Archive for the Sports Category

Pawn Sacrifice

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on October 1, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pawn Sacrifice photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s easy to see how a chess match between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) became the ultimate Cold War showdown amongst two superpowers. Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union was the defending champion. The Soviet Chess School had long held a monopoly on the game at the highest level and Spassky was the latest in an uninterrupted chain beginning in 1948. The political rivalry separating the Soviet Union from the United States laid the foundation for a clash of mental dexterity that played out in a chess tournament on the world stage. It fascinated America and ignited a widespread chess fever at a height that has never been duplicated since.

Pawn Sacrifice is a handsomely mounted period piece – a fastidiously rendered production with shifting cinematography styles. Director Edward Zwick combines archival footage with shots made to look like the real thing. He uses cinematic tricks like digitally inserting Tobey Maguire into The Dick Cavett Show, as well as using real news reports from the era. When Fischer goes AWOL at the championship, a dozen different news anchors question Bobby’s whereabouts. These filmmaking techniques are showy but they’re never quite as satisfying as good old fashioned conversation between two people. Zwick has assembled an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert as his attorney, his coach, and his mom respectively. Liev Schreiber speaks Russian as Boris Spassky, though his performance is mostly emotive. Each extracts a component of Fischer’s intense intellect.

Ah but Bobby Fischer was one of those marvels tinged with madness. I’d fault the “tortured genius” narrative for endorsing a biopic cliché if it weren’t actually true. Pawn Sacrifice is undoubtedly a skillfully constructed docudrama. However for those hungry for a movie about chess and the intricacies of the game, they will be disappointed. This is a chronicle detailing paranoia, with chess as a backdrop. The filmmakers are more concerned with Fischer’s fragile psychological state than his brilliant mind. The child prodigy that became the youngest international grand master at the age of 15 is merely subtext. Many of the chess matches are kept off screen. Tobey Maguire plays Jewish Brooklyn born Bobby Fischer as a man haunted by demons. He’s a seething ball of neurosis. He tears apart his hotel rooms searching for wiretaps. He complains that his food has been poisoned. The script doesn’t explicitly say chess made him crazy, although the association seems to be that chess exacerbated his mental illness. Why chess became his obsession, and not another pursuit, remains unclear.

Pawn Sacrifice presents Bobby Fischer as a most unlikeable individual. He suffers from moods that fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He avows the Soviets have been cheating by throwing games to create draws. His devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism is presented as peculiar. He is anti-Semitic, even though he himself is Jewish. When Fischer finally gets to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship, he makes everyone wait, taking the stage at the very last possible minute for his first game. Then forfeits the second game by not turning up at all. His prima donna behavior escalates with one outlandish demand after another. He complains that the audience and the TV video cameras are too noisy, refusing to continue unless the tournament is moved from a public hall to a private room. Save for a few coughs, the room appears quiet to us. When Fischer threatens to quit, Henry Kissinger calls to offer words of encouragement. The organizers relent anyway, giving into his demands. This doesn’t endear Bobby to us. Certainly it isn’t necessary to like the central character in order to appreciate a film. Yet we should feel something for this man. The movie entertains in parts but while showing how Bobby Fischer could be a jerk, it neglects to present his humanity. I was captivated during much of Pawn Sacrifice. I wanted to know more about this boy genius, particularly in his early life. It wasn’t until the climax that finally I realized that, after getting to know fellow American Bobby Fischer, I found myself rooting for Boris Spassky.



Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on September 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Everest photo starrating-4stars.jpgLace up your boots, strap on your pack, and let’s hit the trails. Everest concerns an ill-fated climbing expedition in 1996 to summit the world’s tallest mountain. The account mainly focuses on a crew in the Himalayas headed by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a guide for Adventure Consultants.

Everest has an extended cast of famous names. Most don’t get more than a few lines of dialogue, but nevertheless their familiar presence aids in our affinity for their characters. Rob’s clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a seasoned hiker, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a former mailman pursuing his dream, and climbing veteran Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has scaled 6 of the 7 summits. Only Everest remains for her. Another excursion is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the chief guide for Mountain Madness. These tourist treks highlight the commercialization of Everest, which is an underlying theme. Initially they happen to each meet at the base camp first, in preparation for their attempt to reach the apex. The two caravans communicate with Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who manages the base camp compound. Everest is loosely inspired by the book Into Thin Air by Outside magazine journalist Jon Krakauer. He’s portrayed here by Michael Kelly.

