod, Nick Nolte puts a third mortgage on his integrity to try to give the titanically overblown Warrior some integrity of its own.
From his first emergence out of an AA meeting on a steeltown street overlooked by an onion-domed church (“Hey, The Deer Hunter!,” said a critic nearby) to the final fingering of his tweed cap in farewell, Nolte almost floats this barge.
Director Gavin O’Connor has done some sports movies before (the not-bad Miracle), but at 2 1/2 hours, Warrior is clearly his Testament of Faith. Big books with big titles (“STEINBECK”) float on screen behind Nolte’s Paddy as he lurches through the film’s set up about the battle between two sons. Under the influence, Paddy beat his children and his wife when he was young. Now that he’s an AA-redeemed old man who tries haplessly to reintroduce himself into their lives.
In Pittsburgh, Paddy’s estranged son Brendan (Australian film vet Joel Edgerton) is a physics teacher by day, teaching the laws of “this dude, Newton” to his Welcome Back Kotterish mob of students. But he’s a parking-lot prizefighter by night, with a hot wife, Tess. Check out Jennifer Morrison’s butt—O’Connor’s camera sure does. There are also two or three kids around. Like so many good working people these days, Brendan is going glub glub glub, mortgagewise. But when a smarmsville banker suggests bankruptcy, Brendan tightly says that’s not how it’s done in his world.
How it is done, though, is Brendan will train to enter a $5 million mixed martial arts competition called “Sparta” (pronounced “SPARTAAAAAA!”) promoted by one of the hedgefund managers who made our economic calamity possible. He takes this risk, despite the possibility of being pulled limb from limb by the contender, “the legendary Russian fighter Koba” (Stalin’s nom de guerre!). And Brendan was never much of a fighter even when he was young.
But there’s another monkey in this jungle: Brendan’s long lost brother Terry Molloy, whom Brendan should have looked out for: an inarticulate dockworker…. Wait, sorry, that’s actually Tom Hardy as Tommy, who anyway has an eyebrow carved in salute of On the Waterfront. He’s actually furiously bitter from the beginning of the film, when we see him pulling from a pint bottle in public. He turns up Paddy’s doorstep after an unspecified stint somewhere; too angry to accept Paddy’s affection or to celebrate his sobriety…and yet unbitter enough to train with him, since Paddy was once the coach who led him on to hundreds of victories.
Among the other things Tommy is not talking about is the battlefields of Iraq where he fought. Fortunately, YouTube does the talking for him, showing a heroic rescue (“He ripped the door off a tank!” exclaims a commentator).
By chance the two brothers will end up in the ring together, but not before the match with Koba, literally nicknamed “The Russian Bear,” who shows up just as literally wearing the hammer and sickle on his shorts.
Warrior is a rank wrestling movie of exactly the sort Barton Fink went insane trying to write, but some people seem to be responding to its primordial badness as if it were archetypical purity. Cruise the critics’ quotes at Rotten Tomatoes and you’d think this hyped up brawl movie had a chance of redeeming America at last.
Maybe it is a symbolic tale of brothers in strife and redemption, but symbols really shouldn’t talk so much. It’s like Mortal Kombat re-written by Rod Serling; the film is so deliberately retro they even have a mohawked sub-villain.
There’s a lot we don’t see on stage (including the dread deeds of Koba, or what it was that made him so fierce. His legendary status has to be promoted by a pair of sportscasters who act as a Greek chorus.
The “wars” themselves aren’t that kinetic: shot through the cyclone fence of the hexagon, they’re a series of two-man clusterfights. What we see on the news coverage is more like closeup grapples and body slams.
Summing up the situation Brendan’s principal (Kevin Dunn) says, “Literally it looks bad, figuratively it looks worse”. There is something politically scary in Warrior’s astronomical Riefenstahlism, when it’s deep down purporting to be a story of a family trying to get together. It lacks small scale moments (and the few that there are all belong to Nolte).
But unlike the similarly generically titled The Fighter and The Wrestler, there’s no room for the women: Tess is there to throw up a minor impediment and then become another spectator. Essentially the only other female voice in the film is Vanessa Martinez, as the wife someone or other who got left behind (pardon the vagueness, I’m trying not to spoil here).
Warrior is inflated and it needs a serious lancing. This supposed emulation of ‘70s movie making, complete with split screen montages, is less Rocky than 1985’s Rocky IV. It misses the iconoclasm of the 1970s, as well as their humor. What we’ve got here is more clearly Reagan-era juicing: fireworks, helicopter shots, 300 singing Marines in khaki and the “Ode to Joy.”
Amid this, Nolte, who looks like he’s made out of flesh-toned slag, seems real. But Warrior is a shameless movie, as faux populist as Dancing With The Stars. As far as its 70s credibility is concerned, imagine showing it to the Pennsy rust-town reprobate Paul Newman played in Slap Shot. And imagine his four-lettered responses.