USA (140 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Gavin O’Connor
While there’s nothing particularly novel about this formulaic story, a ROCKY (1976) picture with Nick Nolte in the famous Burgess Meredith role as the aging fight trainer, with the role of Rocky split between two brothers, Tom Hardy as Tommy and Joel Edgarton as Brendan, split from one another as teenagers and forced to lead very separate and distinctly different lives. Hardy plays a brooding ex-Marine, a loner with so many complications in his life he can barely utter a word, a guy carrying a grudge who turns into a horrifically brutal fighter, while his brother Brandon is a high school physics teacher, married with two children, but about to have his home foreclosed, forcing him into a state of desperation where he can pick up extra cash from the fight business. Joel Edgarton is the screenwriter of the very stylish The Postman Always Rings Twice style Australian film THE SQUARE (2008), directed by his brother Nash, and one of the criminal brothers in one of he best pictures of last year, ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010). Here he plays the older brother who got the better end of the deal, as the younger brother was forced to flee from an abusive father, taking his terminally ill mother with him, basically fending for himself at an early age, losing all contact with his family. Neither one has any use for their father, who finally after all these years is trying to get sober, but barely even registers as having a pulse with these two guys, as they’ve left him behind ages ago. Rather than playing football in Mark Wahlberg’s INVINCIBLE (2006), wrestling from Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER (2008 ), or boxing in David O. Russell’s THE FIGHTER (2010), this movie features the latest fighting craze called the ultimate fighting championship, mixed martial arts, which allows boxing, wrestling, and various martial arts techniques where a fighter wins by points, knockouts or submission holds, where in this case, a round robin battle of 16 leads to 4 fights within 24 hours, the winner takes all, a $5 million cash prize.
While the actual narrative is familiar, but rather than shown in an indie style picture, which is usually all character development, this is a tense, highly stylized, Hollywood action picture that takes us directly into the center of the ring where it becomes an adrenaline-laced fight picture, an old-fashioned popcorn movie that stars three men who are so damaged they are barely articulate, who haven’t spoken to one another in years, and when they do have the opportunity, they still have next to nothing to say, so it’s all about what happens inside the ring. Tommy is a former undefeated high school State wrestling champion, but his quick exit from the state curtailed his promising career, while Brendan had a brief, fairly ordinary ultimate fighting career that also came to an abrupt end as his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) couldn’t stand to see her husband get pummeled. But both are completely off the radar when it comes to ranking the best fighters in the world, so just getting into this tournament is something of a stretch. However, the acting in this picture is superb, among the best performances of the year, where they each complement one another nicely, where Nolte is the odd man out, bruised, beaten, old and weary, who dares to hope against all fading hope that he can reconcile his differences with his two sons who refuse to acknowledge his existence, who spends his time listening to a tape in his ear of a reading of Melville’s Moby Dick. Tommy went off to Iraq and bulked up, but so little is known about him that his life is a mystery even to himself, as he keeps everything secretly locked up inside, very much in the mold of Stallone in FIRST BLOOD (1992), where fighting is his true release, seen kicking the living crap out of a championship contender as a walk on fighter in a dingy gym, which is how he earns his reputation. He’s also recognized by a soldier in Iraq as a war hero, but the Army has no clue who he is. Brendan is a popular teacher, but imagine the looks on the kids faces when he walks into classes with cuts and bruises all over his face, where he’s the talk of the school forcing the administration to step in, as this is not the kind of example they’re interested in setting for young well-educated teenagers.
While there is a working class setting of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, there is little connection to actual working class problems, as few, if any, American households can attempt to save their homes via ultimate fighting prize winnings. Most would stand a better chance beating the odds of winning an extreme makeover offered by the Oprah Winfrey show, where they may refurbish, redecorate, and pay a year’s mortgage to save your home from foreclosure. Instead this is all about the promised lure of dollars, where instead of hunkering down and figuring out what most families would need to do, like sell one of their two high-priced automobiles, they rely upon a Hollywood dream, a clichéd option that really doesn’t exist, only in the movies. This movie would barely be a consideration except that the production values are excellent, the acting is extremely compelling, the suspense is palpable, using a split screen and quick cut editing technique, all adding to the build up of tension, where the ass kicking action in the ring is riveting, reinforced by the musical soundtrack by Mark Isham, all of which adds up to a remarkably well made motion picture, one that will likely delight audiences as one of the feel good pictures of the year. The question will be whether this film has any staying power, whether any of the emotional connections have any resiliency, and whether there’s enough fan interest in the action scenes. The blue collar setting is interesting, but the degree of dysfunctional family relationship is dark and disturbing, where the option of organized crime never intrudes, as these boys would likely have been recruited as teenagers by neighborhood gangs. As bleak as the unfolding narrative can seem, real life often offers far darker alternatives. There are weight divisions in every fighting match, including weigh-ins, but that seems to have been thrown by the wayside, where the fight tournament actually resembles Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), continually fending off bigger and stronger contenders, where the most patient and disciplined fighter often prevails, defying all odds, where a guy never given a chance still has a chance. In times of financial ruin, where people are legitimately losing their jobs and their homes, not to mention their pensions and their futures, this film, like the director’s earlier 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey dream on ice, MIRACLE (2004), feels like a hope and a prayer.