Icelandic born director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) ups the ante over his previous American films and produces something far more ambitious. Granted this isn’t intellectually deep or technically rich. Narratively it’s fairly straightforward. However there is grace in trusting that the genuine drama of the true story will captivate the viewer….and it does. Green screen technology is used sparingly. Everest was shot on location at Everest base camp. The Dolomite mountains in northern Italy stands in for higher elevations. At times, the chronicle has such a visceral quality, it almost feels like documentary. It does a nice job in depicting the physiological effects of the climb. At higher altitudes even breathing becomes a task because the percentage of oxygen in the air is lower. The conditions force the team to acclimate to the low atmospheric pressure first before continuing.

Everest is a rather simple tale about a quest that ended in tragedy. It’s an old fashioned rip roaring adventure ideally suited to the big screen. Early theater engagements were shown exclusively in IMAX 3D. The attributes of those formats serve this subject well. The visual splendor is beautifully conveyed. Sweeping vistas and aerial photography convey a sense of grandeur. One dizzy overhead shot above a high suspension bridge triggers feelings of acrophobia. This is a saga where nature is the enemy. A grueling storm, frostbite, blindless and the wind all threaten the safety of our courageous explorers. I am neither an experienced mountaineer nor was I present on the actual expedition. Therefore I am not here to vouch for the authenticity of facts of the sport or what really happened. What I am is a film critic, and I can say that Everest absolutely delivers thrilling entertainment.


McFarland, USA

Posted in Drama, Family, Sports with tags on March 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

McFarland, USA photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgMcFarland, USA would seem to be your standard run-of-the-mill tale about a rag-tag band of underdogs that nobody believed in, only to come from behind at the end to prove everybody wrong. To a certain extent that would be true. The difference is in the fabrication; how well the piece is put together. McFarland is indeed really good. What separates this from a lesser film of this sort is in the sincerity of the story. There’s an honesty to the performances that draws you in to the plight of these kids. Let’s start with star Kevin Costner who plays a world weary coach that is on the outs, trying start a new life with his family. Compare that to the athletes who attend a school that has never excelled in athletics. That is until they decide to add cross country to their roster of sports. The young actors have a lot of heart. The script allows enough time to detail their individual stories. It gives us a reason to care. Their separate goals but shared ambitions unite in a very appealing way that adds weight to this chronicle.

Despite utilizing the conventional plot points of the sports drama, McFarland, USA doesn’t suffer for it. On location shooting in Kern County, California, imbues the production with a grit that it wouldn’t have if it been filmed on a Hollywood lot. The Latin tinged soundtrack with a score by Antonio Pinto additionally adds to the chronicle’s credibility. Spanish guitar pops up in several compositions. The townspeople are portrayed by people who don’t look like they were hired out of central casting. Some would even appear to be genuine citizens of the town. Kevin Costner and Maria Bello are an exception but that‘s perhaps a concession to box office. He and his family provide an interesting contrast to the townspeople. Granted the idea of a white savior to these economically disadvantaged teens could have been a cliché. I would argue that it is his down and out coach that is more “saved” by these students.

Can a movie be completely predictable and still be entertaining? With McFarland, USA the answer is an unqualified yes. I will admit that the narrative follows the familiar beats of inspirational sports dramas. Disney has made an industry of this genre. Remember the Titans, Cool Runnings, The Rookie, Miracle – they’re all examples of how this subject has been done many times before. In these cases, it’s been accomplished successfully. The variation to formula in this case is cross country track. Okay so that’s a minor difference, but the picture has an authenticity to it. McFarland, USA is an genuinely heartfelt story worth revisiting. I feel compelled to justify why I enjoyed this. Those viewers who already find these traditional tales difficult to enjoy, will not be taken in by this film’s simple charms. However of you’re open to a nicely acted production that makes you feels good, you should give this a try.



Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on November 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Foxcatcher photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThere’s something very disturbing about Foxcatcher. It’s more than a mere biographical drama. It is a multilayered character study detailing 3 personalities – an expose on humanity so raw, that it becomes uncomfortable viewing. On the one side we have John Eleuthère du Pont, an heir to the family fortune of the chemical company. On the other we have Mark Schultz, Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and younger brother to the even more celebrated wrestler David Schultz.

