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.
Writer and director Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd The Mighty Boosh) claims copious influences for his feature debut and the film can’t help but remind us of other indie-flavored coming-of-age flicks like Rushmore and Harold and Maude but Submarine is a decidedly and endearingly unique film. In a season where most of the films we flock to see merit descriptors like “super ” “action-packed” and various forms of the word “huge ” Ayoade’s little dark comedy creeps along below the water line ready to pop up and deliver a delightful surprise for summer movie goers.
Adapted from the novel by Joe Dunthorne Submarine tells the story of Oliver (Craig Roberts) a rather strange highly-intelligent 15 year-old boy who’s determined to lose his virginity by his next birthday rescue his parents’ ailing marriage and to see it all retold in an epic New Wave-y cinematic tribute. This idea that his life will be retold on film flows throughout the film contrasting Oliver’s grandiose retelling of his life against its stark realities. Ayoade allows us to see how unreliably Oliver tells his own story but as the plot thickens we tend to get almost as lost in Oliver’s fantasies as he is.
Oliver’s virginity-ending quest leads him to his girlfriend an eczema-riddled pyromaniac named Joanna (Yasmin Paige). He’s picked her out as being most likely to acquiesce to his proposal thanks to various calculated social factors and thus their adolescent romance begins. While Oliver is exploring his relationship with Joanna – greatly consisting of her burning the hair off his legs with matches while he reimagines their romance as captured idyllically on super 8 film – Mr. and Mrs. Tate’s (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) relationship is slowly crumbling. Jill Tate’s old flame Graham a new age life coach with a useless theory about colors (Paddy Considine) moves in across the way sending Jill into a bout of reminiscence and a longing for her youth that stands to threaten her marriage. Oliver being the precocious young man he is is determined to barrel in headfirst to fix his parents’ ailing marriage which he’s been monitoring for months using the dimmer switch setting in their bedroom. (And it’s been on the sex-less setting for quite a while.)
Of course the most obvious reason this film works is Ayoade’s tight script and meticulous direction but the lynchpin is certainly the fantastic cast. Roberts and Paige though both very young fill the screen like two adults trapped in adolescent bodies. Tayor is fantastic as always but Hawkins ably treads the wafer-thin line between goofy hilarity and the complete and total sincerity of a housewife in crisis. Considine’s Graham gets a little cartoonish at times but those moments are reigned in with a little help from Hawkins.
Ayoade lends a sort of film-brat aesthetic to Submarine playing with French New Wave elements and giving nods to films like Love in the Afternoon. Of course the fact that Oliver is so inclined to remember his life in film scenes helps to unleash the techniques in Ayoade’s repertoire. In other settings this combination may have felt a little jumbled but the story almost begs for it here. Bolstering Ayoade’s plethora of techniques is the style he chose for the film. It’s a bit retro but not overly so. Ayoade situates Oliver’s gloomy seaside town in a timeless space that feels simultaneously old fashioned and completely fresh.
Finally tying all the elements together with a big bow is the soundtrack comprised of original songs by Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys. While he had some of the tunes composed before Ayoade brought him in to work on the film the tracks perfectly complement Submarine’s style providing the cinematic drama that Oliver would approve of without undermining the understated reality that he’s so determined not to see.
It certainly doesn’t feel like Submarine is Ayoade’s debut. He’s done his fair share of writing and directing getting behind the scenes on a few British television shows and directing music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs but this film feels like it comes from someone who’s been in the feature film business for years. It’s seemingly without glaring rookie mistakes or hiccups. And while the retro indie dark comedy vein often lends itself to overdrawn quirk Submarine doesn’t.
Film-brat elements aside at its heart Submarine is a fiercely genuine slightly complicated and completely lovable film.