(Click here for Part 1)
Tommy’s story is a mess, but his character is straight out of a romance novel or a teen movie. He’s the angry young man with the hero’s heart and a dark and mysterious past. Brendan, on the other hand, is just a normal guy, a teacher with a wife and two daughters. He is the ‘nice one,‘ the Jon Bon Jovi to Tommy‘s W Axl Rose.
Tommy’s scenes are all gritty, grey, and despairing. Brendan’s world is filmed in vibrant colours, from the paint on his cheeks when we meet him at his daughter’s birthday party to the brightly lit school where he teaches. Tommy works out at the gym surrounded by grim, sallow-faced toughs in dark hoodies; Brendan’s students are colorfully dressed and energetic. Tommy’s night scenes are shot in darkness and shadow; Brendan’s blaze with the golden hues of sunset.
Their stories, too, are different. Tommy’s is an incomprehensible mishmash of anger, heroism, and angst. Brendan’s story is he wants to win the tournament because the prize money will let him keep his house.
Simple. Boring, even. There’s no mysterious past. There’s no fallen friends or life-saving feats of derring-do. It’s a guy trying to keep his house. And that simplicity works to the Brendan story’s advantage. With less going on, the character has room to breathe. We get a chance to get to know him.
Naturally, we make comparisons. Brendan has his life together where Tommy is damaged. Tommy is the dark; Brendan, the light. Tommy is a kamikaze with no target on a headlong rush for self-destruction. Brendan is trying to build a life for himself and his loved ones.
Tommy is out of control. Brendan….
Brendan is a control freak.
I missed that in Brendan the first time I watched the movie, probably because I was too busy cheering for him. Normal, decent people with wives and families don’t tend to do well in movies. They tend to either get killed or be shuttled off to the side as supporting characters. The common thinking is we want our heroes to be mad, bad, and dangerous to know. We want the obsessives, the Bad Boys, those damaged individuals with broken lives who don‘t play by the rules.
Not me. I was behind Brendan the whole way, to the point of resenting Tommy whenever he came on screen (“Oh, of COURSE he’s a war hero too. And then he’s going to redeem himself, maybe by letting Brendan win the tournament, even though to everyone it’s clear he’s the better fighter…”)
I’ve always been a Laszlo guy. Fuck Rick.
Brendan, though, isn’t a saint. He’s a good man, but he makes selfish decisions. In his first scene, it’s apparent he overspent on a birthday present in spite of a prior agreement he had with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison). He lies to her about not fighting until there’s no way around it, and even when he comes clean, he never says it out loud, leaving his wife to make the implication.
Furthermore, his unilateral choice to participate in the parking lot fight puts Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn), a man he is clearly friends with, in an uncomfortable situation. It also gets him suspended without pay. So while Brendan’s decision to enter Sparta to earn the money to save his home is a noble one, it’s hard to ignore that the problem he is trying to solve is at least partially of his own creation.
When he gets his opportunity to fight in the tournament, he takes it without talking to his wife, despite the fact SHE’S STANDING RIGHT THERE.
BRENDAN: I’m in. I’m going.
TESS: Really? That’s your decision. You decided? Cause I really enjoyed that conversation we had about making that decision together.
Tess lists her concerns: her worries over Brendan‘s safety, the type of opposition he‘ll be facing. To her, the money isn’t as important to her as the well-being of her family.
Brendan chooses to hear that as Tess thinking he can’t do it, something she never once said.
Which, by the way, was a kindness on her part, because let’s face it: Tess doesn’t know she’s in a sports movie. She can hardly be faulted for forming a belief based on the available evidence, and the available evidence paints a pretty clear picture. Even in his best days, Brendan was not exactly Anderson Silva in there. Hell, he wasn’t even Michael Bisping.
Tess also points out that if Brendan DOES get hurt and ends up in the hospital--not outside the realm of possibility considering it’s exactly what happened last time -- not only will there be no money, but there will be even more bills…hospital bills.
Which is a pretty good point. And not only do you have more expenses, what about income? How many jobs can you work from a hospital bed? What happens then for money? Is TESS going to enter next year’s tournament?
And Brendan hears her and understands. He holds her and provides comfort while listening to her deepest fears. He reminds her of their connection, the strength of their years together, of their foundation of mutual love and support, and tells her that while this is important to him, she is important too and he wants to hear everything she has to say.
Ha, ha. Just kidding.
