Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Warrior Part 1: The Tommy Situation

Midway through my first viewing of Warrior, right about the time the tournament that makes up the second half of the movie started getting underway, my hindbrain made a psst noise and passed my conscious mind a note.

It read, how the fuck are they going to make this story work?

Warrior is about two estranged brothers who enter the same mixed martial arts tournament and end up facing one another in the finals. Theyre flawed human beings, but neither of them is a bad person. Each has a legitimate reason for competing. They get equal screen time over the first half of the movie, so were equally invested in both characters. Other than personal preference, theres no reason to root for one over  the other.

Its Rocky with two Rockys. The Karate Kid with two Ralph Macchios. King of the Ring with two Bret Harts.

Anyone else see the storytelling problem here?

You cant HAVE a Rocky story with two Rockys. 

Trust me on this. Ive watched pro wrestling since I was fifteen years old and have been involved in the business for seven or eight. I know a thing or two about fake fighting. And one of those two things is that 90% of the time, good guy vs. good guy does NOT work as a climax. Your best case scenario is a split crowd. Your worst case scenario is total ambivalence. Instead of being caught up in the moment, your audience is asking themselves: Who should I be cheering for here? Am I happy Joes punching Frank in the face or am I sad Franks getting punched by Joe?

Ideally in a fake fight--especially the centrepiece of your movie--you want everybody cheering for the same guy. You want them to tense when he gets in trouble. You want them to marvel at his gritty determination when he refuses to give up. And you want to them to leap to their feet and cheer as one when he overcomes the odds.

Having two good guys undermines that. Someones got to be Clubber Lang. You need a Sweep-the-Leg guy. Two Brets doesnt work--you need an Owen (or at least a Bam Bam Bigelow).

Does Warrior make it work?

Yes. But not really. Wellkind of.

But thats Warrior. It personifies duality. It has two protagonists. It straddles two genres--sports movie and family drama. It is both awesome and a complete mess at the same time. I cant even decide if its a good movie or notwhich makes it that much more fun to write about. To make things more digestible, well break things down into three parts: Tommy (Thomas Hardy) , Brendan (Joel Edgerton) , and the Sparta Tournament itself.

Beware. Spoilers abound.

Warrior opens withopening credits. How quaint. Dont see those often anymore. While thats happening, Pop is driving while listening to Moby Dick on tape (Its a white whale, I say, says the book on tape. Its symbolism, says I. Although I dont remember any brothers in Moby Dick. Or kickboxing).

Pop arrives home to find his estranged son drunk on his doorstep.  They talk about past resentments deliver exposition, and I dont give a fuck because Im meeting them for the first time and have no reason to care. Neither of them makes a great first impression: Pop (played by Nick Nolte) comes off to me as simpering and weak while Tommy acts like a sullen dickhead.

This is not a good start...not as an opening scene and certainly not as an introduction to two major characters. It doesnt even serve as a good launch pad for the Tommy/Pop story since Tommy doesnt ask Pop to train him until several scenes later.

This is a good time to ask: What IS Tommys story?

Judging by the next couple of scenes, Tommys story is about two things. First, he gets into the tournament by beating a world-class fighter at his local gym. This is Story One: Tommy wants to win the tournament. Secondly, he enlists his father to train him, which becomes Story Two: Will Tommy and Pop reconcile?

And for the next bit, everything is fine. The opening scene was unnecessary, but were back on the rails. Tommy acts like a jerk, but his father cracks down on him, earning our respect. From there a rejuvenated Pop tries to build an emotional bridge using a poster Tommy made as a teenager to inspire his wrestling career, only to have Tommy tell him again he isn't there for reconciliation. He's there to train. 

Story One: Training for the tournament. Check.

Story Two: The uncertain father/son relationship. Check. So far, so good.

And then it all goes to hell.

Our next Tommy-related scene is a group of soldiers in Iraq weve never seen before. Theyve found film of Tommy beating up the contender that a member of the gym staff uploaded to the internet. They compare it to grainy footage from a tape they're keeping in a locker.

Its him, one of them says.

And I say: What does this have to do with anything?

