Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle Pride and Glory) stirring new drama Warrior is an underdog tale set in the nascent sport of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. In its relatively short life MMA has yet to inspire much quality cinema of note. It now has its Rocky.
Warrior’s twist on the traditional underdog formula is to provide us with dual protagonists: the fightin’ Conlon brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). Neither have spoken to each other since the dissolution of the parents’ marriage fourteen years earlier. Both of late have fallen on hard times. Tommy is an Iraq war veteran who has turned to pills and booze since returning from abroad; Brendan is a high school science teacher and devoted family man victimized by the financial crisis. Circumstances compel them both to seek salvation in the fight game.
Conveniently enough the opportunity of a lifetime arrives in the form of Sparta a brand-new winner-take-all MMA tournament that awards its champion a cool $5 million – more than enough for Brendan to save his house from foreclosure or for Tommy to make good on his pledge to provide for the family of a friend killed in Iraq. By this point we know for certain that fate has determined Brendan and Tommy will meet in the final and we know for certain how utterly ridiculous this scenario is. And yet we accept it because by this point Warrior already has us in its corner.
The origins of the brothers’ enmity are ultimately traced to their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a monstrous alcoholic whose abusiveness led their mother and Tommy to flee fourteen years prior. Brendan stayed behind and Tommy never forgave him for it. When we see Paddy he’s broken-down husk of a man God-fearing and 1000 days sober his face creased with shame and regret. Neither son can stand the sight of their old man but Tommy in need of someone to train him for the tournament reluctantly enlists his father’s help. Paddy eyeing a last chance at redemption enthusiastically complies.
Cue the training montage. A fighter rising from obscurity to the upper echelons in his sport within a matter of weeks is hard to swallow; when two fighters do it it’s a borderline insult to the sport. MMA aficionados might blanch at watching Tommy and Brendan gain one unlikely win after another; more likely they’ll be too absorbed by the action to care. It helps that Hardy and Edgerton both look the part and are both skilled enough at their craft to lend the film’s many brutal fight scenes a distinct realism. It helps even more that the story and the actors' stellar performances have us firmly aligned with their goals.
O’Conner a veteran of the genre deploys the underdog tropes at his disposal freely but assiduously crafting a tale that is unabashedly far-fetched but grounded in characters who are intensely appealing and who feel authentic. The storytelling is clumsy at times – that Nolte’s character listens to a book-on-tape of Moby Dick throughout the film feels particularly heavy-handed – but Warrior wisely steers clear of bombastic speeches or cloying sentiment.
Warrior’s climactic final fight in which the estranged brothers at last meet in the ring is both gut- and heart-wrenching. When the film’s suitably happy ending does eventually arrive the film gives way ever-so-briefly to hokeyness. But after what these kids have gone through you can forgive them for getting a little emotional.
I’ve always been an unabashed fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a magnetic screen presence whose charm and charisma more than make up for his shortcomings as an actor. That said even I’m finding it harder to defend his choices of roles over the past few years including his most recent turn in the family comedy The Tooth Fairy. Striving to produce quality family-friendly entertainment is certainly a commendable goal Rock but could you do us a favor and throw in the occasional R-rated (or at least PG-13) action flick every once in a while? Please?
The plot of The Tooth Fairy is standard kids-movie stuff: Johnson plays a gruff self-centered minor-league hockey player who after crushing the dreams of a few wide-eyed youngsters is sentenced to two weeks of community service as a tooth fairy. Handed wings a magic wand invisibility spray and other standard fairy accoutrements he’s sent to various children’s houses where he must brave all matter of domestic hazards to fulfill his tooth fairy obligations.
The Rock is usually the best part of otherwise underwhelming movies like this but he actually stumbles out of the gate in The Tooth Fairy overdosing on cheese and ham in an awkward first act. What ultimately makes the movie work is British comic Stephen Merchant recognizable to some as the hapless agent of Ricky Gervais’ chronically underemployed actor in HBO’s Extras who plays The Rock’s beleaguered fairy case worker. With his thin frame and his subtle sharp wit he provides the perfect foil for The Rock’s oversized personality creating just enough of a comedic spark to make The Tooth Fairy a relatively enjoyable if altogether unspectacular experience for both the kids and their babysitters.
