— Nearly every major sport has its defining movie.
Baseball has “Pride of the Yankees” and “Field of Dreams.” Basketball has “Hoosiers.” Hockey has “Slap Shot.” Boxing has “Rocky,” “Raging Bull” and a locker room full of other contendahs, like last year’s “The Fighter.” Even professional wrestling has “The Wrestler.”
Mixed martial arts may have found its Hollywood highlight reel.
“Warrior” debuts in theaters Sept. 9 like a kick in the teeth. It could be the movie that brings ultimate fighting out of the pay-per-view shadows and into the mainstream. That’s not just pre-fight hype, either.
Early reviews are strong. The film has 90 percent positive reviews on the film site Rotten Tomatoes.
Why is “Warrior” striking a chord? The cast certainly helps. Tom Hardy is a rising star, fresh off “Inception” and soon to be beating Batman silly as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Joel Edgerton is another sharp talent. The few people who caught him in “Animal Kingdom” last year know he delivers the acting goods. And there isn’t an actor alive better suited to play the role of the washed-up, alcoholic father than Nick Nolte.
It also doesn’t hurt that director Gavin O’Connor has experience in the inspirational sports movie arena, having directed “Miracle.”
But for the movie to have staying power, it needs the four Cs that are the pillars of every great sports movie: Characters, Comeback, Conflict and Competition.
Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Edgerton) play two brothers who haven’t spoken in years, and wind up back in the fight game for different reasons. Tommy is a traumatized soldier chasing ghosts. Brendan is a teacher fighting for his family, and to keep the lights on.
In this day and age, how can you choose between a guy who gets his face kicked in nightly so he can pay the bills, and a military man haunted by his experiences?
Nolte’s character may be the most tragic in the film. Watching him fumble his attempts to mend fences with his sons is heartbreaking. He’s like Mickey from “Rocky,” if Martin Scorsese had directed that picture.
A sports movie that doesn't show its stars overcoming adversity is like a ballgame without peanuts or beer.
Brendan is the ultimate Average Joe, the ham-and-egger who gets his shot at glory in a $5 million MMA tournament. It’s a story that ESPN would eat up if it happened in real life, and in the movie it’s no different.
Brendan is Jim Braddock in “Cinderella Man” to Tommy’s Max Baer, the dangerous knockout monster.
You want conflict? How about two estranged brothers who are both desperate to win the big money, and who carry around years of emotional baggage? Oh yeah, and about the only thing they have in common is the animosity they have for their father.
It’s positively Shakespearean, if The Bard watched UFC on pay-per-view.
“Hoosiers” isn’t great because it’s about basketball, any more than “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” are classics because of the great boxing scenes. But the scenes on the court, the field or the ring have to hold up, or you’ll lose the crowd.
“Warrior’s” in-ring sequences at times appear lifted scenes right out of an actual MMA event. And while we know Hardy and Edgerton didn’t intentionally land punches or kicks in their staged fights, it’s hard to tell the difference. The fights are brutal. None worse than the big finish, which we won’t spoil here.
It’s not a spoiler to say that you’ll know where the movie is headed as soon as Tommy and Brendan enter the tournament. So what?
Originality isn’t what makes a great sports movie. It’s the execution, the acting, the storytelling. It gets viewers invested in the competitors we’re watching. That’s what gets us to care, to stand up and cheer.
Which, when you think about it, is exactly why we like sports, too. And why “Warrior” could put mixed martial arts on the movie map.