Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit thrilling when a movie catches us off-guard and is much more than expected. Walking in, I was all set for a testosterone fueled fight fest featuring BS bravado and mounds of machismo. While that element is abundantly present, writer/director Gavin O’Connor wraps the fighting around a pretty interesting story about family, bravery, desperation, pride and forgiveness.
The story begins with the convergence of a broken family – two brothers and their father. The split occurred many years ago, and without the details, we are able to piece together that dad (Nick Nolte) was a violent drunken ex-Marine and the mother planned to take the two boys and run. One of the brothers (Joel Edgerton) had fallen in love and decided to stay with dad. The younger brother (Tom Hardy) went with mom and even nursed her through her final days of cancer prior to his joining the Marines. The three men have been incommunicado for years, until one day Tommy (Hardy) shows up on Nolte’s doorstep.
What sets this one apart is the details of each of the brother’s stories, very little of which I will discuss here. There is a terrific scene on the Atlantic City beach where their demons confront each other and we see that so much pain and bitterness exists despite their having been teenagers at the time of the split. They each felt abandoned by the other. Now one is an angry ex-Marine and the other is a desperate physics teacher with a family. This story couldn’t possibly end any place other than smack in the middle of an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) cage fight!
Their Dad (Nolte) had trained the boys as youth wrestlers and now a giant $5 million tournament is being held. Both brothers are carrying secrets and need money to solve their problems. Their secrets drive them to risk life and limb in the cage of this most brutal activity. To best describe these characters, Tom Hardy has the presence and physique of the guy you would never consider confronting in a bar fight. Joel Edgerton is the kind that your buddies would egg you on thinking you could probably take him. Instead you would end up in the back of an ambulance.
As expected, and shown in the trailer, the MMA tournament ends with the two brothers facing off and guilt-riddled dad watching from the crowd. Despite the rowdiness and violence of the fighting, very little blood is shown. That’s not what this movie is about. Instead we get many adrenaline-rushes from the spectacle of the fights, plus a split-screen montage of the training leading up to the big moment. This is a crowd-pleaser in the vein of The Fighter, but not quite as mainstream given the MMA element.
The two leads were each on my list of favorite movies last year. Joel Edgerton was in the excellent and under-the-radar Animal Kingdom, while Tom Hardy was in the mega-hit Inception and will play Bane in the upcoming Batman film. In this film, Edgerton has more freedom with his character, but Hardy does a wonderful job of capturing the quiet intensity followed by roid rage in the ring. Most surprising is the fine job turned in by Nick Nolte. He really showed up for this one. Other support work comes from Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn and Frank Grillo. We also see former Olympic wrester Kurt Angle as the terrifying Russian MMA machine Yoba, and writer/director Gavin O’Connor as JJ Riley, the millionaire sponsoring the tournament.
There will be comparisons made to both Rocky and The Fighter, and both make sense. It is not quite at that level, but don’t mistake this as some dumb fight movie made for teenage boys. There is a story and it provides further proof that men, no matter how hard they try, manage to screw up the whole family thing more often than not … but in the end, they do try their best to make things better!
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for a high intensity male-centric family drama with an abundance of testosterone OR you want to see the best Nick Nolte performance in years
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer slow, weepy family dramas rather than the simmering explosions of male communication OR simply watching MMA is more violence than you care to take on
watch the trailer: