It’s always a pleasant surprise when a film is better than you expect, and this movie proves that it doesn’t matter if a story has been told before, as long as it is told well. As this one is.
It’s easy to see why fight movies are more popular and successful than any other sporting genre. The action is confined to a small space. There are only two people involved. And with some judicious editing and training, you can produce something that looks convincing enough to see you through. The fighting here is not the traditional boxing (though punches get thrown), but MMA – no, not a vaccine, but Mixed Martial Arts. In other words, you can kick, punch, wrestle and do pretty much whatever you want – all inside a cage.
The other narrative thread of the film is the family which has been torn apart. Father Nick Nolte is a recovering alcoholic, whose wife is long dead. He has 2 sons, neither of whom he sees. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a schoolteacher with a wife, two daughters and financial problems. He does a little fighting on the side, to try to help pay the bills, but currently he faces the prospect of losing is house. He has lost contact with kid brother Tommy (Tom Hardy), who has been a marine, but is now a man who shuns all human contact. And he is an MMA fighter as well. So when both of them, for different reasons, enter the winner takes all $5million contest for the MMA World Championship, you won’t be entirely surprised to learn that they end up facing each other in the ring.
One of the things that impressed me most about the film was the fact that not only is the story something of a cliche, but that it is also riddled with improbabilities, and yet I was wholly engaged throughout, and what might have irritated me in a lesser film, bothered me not one bit. It’s the combination of human interest with the adrenaline rush of competition that is so appealing. That. and the attention to small details, which keep the whole thing afloat. Minor characters are not cliches. Brendan’s wife and friend/trainer are interesting and believable; the dialogue avoids stating the obvious and lets the audience do some of the heavy lifting. And even the ending manages to avoid the worst excesses of sentimentality, while still making sure that you feel suitably churned up.
A lot of the credit for this must go to the two main actors. I haven’t come across Edgerton before, but he is both likeable and musclebound,with a manner which is human and humane. Even better, though, is Hardy (currently to be seen as Rikki Tarr in TTSS). His role as Tommy asks him to do a lot of work with very slender materials. He won’t communicate with anybody; he has no charming habits or quirks; he’s inarticulate, moody, withdrawn and angry. Yet he is compelling viewing from start to finish, exuding damaged menace, and making space for some compassion from the audience without making any concessions to easy options.
The film is a little longer than it needs to be, but it is a hundred times better than Rocky, and even though I have no interest in or knowledge of MMA, I felt hooked throughout.
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