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.
The ennui of high-schoolers is a universal problem--a rite of passage almost--but it's usually a harmless one. In the case of the high school students at Westlake Prep a posh private school it turns into a deadly game. Owen (Julian Morris) is a transfer student from England and has a history of acting out. Once ensconced on campus it doesn't take him long to find a clique and revert to his old ways. Owen and his friends play a game in which they spread an online rumor that a serial killer called "The Wolf" is responsible for a recent on-campus murder and is set to strike again. Many of the aforementioned twists are revealed via AOL "Instant Messenger " which is suppose to be topical. By describing the killer's next victims they try to see how many students they can scare. But when the victims actually start to (seemingly) turn up dead--by the group's predicted methods of murder no less--Owen fears the game has turned real and deadly. Now this little clique that once sauntered about aimlessly and innocently in their debonair little uniforms begin to question one another.
Cry Wolf employs a bunch of unknowns to play the Westlake students and they all more than hold their own against Jon Bon Jovi. Yes that Bon Jovi. He plays Rich Walker aka Mr. Walker the schoolteacher who threatens to expose Owen's plans although Owen thinks he's up to much more than that. The rocker's trademark pearly whites are hard to not notice but he does display a surprising acting ability. It isn't like this is his first time you know. He did play the hunky painter in Moonlight and Valentino so at least he knows his way around a camera. As far as the lead relative newcomer Morris is the real revelation in an otherwise standard horror flick. He has a face that's recognizable--even if you don't know who he is--and an ability to make the nonsense he utters seem somehow believable. As his cohort Lindy Booth (Dawn of the Dead) plays Owen's female equivalent Dodger who turns out to be his ultimate arch-nemesis. But she suffers from something that happens when 26-year-olds are cast as 18-year-olds--she's wise beyond her years. Of course it's not her fault and she plays her conniving character with surprising proficiency. It just doesn't fit in with the rest of the milieu.
Cry Wolf marks Jeff Wadlow's major motion picture debut as a writer and a director. So that's two strikes against him already. Wadlow pulls out as many twists and thriller clichés as possible and in the process sends everyone spinning in circles including the audience. Of course playing with the whole "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" theme is interesting but the film repeatedly comes up with one cop-out surprise after another. If Wadlow can't write a character out of a major jam or implausibility he just compounds the problem by further perpetuating the illogical spin or simply concocting a whole new one which makes audiences "ooh" and "ah" for all the wrong reasons. Plus his writing style while appropriate for maybe a grown-up whodunit makes the "teenagers" too highfalutin as if they're reciting Shakespeare instead of just talking like well teenagers. High-school students don't muse with such rumination and clarity not even British ones. Cry Wolf should have just gone straight to video. At least then it might have had a chance with a cult following.