By the time Warrior is released next month, there will have been two major motion pictures employing combat sports as a vehicle to promote a human interest story since 2010. The aforementioned will be one. The Fighter, starring Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg, the other.
Neither film is primarily about the featured combat sport of choice. Both are incorporated almost strictly on utilitarian grounds. These are human interest stories, unmistakably in the way Friday Night Lights is a television show with a tangential relationship to football.
The movies are not particularly dissimilar either. Both follow well-worn cinematic sports formulas of centering on a troubled human protagonist. Both feature hard luck, blue collar stories of over looked talent who ultimately persevere despite overwhelming odds against any positive outcome. Both feature protagonists in strained or even broken familial relationships, where lingering problems are fueled or exacerbated by substance abuse. Both, in other words, offer up to the world prize fighters as we imagine them and as they often are. Both movies are a continuation of film-making precedent: stories about up from the boot straps redemption earned by ending up on the right side of physically adjudicated dispute. It's them against the world; the world ultimately kneels. We vicariously celebrate.
But if the movies share a common lineage and execution, they do not occupy the same artistic space.
Warrior is entirely watchable and even enjoyable, but the nucleus of the story takes a credulous mind to accept. The major characters have written into their lives a farrago of convoluted, utterly poisonous histories. Keeping track of their precariously tethered relationships - which are based on little more than unimaginable betrayal and neglect - becomes a chore. Rather than the father (Nick Nolte) being a drunk, he's a drunk who abandoned his children. Rather than just being a drunk who abandoned his children, his wife died from cancer after leaving the drunk father. She didn't just die of cancer, however, she died without medical coverage. She didn't just die only without medical coverage, but with only one son (Tom Hardy) to care for her while the other (Joel Edgerton) took sides. This isn't a family fractured by bad decisions and abysmal luck; this is Humpty Dumpty exploded by an atom bomb attempting to be made whole. And what is the glue to piece the detritus back together? A mixed martial arts tournament. Even if we grant the filmmakers sports have redemptive powers, this mess is too toxic for any athletic journey or achievement to repair.
One can argue there's ample dramatization of reality in The Fighter and that's true, but irrespective of the central point. The Fighter's presentation is eminently more believable if for no other reason than film is based on a person's actual life. The Fighter is about the (mostly) true story of Boston-born boxer Mickey Ward. Ward's incredible history naturally lent itself to dramatization, but is still one from planet earth.
Working within the limited scope the fictional characters were allowed to wiggle, the actors of Warrior did a very commendable job. The film's director should be commended for the casting choices. Yet, as good as some of the acting in Warrior is, the tortured fictional construct limits the ability of actors to shine.
That's not the case in The Fighter and for a very important reason. Bale's presentation of Dicky Eklund isn't just superb because Bale has unsurpassed ability as a thespian. It's because he wasn't artistically permitted to wander too far off the plantation. There was a person and his name was Dicky Eklund. Bale's challenge was to both sell a story and faithfully represent the life of this man. It's that admixture of life and art refracted through Bale's talents that makes his offering so spectacular.
All of this speaks to the comparatively short life of MMA. Boxing, as cinematic architecture, is able to lean on its rich cultural history. There are seemingly countless tales ready-made for film making precisely because the sport has a long, storied history filled with characters of sorrow, achievement, regret, acclaim and every other stop on the gamut of human conditions. MMA, by contrast, has little alternative but to resort to the fictional for promotional viability.
We can claim the stories of Randy Couture or Chuck Liddell could deliver movie magic and maybe that's true. But before the American consuming public can accept the movie narrative of Couture and Liddell's achievement, they have to believe the narrative of the MMA fighter is possible at all. They need to be convinced this MMA thing is real, it's participants can be identifable people, it's achievements hard to come by and it's stories interesting. Judging this film qua film making, it suffers in parts. However, it's also the actual first step in placing MMA in the long cinematic tradition of films that showcase the (ostensibly) interesting lives of others through sports. On those grounds, Warrior is a massively positive contribution.
Perhaps the most important consideration to make about Warrior and The Fighter is what message both inadvertently send about the state of the respective sports involved. The Fighter, whose main protagonist is a boxer, is a retrospective that chronicles achievement of the past. Warrior, whose main protagonist is a MMA fighter, is a story which takes place in the present. In fact, one of the famed MMA gyms in the movie is referenced as being a former boxing gym under new ownership and new name. "It ain't Fitzy's anymore," says Nolte's character describing the gym's transformation. That isn't giving boxing a facelift for younger audiences; that's removing the boxing paradigm altogether.
My recommendation? Go see this movie. If you're a movie fan, I've outlined what I perceive to be the more notable flaws, but I wouldn't go so far to suggest you shouldn't see it. And if you're a MMA fan, I suspect you'll be pleasantly surprised by the authentic treatment of the sport. The fictionalization of MMA isn't the necessarily the optimal way to deliver a compelling story. It's more likely the essential first step.
The achievement in Warrior is not that we witness peerless or borderline flawless acting and storytelling (although I had fun watching). Rather, it's that the filmmakers recognized MMA has elevated and positioned itself enough within our cultural consciousness to be worthy of athletic and cinematic respect. It's a sport not just to be observed suspiciously from afar, but to be shared, consumed, inspected, understood and enjoyed even when it's the backbone of a movie that isn't about MMA at all.