Foxcatcher highlights career best performances by the three principals. Steve Carrel, outfitted with a prosthetic nose and old age makeup, is unrecognizable as John du Pont. He is a multimillionaire, philanthropist ornithologist and most importantly, wrestling enthusiast. He aims to fund the U.S. team and get Mark to the ’88 Olympics. But he is a peculiar fellow. He lives in the shadow of his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and indirectly seeks her blessing in his endeavors. Regrettably his prodigious net worth obscures his lack of expertise. When she appears at a practice one day, he immediately leaps to his feet, taking control of the class with his awkward directions as she looks on. As he continues to address the class in his mock coaching effort, she exits the room unimpressed. For all his wealth and privilege, an air of melancholy surrounds him. His philanthropic efforts notwithstanding, he is someone to be pitied more than admired.

Mark eats fast food alone in his car. Later he heats instant noodles in his spartan apartment. These scenes are shortcuts that establish a grim milieu. Despite his athletic titles and awards, Mark’s life isn’t that spectacular. Channing Tatum may look like a wrestler but he is cast against type as the callow youth seeking approval. His ever increasing despondency is a concern. Then he is invited by du Pont (Steve Carell) to help form a team to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics at his new state-of-the-art training facility. Schultz jumps at the opportunity. Du Pont wants his brother Dave too, but he is unmoved by the offer at the moment. Family comes first in Dave’s life. When Mark checks into a cottage on his estate, things seem too good to be true. It seems that Mark has finally stepped out from under his more successful sibling, Dave.

Mark Ruffalo has perhaps the most difficult role as Dave Schultz. It is the slightest of the three parts and the least awards bait-y. Yet his positive presence helps alleviate the tension. He conveys such admirable devotion to his younger brother in simple gestures. The brothers engage in sparring fights intended to sharpen their wrestling skills, but even those have a tender intimacy. Their competitive affiliation goes through several stages during the course of the film. Their bond is exacerbated when du Pont makes an offer Dave can’t refuse. As the events unfold to the inevitable conclusion, there is an anxiety that hangs over the surroundings like a thick fog of fear. Sounds like I’m describing a horror movie. Indeed, this rumination transpires not unlike a tale of dread. If you are unfamiliar with the true life story, you should keep it that way until after you’ve seen the production. Though not vital, the saga is best appreciated without prior knowledge.

Foxcatcher is about insecurities, validation and obsession. As such, the dark drama relies heavily on mood. The narrative is quiet, insidious even. As it sneakily unfolds you never quite know where the focus lies. Certainly this is an attack on how wealth can buy standing in arenas to which you don‘t belong. John du Pont and Mark Schultz are two dejected souls that initially needed each other. The screenplay logically makes connections between the various characters and ties them together. As du Pont seeks support from his mother, so too does Mark seeks the same from du Pont. Their interdependence is a portrait of unease. Additionally the genuine fraternal love amongst brothers is contrasted with the oppressive demands that du Pont puts upon Mark. Du Pont is needy to the point of being unstable. His complicated rapport with Mark is rooted in unrealized hopes. Undoubtedly he lives vicariously through the success of these developing athletes. But the full extent of those desires are cryptic and belie a tortured personality. The script subtly hints at things that are implied but never explicitly stared.  Foxcatcher brilliantly handles all of these emotionally complex relationships in a skillful way. Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher – Director Bennett Miller has established a knack for these fables based on fact. It is a deeply troubling film and I mean that in the most profound way.



Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on September 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Rush photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgI should come clean right now. You can debate whether NASCAR vs. Formula 1 racing is better till blue in the face. The whole discussion is rather uninteresting to me I must confess. Car racing has always remained a fringe sport in my eyes. Not that I don’t admire the skill involved, because I do believe it takes remarkable talent (and money) to succeed. It’s just that there are so many other sports I’d prefer to watch than blurry cars zipping around a track. That’s kind of the attitude to which I approached Rush, the new Formula 1 racing movie regarding two drivers of which I knew nothing. I’m happy to announce that this is an extraordinary film – a firing on all cylinders, exhilarating sports drama.

