From Cain and Abel to King Lear to The Godfather saga, sibling rivalry has fueled many a classic Smackdown.
Psychiatrist Alfred Adler called this competition between brothers and sisters a “striving for significance” within the family. Freud described it as an effort for boys to get mom’s attention, or by girls to get dad’s. Sniping sisters and battling brothers are common to the human experience, at home and on the screen.
Warrior, opening this weekend and featuring two estranged brothers thrown together for a five million dollar payday in the mixed martial arts arena, is no exception. It steps into the ring here against The Fighter, a small, boxing film that took Hollywood by storm, eventually earning seven Academy nominations and wins for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in supporting roles.
The Fighter is based on a true story; Warrior is fiction pieced together with familiar elements. They each feature a pair of brothers who badly need to work out some old business, and a parent who, consciously or not, has driven a stake between them. If you like your morality plays packing a punch, you’ve come to the right theater.
Warrior is the story of Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy), two brothers so distant that they don’t even share a last name. Brendan is a physics teacher in Philadelphia. Tommy goes by his mother’s maiden name and turns up out of the Marines on the Pittsburgh doorstep of his dad, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). The boys may have their differences, but they feel the same about Paddy, and it’s not good. A recovering drunk who abused and destroyed his family, the elder Conlon is easy to dislike. His one accomplishment was training Tommy to fight as a boy, and that’s why Tommy returns now, wanting to train for “The War on the Shore” and a giant purse in Atlantic City.
Brendan, who once competed in mixed martial arts, wants to fight again too. Teaching isn’t paying the bills, and he gets suspended after a tune-up fight at a strip club. Upside down on his mortgage and facing foreclosure, he hooks up with his old trainer, Frank (Frank Grillo, excellent) and begins the unlikely trip to Payday.
The brothers work their way through the tournament and meet in the finals. Along the way, they beat assorted amped-up short fuses who are regulars in these glorified bar fights. Five million dollars goes to the winner. Do Tommy and Brendan square their differences? And what about dad, who’s back on the bottle after a thousand days of sobriety?
The Defending Champion
A different drug, crack cocaine, figures prominently in The Fighter. It ruins the life of one-time contender Dicky Eklund (Bale). He’s so addled he believes the video crew flitting about for HBO is documenting his comeback, not crack abuse in Lowell, Massachusetts.
That’s only one battle facing the real fighter here, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward. (Yep, these brothers – actually half-brothers – have different last names too.) Micky took up boxing in the shadow of Dicky, a former contender who helps train him when he’s not too blasted to show up at the gym. Micky’s mom/manager Alice (Leo) spends no time worrying about putting him in the ring with a heavier opponent for a paycheck. Predictably, Micky takes a beating and begins to wonder if his mother, brother and multiple, trashy sisters are watching his back or their own. The mutual suspicions deepen when Micky refuses to dump his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) who clashes with the family.
This sets the stage for a change of manager, estrangement and reconciliation punctuated by humiliation. Dicky, in jail now, gets to see exactly what the crew from HBO was producing. It’s an eye-opener for Dicky and Alice, long in denial. Dicky gets clean, resumes training Micky, and mom takes a backseat.
All the while Micky keeps winning. He gains a shot at the actual world light welterweight title against Shea Neary.
Warrior has a lot in common with Rocky, and that doesn’t always help. As the brothers push toward their big-money smackdown, the comparisons are hard to miss: Nolte is the same garrulous trainer as Burgess Meredith. There are stand-ins for Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago and even Adrian (Jennifer Morrison from House). Director Gavin O’Connor committee-authored the script with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman. Perhaps an honorary screen credit belongs to Sylvester Stallone.
I wish Warrior’s writers resolved a few issues: Tommy suffered a personal loss in the Marines – but couldn’t he evolve even a little from the resentment he felt as a boy? Tom Hardy plays repellent very well, but the act grows tiresome. Joel Edgerton, the actor playing Brendan, looks like a bulked-up Conan O’Brien and enters his cage matches to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It’s an accomplishment that Edgerton is able to perform so well in that framework.
The Fighter, meanwhile, has an embarrassment of character riches. Christian Bale’s Dicky Eklund, is so messed up, so compelling, he might have hijacked the film’s focus, but does not, thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s centered performance and strong work from Leo and Adams. The excellent script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, and sure direction by David O. Russell, give balance to this real life story of failure, success and redemption.
Warrior will find an audience, and it’s an interesting twist on the old story of sibling rivalry. It just doesn’t finish telling that story. Instead, it runs about a half-hour too long telling different versions of Rocky, all with a predictable outcome. It might have been interesting to develop a hint of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Tommy to flesh out his isolation, but the film doesn’t hint at that critical character element.
By contrast, The Fighter leaves no such lingering threads. Its script is as tight and powerful as a short right to the chin. The film wisely maintains a narrow focus, omitting an important, but not crucial chapter in Micky Ward’s career. He had three bouts with the great Arturo Gatti considered his very best fights, which earned a line in the after-film credits, where it belongs.
In this Smackdown of battling brothers, it’s The Fighter by a knockout.