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.
A perfect husband a devoted father a loyal friend a successful architect—yes Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is the kind of flawless family man we only encounter in hankie-soaking Hollywood melodramas. He exists solely to be killed off just so his friends and family can become better people through their loss. So it comes as no surprise that Steven dies a Good Samaritan's death while on his way home—of course—from buying ice cream for his two kids. If that won’t get you crying nothing will. Steven’s death leaves his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) a mess. She can’t look after herself let alone her daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and son Dory (Micah Berry). Instead Audrey turns to Steven’s best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) for help. Not really the smartest choice—Audrey despises Jerry for squandering his life and career on drugs. But Audrey’s desperate for a shoulder to cry on so she inexplicably invites Jerry to stay at her home while he tries to clean up his act. Quicker than you can say “rest in peace ” Jerry’s dispensing words of wisdom to Steven’s kids and in a moment of unintentional hilarity spooning with the lonely Audrey in her bed. Audrey naturally comes to believe that Jerry isn’t the strung-out leech she’s considered him all these years. Still we can’t help but count down the minutes until Jerry slips back into his old habits. Or wonder how long it will take for Audrey to kick Jerry out of her house when the inevitable happens. Things We Lost in the Fire serves an important purpose: to make clear that Halle Berry’s performance in Monster's Ball wasn’t a happy accident. As a widow unable to function without her soul mate Berry shakes up the otherwise maudlin proceedings with a rage and intensity that’s honest and fearless. Never afraid to present Audrey as occasionally cold and unsympathetic especially in regards to her treatment of Jerry and her children Berry nevertheless always makes us feel Audrey’s burning love for Steven without resorting to Joan Crawford-like histrionics. Too bad Audrey is defined only by her role as a wife and mother—Berry never receives the chance to show that Audrey has a life outside her family. She does share a good rapport with the typically brooding Benicio Del Toro whose ravaged face reveals more about Jerry’s lifetime of self-inflicted pain and suffering than words ever could. But there is a slight spark to be found in Del Toro’s sleepy eyes which gives us the impression that Jerry has what it takes to live one day at time with the support of his new friends. David Duchovny doesn’t do much beyond smiling like he’s just been named Father of the Year for the 10th time. Not that Duchovny needs to exert himself to make Steven charming and likeable—Steven is as happy and uncomplicated as Duchovny’s Californication philanderer is as sad and screwed up. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry (no relation to his onscreen mother) nail the anguish confusion and profound sense of loss that comes with grieving for a dead parent without being annoyingly precocious. How disappointing it is to discover that not even the usually calm and collected Susanne Bier can turn Things... into something more than the standard Lifetime TV weepy of the week. The Danish director’s Hollywood debut is very much like her earlier character-driven dramas in that it is preoccupied with how established family dynamics shift in the wake of a life-altering event. After the Wedding and Brothers managed to be poignant without getting too gushy but Bier cannot keep Things... from drowning in its own sentimentality. The problem clearly lies with screenwriter Allan Loeb’s emotionally manipulative script which fails from the start to convince us Audrey would open her house to her late husband’s drug buddy. Ignoring Loeb’s hard-to-swallow premise Bier does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Audrey and Jerry. Theirs is a well-presented study in co-dependency which results in an insightful—though occasionally obvious—exploration of drug addiction the grieving process and the pursuit of personal redemption. Things... smartly avoids making much of its interracial marriage—it would only overcomplicate matters—or taking Audrey and Jerry down a path that would led to an ill-advised romance. If only Bier and Loeb showed some guts in the way they portray Steven. Surely he had at least one skeleton in his closet to make him seem more human. Everything we learn about Steven—especially about the fire referenced in the seemingly cryptic title—merely reinforces the notion that he was too good for this world. Or at least the world Hollywood thinks we live in.
On the surface Stay seems to be a straightforward psychological drama about a psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to keep a mysterious patient Henry (Ryan Gosling) from killing himself. But the deeper we get into it the decidedly weirder it gets. And not necessarily in a good way. Sam and Henry seemed to be inexplicably connected. While his girlfriend and former patient Lila (Naomi Watts) looks haplessly on Sam’s lightly held grip on the rational world begins to melt away. He can no longer figure out what is true and what is happening only in his head--all climaxing in a titular confrontation between life and death. Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling would have loved this one. Although he was surprisingly good as the romantic lead in The Notebook the usually somber Gosling is best known for playing quiet psychotics in such films as The United States of Leland and Murder By Numbers. In Stay he’s back to his old tricks as the suicidal Henry. Pale with mournful eyes and a perpetual cigarette in his mouth Henry is certainly a tortured soul looking for some relief. On the flip side Watts brightens the otherwise dismal surroundings as Lila but there’s also a tinge of sadness about her. The only weak link is McGregor. He can’t quite pull off playing the dedicated psychiatrist slowly losing his mind--but the Scottish actor sure has mastered the American accent (ditto for the Australian Watts). Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball Finding Neverland) seems a bit out of his league with this jumbled-up hard-to-understand psychological fare. Granted the visuals are arresting. Forster strives to create a world which at first seems real but then little by little turns into a wildly shifting dreamscape in which scenes blend into one another seamlessly. The real problem here is the script by David Benioff (25th Hour). It tries to say “Look how clever!” by throwing you for loop after loop--except the loops don’t make much sense. You eventually stop saying “What the hell?” and start to get a pretty good idea how Stay is going to end up. And when the final twist is handed down it’s surprisingly not all that disappointing.