At heart, Rush is an account concerning two bitter rivals. Niki Lauda is an Austrian perfectionist. He’s portrayed by Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!, Inglourious Basterds), a German actor still relatively unknown to most Americans. Lauda is a driven (excuse the pun) individual that enters the sport like an outsider crashing an exclusive party. A standoffish intellectual, he is nevertheless extremely gifted. Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) is James Hunt. He’s a Brit, equally accomplished – but more charismatic and handsome in contrast. He’s also an arrogant womanizer who goes through women like boxes of Kleenex. Given Hemsworth’s marquee name, it might seem like you could guess how the screenplay might gently guide one to take sides. But you would be wrong. In recounting the saga of Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt, the production does the unexpected. Director Ron Howard working from a script by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen) brilliantly introduces the tale as two separate fully formed individuals. Instead of taking sides and having a narrow point of view, it proffers both with their various strengths and shortcomings in equal measure.

Rush is quite simply the greatest movie about auto racing ever made. It combines the best of both worlds: adrenaline pumping, intense action sequences featuring the sport along with an emotionally engaging character study between two fierce rivals. The mix is intoxicating as the viewer is constantly encouraging each man at different parts of the production. An evenhanded, nuanced portrait, both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl give heretofore career defining performances. They perfectly embody these two passionate adversaries. In presenting these Formula 1 race car drivers that outwardly hate one another, the script makes the brilliant case that they are actually deeply indebted to their opponent. They each push the other in their pursuit of the World Championship. I was prepared to root for Hunt, but walked away rooting for Lauda. You might see the story differently and therein lies the brilliance of this film.

Happy Gilmore

Posted in Comedy, Sports with tags on July 30, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Happy Gilmore photo starrating-3stars.jpg
Shooter McGavin: You’re in big trouble though, pal. I eat pieces of sh– like you for breakfast!

Happy Gilmore: [laughing] You eat pieces of sh– for breakfast?

Adam Sandler is Happy Gilmore, an unsuccessful ice hockey player with a powerful slapshot. After a challenge, he discovers he has a talent for golf. To be specific, he has an easy facility for driving a golf ball 400 yards. His putting, on the other hand, is horrible. Under the tutelage of club pro Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers), he joins a golf tournament. Happy hopes to win enough money to help out his grandmother whose house is about to be repossessed.

Sandler’s second major starring vehicle is his riff on 1980’s Caddyshack, another golf comedy. His idea of funny is to transplant the loud obnoxious environment of the hockey rink to the quiet, sophisticated atmosphere of the golf course. It’s clear Happy has an anger problem and he’s frequently given to losing his cool. The humor is lowbrow and a lot of it rests on Happy Gilmore’s boorish demeanor as contrasted with stuffed shirt Shooter McGavin, a villain embodied in full hissable glory by Christopher McDonald. There’s sort of an idiotic joy in seeing Happy’s aggressive behavior conflict with the civilized gold pros. A confrontation with Bob Barker of TV’s The Price is Right is a savage delight. But he doesn’t remain that way. As the plot develops, Happy becomes more likable. I think it’s relevant to point out that Happy begins as a flawed character, unable to control his temper. By managing his emotions and finding his “happy place” he finds success. Nice moral. It’s not as inspired as something like There’s Something About Mary from the same era. However Happy Gilmore has achieved a cult status and like all such films it improves with repeated viewings.

Note: Will Damron over at Papa Kenn Media was my inspiration for revisiting Happy Gilmore. He is examining vintage Sandler movies from the past. He prompted me to watch this so I could provide my own insight. Please check out his page as well.


Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on April 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

42 photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe life of Jackie Robinson gets the treatment you’d expect in Warner Brothers’ perfectly serviceable biography. The chronicle is a suitable document of the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era. Director Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale) beatific depiction of Jackie Robinson is befitting of how Disney handles their sports pictures. It’s reverent, didactic and compelling. However given the magnitude of Robinson’s breakthrough, I was expecting a bit more grit. Perhaps in the hands of a more contentious director, the action would have seemed more controversial. There’s a brief moment of that in one particular scene involving actor Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the manager of the Phillies who vociferously opposed Robbins’s presence in MLB on the basis of his race. The scenes in which he taunts Robinson with racial epithets was even more disturbing than the many uses of the N-word in the movie Django Unchained. Perhaps that’s because this is a true story but also because of Robinson’s pacifist approach to the abuse that was forced on him. It’s is one of the few instances where you genuinely get a feel for the weight of his struggle.