Someone’s been killing off the criminals of New York City--the ones that the law can’t seem to put away via proper channels--and it’s up to veteran detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) to crack the case and bring the killer to justice by means fair or foul. As whodunits go this isn’t a terribly compelling or suspenseful one. There are red herrings and dropped clues galore but the script (by Russell Gewirtz of Inside Man fame) is both choppy and loopy--and not in good ways. The story is needlessly convoluted and despite a few tough-guy quotes from De Niro and Pacino this is a forgettable police potboiler. De Niro. Pacino. What more could anyone ask for? A decent script perhaps? There’s a palpable pleasure in seeing these two titans share the same frame but that sensation is quickly dissipated as the clunky storyline lurches toward its inevitable finale. Pacino appears to be having more fun than De Niro who’s almost sheepish in his role as a troubled New York detective. The supporting cast--and it’s a good one--fares little better although there’s more chemistry between John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as sort of a younger version of the De Niro/Pacino duo. Carla Gugino smokin’ hot as always bats her eyelashes and struts her stuff as a police pathologist with a kinky streak. Brian Dennehy clocks in as the obligatory hard-boiled police lieutenant while Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent) sleepwalks through the stock role of a club owner of dubious disposition. It just goes to show that a great cast can’t do it alone. Jon Avnet who guided Pacino through his paces in the equally clumsy 88 Minutes (for the same producers no less) is simply not up to the task of overcoming the script’s vast and many shortcomings. Even for the most devout devotees of the two superstars Righteous Kill is merely a matter of killing time … and not in a particularly righteous way.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.
Loaded with contradictions Porter (Kevin Kline) is a small-town Midwesterner who becomes a Parisian bon vivant an openly gay man who maintains a relatively happy marriage to his wife Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd) and a gifted tunesmith who actually enjoys slumming in Hollywood. But when a riding accident leaves him crippled he becomes increasingly bitter and lonely right up until his death in 1964. The movie opens with a ridiculous framing device after Porter's death. He is greeted by the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) who begins a staged re-creation of his life featuring his various friends and foes while Porter rails at their deaf images incessantly like Ebeneezer Scrooge confronting his past. To make matters worse Kline's old man makeup is so creepily extra-terrestrial it makes him look like Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation. It is with great relief that we then cut to glorious 1930s Paris as Kline meets Judd's lovely ex-pat divorcee and they embark on their very odd alliance. At first she condones his affairs even arranges them but soon his indiscretion and rampant promiscuity threaten to destroy their marriage.
Kline plays Porter as an unabashed sexual predator for the first hour of the movie seemingly unaffected by the hurt he causes his wife. And in the final act predictably Kline strains for pathos as Porter becomes old and bitter. Kline's acting baggage catches up with him
here to ill effect. He's been arching his eyebrows and delivering preposterous dialogue in witty deadpan style so well for so many years that when he consults a doctor on a leg operation one half expects his character to request a brain transplant a la Dr. Rod Randall in Soapdish. He's already got the gold man that Jim Carrey covets (for A Fish Called Wanda). But his "serious" turns (this My Life as a House The Emperor's Club) are just painful. Judd fares slightly better as his muse confidante groupie and pimp. Unlike so many actresses she isn't overbearingly modern. And even her affectations like inserting an accented French word into each line fit the character. This could have been the role that returned Judd to the earlier promise of her work in Ruby in Paradise and/or Heat--if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the framing device and the music.
Speaking of which rather than allowing the power of the music itself to illustrate Porter's wondrous gifts the director (and maybe some MGM marketing suits) decided to use modern pop singers to sing the songs in elaborate musical numbers. It's like watching a Mad TV parody of American Dreams. Alanis Morissette dressed as a flapper warbles
"Let's Do It" as if it's "You Oughta Know." Sheryl Crow shrieks "Begin the Beguine" as if her leg is caught in a bear trap. And in a movie that tries so hard to convince us of the gay lyrical subtext (OK we get it) what else are we to make of the musical finale "Blow Gabriel Blow"? Irwin Winkler should just stop trying to direct. He is one of the most acclaimed producers in Hollywood (Rocky Raging Bull Goodfellas among countless others) yet as a director he has a knack for taking listless subjects (Senate hearings the Internet) and making them even more boring. With De-Lovely he goes from the mundane to the ridiculous. When Porter falls off the horse Winkler cross-cuts to Linda in Paris sniffing the air as if she can somehow sense his danger. What is she his twin as well? The direction is so ham-fisted that when a character coughs you know instantly it is implying a painful rheumatic death to come if in the distant future. Even the death of a small child is milked shamelessly for drama since the script (Jay Cocks) provides none. If there is any reason to watch the movie it's the costumes (Giorgio Armani) and the vivid re-creations of pre-War Paris Venice Broadway and Hollywood. If only we could stay there. Just as we settle comfortably into the period old man Porter returns raging at the darkness his prosthetic skin threatening to melt off and go flying in every direction.