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Warrior review - An underdog story with two underdogs

Everyone likes a good underdog story, especially when it ends in a big battle. Sylvester Stallone has made a career out of being an underdog. But while Rocky worked in the 1970s, these days you can't get away with a simple David vs Goliath fight. That's why most recent fighting movies have a lot of family drama too. Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby, and last year's The Fighter got their Oscar nominations by layering on the hardship. Warrior kicks it up a notch. You've seen the standard underdog story a thousand times before (learn about why we like underdogs here), but have you seen two underdogs in one movie?

Double the Rocky, double the fun?

Warrior will has us rooting for two separate fighters in a massive mixed martial arts tournament. It's a win win, in theory. No matter who wins the battle, you'll feel good. At the same, it's a lose lose. You'll also feel bad for the loser, no matter who it is. Not a lot of movies are willing to risk emotional pay off, but writer/director Gavin O'Connor plays this game out from start to finish. And he's layered in a bunch of  surprises and drama to boot. This movie has an estranged--formerly alcoholic but now reformed--father (Nick Nolte) who wants his family back, and one of the underdogs (Joel Edgerton) is a teacher who will lose his house if he doesn't win the fight. Oh, and the other guy (Tom Hardy), oh he just needs the money to help a widowed wife raise her kids after her husband died bravely in the Middle East. Did I mention that he's a war hero? The stakes couldn't be more outlandish.

I've always found it a bit difficult to believe that a single fighter can rise the ranks from absolute nobody to world class athlete in a few months. Warrior asks us to double down on that suspension of disbelief and root for two fighters who rise from complete obscurity to compete in the world's largest mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament. Only 24 fighters are competing, yet somehow these two American nobodies get entered. How? There are a few montages, but not a lot of time is spent on training or explaining how these two guys become world-class fighting contenders almost overnight. 

So. Much. Drama.

But we movie goers don't mind a little lunacy if it gets us from here to there. The ridiculous premise of Warrior works if you're able to accept it, but the amount of drama thrown in is somewhat draining. Much like the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness, there is too much drama and drags out for too long. Unlike that film, however, we're dealing with two main characters, two sets of baggage, and Nick Nolte, who has been playing intimidating, damaged men most of his career. It's all a bit much.

You can almost feel the desperation of the filmmaking team to pack in the drama. So much drama, in fact, that the running time of the film is 2 hours and 19 minutes. Yet for all of the intense staredowns and repeated confrontations between characters, we never really learn much about their past or why they're so angry at one another. It's all a guessing game. This works for the fighting, but it's hard to emotionally invest in these characters. Perhaps because they each get half the screen time they deserve. 

An exciting finale

Having complained for most of this review, I can't deny the fact that I enjoyed the tournament at the end of the film. While it's predestined that the two underdogs will end up fighting each other, once they begin, all bets are off. It's very rare that a movie like this can offer true surprises, but I did not know who would win and that was very exciting--as exciting as a real sports match. I wish regular UFC matches had dramatic back stories, camera angles, and an original score. Then we'd be in business. 

Rating:  (Passable)

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