42 is a polished biography. It’s got beautiful music, bright cinematography and is populated by some nice performances. Chadwick Boseman notably underplays Jackie Robinson in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s grasping for the Academy Award. He’s quite effective. As is Nicole Beharie who plays “the wife” but with an effervescence that made me want to see more of her in future films. Harrison Ford reminds us that he doesn’t always just phone it in. As Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers that signs Robinson to the team, he is truly engaging. 42 hits all the dramatic notes you’d except in a memoir such as this. It’s not particularly deep or insightful, but it is inspiring. Robinson becomes more a symbol through which other people unleash their racial hatred against. I would’ve appreciated a little more detail in the script about the man himself. More vignettes involving his personality as well as his athletic accomplishments in the world of baseball would‘ve been welcome. The lesson appears to be talent and money speak louder than hate. 42 is an admirable addition to baseball pictures that dutifully dramatize the subject in a way that is both pleasant and entertaining.

Real Steel

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Sports with tags on October 11, 2011 by Mark Hobin

In the near future, robots have replaced humans as pugilistic combatants of the sport. Former boxer Charlie Kenton, ekes out a living in illegal boxing matches between robots to pay his debts to loan sharks. Naturally his estranged son, who he hasn’t seen in years, is thrust into his life all of a sudden at this critical juncture. Together they attempt to succeed with an obsolete, sparring-partner robot they rescue from a garbage lot.  If the classic toy, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots were turned into a movie, this would be it.

On the surface, the boxing scenes among the robotic rivals are incredible.  There is a real organic feel to the robot boxing as genuine animatronic robots were used in close ups and mixed with totally believable computer animation. There’s a countrified atmosphere to the narrative as well that’s altogether unexpected. His original robot goes head to head against an actual bull at a county fair in the first match up. The battles are crisp and fluid. Later on the chronicle focuses on Atom, the disregarded robot they find buried in the dirt at the junkyard. There’s real drama in whether spunky Atom can triumph.

But why must the little boy be such a royal pain? His part (at least from a storyline standpoint) is reminiscent of the young son in the Sylvester Stallone flick Over the Top (which has always been something of a guilty pleasure for me). While that child was merely wimpy, this child is insolent and bossy. That’s a lot worse. He essentially wears the pants in his relationship with his father who is consistently schooled by this punk kid at every turn. It’s depressing seeing a macho actor like Hugh Jackman emasculated over and over throughout the film by this little brat. I’m not usually an advocate of corporal punishment, but I’d make an exception in this tykes case. He’s unbearable.

Luckily the special effects make up for the lack of character development. Hugh Jackman is a charismatic screen presence and Evangeline Lilly is quite appealing as well as his love interest.  But there are some inconsistencies in the script. It’s difficult to tell what’s really more crucial, the robot or the human who comands the robot. And why do some robots have a whole team controlling them while others just have one person? Is the quality of the robot even that important? Elsewhere, it’s hinted at that the robot may genuinely experience feelings as a human would, but that suggestion is never developed. If you don’t get too bogged down in those deficiencies, there is definitely some entertainment value in the robot boxing scenes. And honestly, that’s why you watch a movie like this anyway, right?


Posted in Drama, Sports with tags on September 23, 2011 by Mark Hobin

“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” –Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics

I’m a pushover for an underdog story. There’s something about the “come from behind“, “no one said they could do it“, “triumph over all odds” tale, that really resonates with me. Perhaps it’s the emotional exhilaration watching the person that no one thought anything of, superseding all expectations to become the most impressive competitor. That’s the driving force behind the storyline of Moneyball, the chronicle of Billy Beane. As general manager of the Oakland Athletics, he took a low payroll and was able to assemble an impressive team to compete against the big boys with deep pockets. I’m talking about the Yankees, specifically, a baseball franchise with more money than God.

As the drama begins, the A’s are coming off a particularly good season. They’ve made it to the playoffs yet again, only to fall short of the championship. Once the series is over, their best players are lured away by teams that can promise larger paychecks. Beane laments that they’re like “a farm team for the New York Yankees.” How to do battle in a game where money can buy a championship? Then he meets Peter Brand (a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta). He’s working for the Cleveland Indians and it’s through his analysis and non-traditional sabermetric approach to scouting players that attracts Beane’s attention. Brand evaluates players based on objective, empirical evidence rather than the traditional scouting methods. He becomes Beane’s assistant. With Brand’s help, he attempts to create a competitive baseball team at a fraction of the cost.