What Brendan does is say, “I’m gonna go, okay? But I’d really love it if you’d be with me on this.”
To which I reply, Oh, go fuck yourself, Brendan.
Brendan is a nice guy, but Brendan also does what Brendan wants to do, the way he wants to do it. His participation in the smokers (and, if we’re being picky, the omission of his fighting background on his resume) is a lie of omission to Principal Zito.
During the confrontation outside his home, Brendan tells his father he’s forgiven him--and there we see him lie again, not just to his father, but to himself. Brendan has convinced himself he’s drawing boundaries when he’s in reality putting up barriers.
There is only one person Brendan doesn’t lie to, and that is his trainer Frank (Frank Grillo).
That doesn‘t stop him from trying to do things his way. He refuses Frank’s loan and instead insists on training--starting immediately. When Frank’s fighter is hurt, Brendan pushes to be the replacement.
But he doesn’t lie to him. He CAN’T lie to him.
Because Frank knows Brendan better than he knows himself.
Brendan has no shortage of supports in his life. He has a wife and daughters, friends and students. But Brendan grew up in an alcoholic family, and no matter how many people care about him, he is a man who has learned to rely only on himself. He may be an excellent at taking care of his family, but he is not one to allow himself to be taken care of.
The exception is Frank.
We see it in the silence in the locker room before the first fight. When Frank finally speaks, the only words he says are the ones Brendan needs to hear.
We see in the fight scenes: Frank is Brendan’s eyes and ears, his lifeline, his tether in the storm. When Brendan is in trouble, it is Frank’s voice we hear reminding him to “Breathe, breathe.” During the fights, between rounds, or in the locker room, Frank is there.
We hear it in Tess’s voice when she tells Frank on the phone “You‘ve been spending so much time with Brendan, it‘s like you‘re part of the family or something.” Handing the phone over to Brendan she tells him, “It‘s your boyfriend.”
She’s joking--but she’s also not. She’s hurt.
Frank tells Brendan things he won’t hear from anyone else. When Brendan claims he’s been fighting, Frank immediately guesses everything his fighter isn’t telling him. Moments later, he spells Brendan‘s problem out for him: “You never listen to anyone.“
After agreeing to train Brendan, the first thing Frank asks is whether his once and future protégé has let his wife in on his decision. Frank knows Brendan, he cares about him, but he also knows where and how he will fuck things up.
As it turns out, his prediction is absolutely right.
It is only while talking with Frank that Brendan comes as close as he ever does to admitting his own role in his financial plight. “The parking lot thing kind of got me suspended,” he says sheepishly. He is embarrassed about it.
But he also knows he can’t lie to Frank.
Frank, Tess, Principal Zito and Brendan’s students…this is the difference between Brendan’s life and Tommy’s.
Sure, they have different personalities. Yes, they fight differently. The filmmakers unquestionably use lighting to contrast them with one another.
But at heart they are much the same. They’ve both learned that when it comes down to it, the only person they can trust is themselves.
This is where Brendan is lucky.
Because Brendan has people around who are willing to tell him when he’s full of shit…and they support him anyway.
In the movie, Tommy’s fans are strangers. They’re marines offering their support, fight fans who saw him beat Mad Dog Grimes on the internet, and gym rats. Men cheer for him. Attractive young women wearing skimpy tank-tops hold up signs and scream (Of course they do. Fuck you, Tommy, you damaged-but-heroic sexually irresistible dickhead).
Brendan’s support comes from the people around him.
Frank is a always there. Principal Zito watches the first fight on his couch, the second with his wife, and by the third has joined Brendan’s students at the Drive-In movie (They still have those?) to watch on the big screen.
And Tess? She spends the first fight folding towels, and trying not to look at the phone. She watches the second on TV. By the Koba fight, she is in the audience.
And before the finals, she is in the locker room with Brendan. Up until that moment, Frank is the only person we’ve seen in share that space with Brendan.
He’s finally let her in.
* * *
Brendan doesn’t have any scenes with his father after their confrontation on his front lawn. Nevertheless, we see signs of his softening. The first time Pop gives Brendan a thumbs up during the tournament, he ignores it. The second time, he acknowledges it, just a little. In the finals, when Tommy and Brendan meet in the middle of the ring, Brendan’s question is “Where’s Pop?”
Maybe, just maybe, Brendan is learning that the people we love the most are still flawed…and that it is possible to let them in anyway.
Wonder who taught him that?
NEXT: Part 3: the Tournament