Men in the Arena

"Warrior" intensifies MMA by downplaying its significance.
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Photo:  Lionsgate

I first saw the trailer for the MMA movie Warrior over the summer, before some blockbuster I now forget. Given the context, along with the marketing logic of Hollywood trailers, it looked like a bit of MMA propaganda, an attempt to legitimize a growing sport for a wider range of demographics with its own Rocky-esque tale of manly men overcoming adversity to become relatable demigods. The preview features big money, labyrinthine measures of toughness, war heroes, comebacks, children, punching, kicking, choking, the promise of kick-ass training montages, familial melodrama, regular guys, and inspirational strings. There are so many cliches that it almost feels like a parody. Like many other people in the theater, I laughed.

The concept is pure Hollywood fantasy, and yet the experience of watching Warrior is more akin to that of a low-budget indie family drama crossed with a particularly intense foreign horror film. Whereas most sports movies approach their competitions as emblems of greater moral and emotional concepts, Warrior conceives of MMA as more tangible than symbolic. It’s a cinematic experience, to be sure, but the sport stands out as much more than a vehicle for cliched inspiration.

Still, the plot points and tropes listed above are all actually in the movie; Warrior is nothing if not overstuffed with events and backstories. On the page, it has much in common with everything from Seabiscuit to Rudy. (Spoilers ahead, although the story is so excessively formulaic that I’m not sure they’d affect enjoyment of the film.) Tommy Riordan (played by Tom Hardy as a less articulate version of an early Brando character) returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he mauls a top contender for the UFC middleweight title at a local gym, after which he asks his recovering alcoholic father (played by the deservedly Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte as a grizzled man just starting to come to terms with his emotions), who trained him in a pretty clearly abusive way to become an undefeated prep wrestler, to help turn him into one of the best.

There’s also another son, Brendan Conlon (played by Joel Edgerton as a proud but struggling middle class family man), a former UFC pro who loses his job as a high school physics teacher when the superintendent finds out he’s been fighting in strip club parking lots for extra money, and therefore needs to get cash quickly to not lose his house, because these are The Times We Live In. Both brothers eventually find spots into a two-night, 16-man single-elimination tournament for the UFC middleweight crown, at which they reconcile in part through beating the hell out of each other physically and emotionally, but not before besting all sorts of adversaries tangible and intangible, including an undefeated Russian named Koba who can’t possibly be a middleweight, the revelation that Tommy both deserted his unit in the Middle East and saved many lives, and all sorts of really uncomfortable-looking bodily harm.

Compelling backstories and an emphasis on physical toil are hallmarks of MMA marketing. However, if the UFC lent their names and logos to the movie expecting a work that could act as an infomercial for their product, they got a film that makes the sport look like a good idea only as a last resort. While both men are veterans of combat sports, they don’t seem to enjoy fighting very much. In contrast to the typical sports movie narrative, there’s no sense that either man denies his true nature in taking other jobs, or that the sport frees him to express his full self in a way he wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Brendan, for instance, explicitly tells his wife that he’d prefer to make money elsewhere if possible, and Tommy initially appears drawn to the sport for no other reason than that it’s what people are doing when he goes to his old boxing gym.

Both men are in the sport for money — it’s eventually revealed that Tommy fights to earn money for the wife and child of a fallen army buddy (his real brother, he says) — not glory or another higher ideal fit for Tommy’s boyhood benchmark Theagenes of Thasos. MMA is a means to an end in Warrior, and any fame or fortune that comes with it is an added bonus (or, in some cases, a distraction) to the task at hand.

The characters’ indifference to the larger meaning of their chosen sport seems fitting, though, given the brutality of the fights depicted in the film. Thanks to the gritty and grainy cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi (whose work can be seen in multiplexes right now in The Grey), aggressive sound design, and the vision of director Gavin O’Connor, MMA comes across as the most brutal sport imaginable, full of thudding blows, regular slams to the floor, and limb and choke holds that make the victims look on the verge of permanent damage. It’s an extreme version of the real thing, just like the boxing in the Rocky series, but unlike that example there’s a sense that significant pain and discomfort has been inflicted on the participants with every strike. In those films, the action is an objective correlative to the emotional journey.