Brad Pitt is extraordinary. It’s not a showy, awards-bait performance but it is powerful in it’s subtlety. He’s remarkably restrained. Because of Pitt’s appearance and the subject matter I was reminded of Robert Redford’s The Natural while watching this. Both are uplifting stories about baseball, however Moneyball isn’t a sports movie, fundamentally. It deals more with what happens behind the scenes – beating the odds using non-traditional methods. Baseball informs the narrative and there are many rousing scenes of the sport in action, but it’s Billy Beane that permeates the drama with such considerable heart. We get not only an intimate glimpse into the soul of the man, but also the A’s organization and the various players that affected that winning season.

Ultimately what makes Moneyball so amazing is Billy Beane. Moneyball is adapted from American investigative journalist Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name. This literary source is the basis for the script by master scribes Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s telling that the most exciting scenes of Moneyball aren’t the competitive games, but the back and forth trading of players. One particularly amusing scene has Beane and Brand haggling over acquiring Ricardo Rincón from the Cleveland Indians. It’s a masterfully written spectacle. Everything simply takes place in a room over the phone. There’s no reason why that should be so riveting, but it is. If statistics and computer analysis sounds like a surprising subject for a film, you’d be right. It’s the film’s biggest shock that the business of Baseball could actually be made more exciting than the game itself. A film that celebrates the romance and majesty of a game in a way I’ve never seen before, much like the man, Billy Beane, himself.


Posted in Action, Drama, Sports with tags on September 9, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Two brothers seek redemption in a mixed martial arts or MMA tournament. Brendan is living in suburban Philadelphia with a wife and kids. He’s behind in his mortgage and will lose his home within a month unless he can make the payments. The other, Tommy is a troubled Iraq war veteran back from the conflict, who hides a secret. Audience pleasing sports drama does for mixed martial arts what Rocky did for boxing. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re even remotely interested in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) this is required viewing.

The fighter film is the perfect archetype to show the literal struggle of man against the world. I have always been a sucker for these types of stories for that very reason. It’s hard in this day and age to take on this subject creatively because it has been the topic of numerous films over the years. The family struggling to pay the mortgage, the once alcoholic father trying to make amends with his sons, the estranged brothers who haven’t talked to each other in years, the students cheering on their beloved, but recently suspended schoolteacher, it’s all here, piled up high with an extra helping of melodrama. That shouldn’t be surprising coming from writer/director Gavin O’Connor’ who also did the rousing Miracle, the Disney drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He has a somewhat theatrical touch and the proceedings here might have benefited from less fabrication and a bit more gritty realism. Warrior shamelessly manipulates the vocabulary of other, better movies of this type in appropriating emotion and excitement. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Wrestler, The Fighter – it suggests every one of these at various times throughout its running time. While it never matches any of the aforementioned for depth, I was still surprisingly moved by the entire thing. Yes, it’s a formula picture. The manipulation is indisputable, but there’s no denying that it’s skillfully done.

The plot is cleverly divided into two distinct halves. The first is a soft, tender examination of the relationship between father and his two sons. A little screen time is focused on their training.  There is some discussion regarding the upcoming brawl, but the majority of the action is focused on the bond amongst this broken family now reunited by circumstance. The scenes are beautifully acted and authentically moving. Nick Nolte is Paddy Conlon, the boy’s father. He’s outstanding. He hasn’t given a performance this articulate since Affliction in 1997.  Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are his adult sons. The script uniquely spends equal time on each of their stories. Despite being opposites, I found myself conflicted in my support. I liked them both. The second half concerns the big “Sparta” contest in Atlantic City which is a huge $5 million winner-take-all MMA competition. Since neither brother has been battling in the professional MMA arena, how to justify admittance to an event in which only 16 competitors compete?  It’s mostly based on connections and luck so the brother’s welcome into the events was pretty far-fetched. Both of them are the very definition of a dark horse contender.  But the fights are so viscerally presented, the struggle is a joy to behold. It’s an epic battle between uplifting victory and bone crushing defeat.

This is an old school schmaltzy “rise from the ashes” tale of family. Sibling relationships, father and sons, it’s the genuine emotion that gives weight to the thrill of the altercations in the cage matches that follow. And what fights! They’re incredibly brutal. They mean so much more because we know the stakes behind them. This isn’t original, but it masterfully appropriates from the best and gives us a remix that amplifies emotion to the highest degree. Everything feels vaguely familiar and yet I ate up every cliché with delight.


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