Tommy has a mysterious past. Fine. How does this relate to Story One or Story Two? Is this something that will impact them down the road? If so, fine. But this feels suspiciously like a Story Three to me.

Except that whose story is it? Tommys IN the story, but he isnt moving it forward. So far, Story Three is: U.S. Soldiers in Iraq solving a mystery.  Scooby Dooby Doo.

And don
t forget, while this is happening,  we have a WHOLE OTHER MAIN CHARACTER (Brendan) doing Main Character Things. Who presumably also has some connection to Tommy seeing as theyre brothers and all, but whatever it is, we haven't seen it. Is this going to be Story Four? A complication to Story One? Story 1-A? Nobody knows.

Mayhaps this next scene will clear everything up. Tommys making a phone call to a woman weve never seen before. Shes the widow of his dead Iraq buddy. Hes going to give her the money he wins from the tournament.

It's a noble gesture, and it fleshes out Tommys motivations for entering, but does it move our story forward?

Let's see...

Story One: Winning the tournament. Well, we know now WHY he wants to win, but does this scene have any impact on whether or not he reaches that goal. Nope

Story Two: Reconciliation with Dad. Nope.

Story Three (?): Well, that whole soldier business was in Iraq and THIS has to do with Iraq, so there that's something.  But this scene doesnt sound like part of a story. It sounds like Talking About Something That Already Happened. And if the Something That Already Happened is so damned interesting, why arent we watching a movie about THAT instead of a glorified karate tournament (And there's been precious little karate so far, let me tell you)?

Next all the fighters arrive at the tournament. Brendan and Tommy see each other. HOLY CRAP! Two Brothers! One Tournament! They havent seen each other in years! Story Four In Da House. SHIT IS ABOUT TO GO DOWN.

Ha, Ha. Just kidding. Nothing happens.

Paging, Story Four. If theres a Story Four in the building would you please make your way to the Starting Gate?

Moving on

Pop sees U.S soldier in Iraq talking on the news about Tommy rescuing him from an armoured vehicle. Pop is duly impressed but when he tries to talk to Tommy about it, Tommy storms out.

Ummokay, I guess. Thats one mystery solved. So Story Three is over, then?

Brendan finds Tommy on the beach. I'll talk about this scene more in Part 3. For now, lets stick to how it relates to Tommys story.

Brendan and Tommy argue. Tommy reveals hes mad at Brendan for choosing their father and his (Brendans) girlfriend-now-wife over Tommy and their mother. He storms out . Social workers, addictions counsellors, family support specialists, and conflict-management  nerds in the audience nudge their partners and murmur, are you noticing the pattern in Tommys behaviour? Partners shush their them and fantasize about what life would have been like with that science major they broke up with in college.

Meanwhile, we go to the scorecards.

Story Three (?): Iraq. Nothing.

Story Two: Pop and Tommy. Tommy defends AND insults the old man to his brother, so that ones a wash. No progress there.

Stories One and Four: The tournament. You know the one theyre both fighting in tomorrow? The one where both of them need the money and only one of them can win? That thing where theres the distinct possibility where the two of them and all those mixed emotions they feel for each other will be locked in a cage together in a dance of violence? That thing the whole movie is supposed to be ABOUT ?

What tournament?

Neither man mentions it.

The first time I watched this movie I thought I must have misinterpreted the press conference scene and they hadnt realized they were in the same tournament. I imagined the big reveal where they square off for the first time. Sure, it would be stupid and make no sense, but I can see someone deciding the emotional payoff was worth it.


The brothers knew about each other. They just didnt think it was worth mentioning.

Nothing? Not one thing? No May the best man win or I guess well find out how good Pops training methods really are or For that bullshit move you pulled with Mom, Im going to triangle-choke you until your head pops off and then make you name twenty chocolate bars while I snake-bite you, give you a face wash, and punch you in the balls?

I grew up with a younger brother. I GUARANTEE if we were ever going to square off in a mixed marital arts fight, at least one of those sentences would come out of my mouth. Probably all of them.

I know what youre thinking. Youre thinking: Wow. Dan really hates Warrior.

I can understand why you would think that.

But you would be wrong.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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