In Warrior, action is just action, grounding the emotions in a physical experience instead of piling on more melodrama. It’s the most brutal, unglamorous cinematic depiction of athletic competition since the jousting tournament in Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. (Among contemporary films, the unvarnished brutality of the violence has much in common with Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which coincidentally stars former MMA star Gina Carano.) O’Connor provides no clear justification for why anyone would ever choose to fight if not forced to. The sport looks unpleasant, albeit extremely impressive as a test of power and endurance. When the retired Wall Street billionaire who bankrolled the tournament—named Sparta, naturally, in recognition of the austere manliness of two men in their underwear abusing each other—says that he wants to find the toughest kid on the MMA block, the entire enterprise seems superfluous, because subjecting one’s self to the tournament in the first place proves everything any man would ever need to prove about his will and determination.

This is all to say that the legitimately touching emotional arc of Warrior can exist apart from MMA even as it employs the tournament as a narrative vessel. The brothers grow closer in the context of an MMA match, and yet it doesn’t really seem as if MMA is what makes them better people. The central conflict of the film, much more than who will win the five-million-dollar purse, concerns the fractured relationship between Brendan and Tommy, who believes his older brother turned his back on him when he chose to stay with their father (whom they both claim to hate, for the record) over their secretly cancer-stricken, near-death mother.

Brendan wants to reconcile, which means that Tommy’s disdain arises from an unwillingness to forgive his brother for possessing a lack of information at the time, or maybe just deciding that it’d be better to keep open the possibility of positive relationships with two parents instead of one. It’s a childish, immature rift, and the fact that it’s resolved during a savage championship fight only serves to make it seem more ridiculous. Tommy, in his stubbornness, fights through a dislocated shoulder and several tenacious chokeholds, finally submitting after Brendan repeatedly tells him that it’s fine to let go of the personal disdain. It’s a stirring moment, but also a ridiculous one, in that we must wonder why any person would need to have his ass kicked in the most horrific way allowed by law to stop holding a grudge that should have been cast aside long before. His stubborness, Brendan’s compassion, and their father’s sobriety-fueled vulnerability are all qualities that exist apart from the sport—they reveal themselves in competition but don’t depend on it. Warrior doesn’t embrace the “Man in the Arena” ideal as other sports movies do, because it recognizes that the arena is life itself, not an arbitrarily chosen area of competition or stereotypically manly way of living. The sport isn’t a crucible, but a platform for characters who already deserve our attention.

The film, then, paints MMA primarily as a game, and a disquieting one at that. That depiction isn’t entirely fair to the sport. I’ve seen perhaps 10 aggregated minutes of MMA in my life, but our correspondent Tomas Rios has informed me that, among other things: real-life fights aren’t nearly as vicious as those in the movie, any self-respecting referee stops them from getting out of hand, there’s much more strategy than what’s shown, in-fight reversals of fortune don’t happen with nearly as regularly, and quick-hitter tournaments like Sparta were abandoned long ago because they produce terrible matches. That the fights remain believable whatsoever despite this silliness is a testament to O’Connor and Takayanagi. As an introduction to the sport, as it was no doubt intended by many marketing campaigns, Warrior proves to be misleading.

Except, given the history of the medium, a hyperbolic rendering of the MMA style stands as cinematic rather than merely inaccurate. A sport based on hand-to-hand combat, no matter the degree to which its governing body controls for safety, is fundamentally unsettling—this movie embraces that trait and blows it up to epic proportions. In truth, Warrior approaches its subject with a degree of respect unseen in studio sports movies. Instead of propping up MMA on a pillar of standard-issue Hollywood emotional journeys and triumphs, it allows the sport to be cinematic apart from what its characters do within or to it. The depiction takes liberties with regards to specifics but avoids conceptual bullshit. This version of MMA is great because it’s larger than life, not because of its utility as a metaphor. After watching, it’s hard not be a little curious about the real thing.

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It’s a cinematic experience, to be sure, but the sport stands out as much more than a vehicle for cliched inspiration