Can a violent MMA movie hold Christian values dear without strangling them in the cage?
Beasts we can be, ravenous and cruel. Destruction is in our nature. We must be taught to build a thing. But to destroy? It's easy, like breathing. We beat and bend, crush and kick and tear.
And once we get a taste for it, it's hard to walk away.
Paddy Conlon knows well the taste of destruction. For years he poured it from a liquor bottle and drank it down. For years he gave of it freely—bellowing, berating and striking his family, forcing them to swallow his rage again and again. He was chaos, tearing apart everything around him and consuming even himself.
It was Paddy who trained Tommy to wrestle, burnishing the boy for greatness. That was before Tommy and his mother split town, putting as many miles between them and Paddy as they could. Until one day when Paddy comes homes and finds Tommy sitting on the doorstep, eyes cold and angry underneath his hood.
Tommy hates his father, even as he asks Paddy to help him train again. Tommy didn't just learn about wrestling from his father, but about rage. And now he lives in a bubble of fury, a fiery circle of destruction.
Brendan Conlon, Paddy's older son, knows all about destruction too. He's watched his father wreak it. As a high school physics teacher, he's studied. it. And as a former mixed martial artist, he's experienced more than his fair share of it—quitting the cage, we're led to believe, after a particularly brutal beatdown. He turned his back on it for his daughters: His wife says they agreed they shouldn't live in a family "where their father gets beat up for a living." But when financial difficulties strike, Brendan feels this violent and lucrative sport hauling him in again.
Three men, torn by destruction, pulled together by a sport predicated on it. Is it possible that these characters have, in the midst of all the havoc, the opportunity to build something?
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
To answer the question above … yes. In the midst of Warrior's punches and kicks and guillotine holds, something else is going on. Underneath the violence there's reconciliation, redemption and the renewal of a form of family. Let's not mince words here: The three main protagonists—all of them—are messed up. But in their own ways, they're all trying to get better.
Brendan is a family man—the sort of guy who lets his daughters paint rosy circles on his cheeks during one of their birthday parties, the kind of man who stays up late fixing their dollhouse furniture. And when one of his daughters is born with a serious (and expensive) heart ailment, Brendan does what it takes to save the family house.
Tommy, once an active Marine, calls his brothers in the service his family. We learn he saved the life of a Marine in Iraq by ripping off the door of a tank while it was sinking in a river—then running away without a word of thanks. Now that he's back in the States, folks are calling him a war hero and rooting for him to win a prestigious and lucrative MMA tourney. What would he do with the millions in cash he'd win? Give it to the widow of his best friend—a man killed in action.
And Paddy? He's at least trying to find his family again. He knows he's made mistakes. He knows he might never make up for what he's done. But he's trying, and when the movie opens we learn that he's been sober for nearly three years.
The climactic showdown between the brothers is brutal and uncomfortable. Tommy, fueled by rage, wants to tear Brendan apart for mostly imagined past hurts. And when Brendan injures Tommy in the third round, separating his shoulder, Tommy still won't quit. It's almost as if he's determined to either kill or die, the only two ways he seems capable of quieting the beast inside. Brendan doesn't want to hurt his brother anymore, but he knows that inside the cage—and inside his brother's head—there's no other way. So Brendan pounds Tommy to the ground and clamps himself onto him, shouting as the crowd goes crazy around them, "Tap out, Tommy! It's over!" And finally, "I love you!"
Tommy taps—a sign of submission. And the brothers walk out of the arena together, Brendan's arms draped around Tommy like a coat.
Director Gavin O'Connor says that his movie's title has been misunderstood, at least to some extent. People think that it refers to the MMA world in which the film takes place, he told Plugged In, "about guys in a cage beating the heck out of each other." Not so, he said. "The intention of the title had more to do with spiritual warfare."
Much of that warfare centers around Paddy, the only explicitly Christian character. And it's suggested that faith helped Paddy turn his life around. We see him leave church and compliment the father, and we spot a Holy Bible on a table in his house. O'Connor describes him as a man who's on a "spiritual path of sobriety, and a spiritual path of making amends to his sons and trying to get their forgiveness—which is ultimately what the movie's about."
Realistically, Tommy, who saw his own deeply faithful mother die painfully, has no use for Paddy's conversion. He bitterly tells Paddy how she died, "all the while waiting for your pal Jesus to save her. … I guess Jesus was down at the mill forgiving all the drunks."
Brendan's wife, Tess, suggests that he wait up for her so they can (it's insinuated) fool around. "Promises, promises," he says. Brendan's first fights take place outside a strip club. (One of his students calls it a "t-tty bar.")
The sport of mixed martial arts is essentially a mash-up of boxing, wrestling and martial arts, where contestants try to overcome one another through a variety of punches, kicks and holds. While there's some serious strategy involved, MMA bouts often look and feel like barely controlled street fights. They can be brutal and, within the confines of Warrior, almost gladiatorial. The fact that they take place in a literal cage doesn't help.
We see fighters knocked out cold or "strangled" into submission. And one man dislocates the shoulder of another. Many of the holds used are designed to break bones (encouraging fighters to tap out before they hear a pop).
One of the announcers says, after a particularly bloody battle, "You do something [like that] on the street, they lock you up and throw away the key." He's exaggerating—but just barely.
Brendan's regularly a mass of cuts and bruises after spending time in the cage, and sometimes his face looks as if it's been through a thresher. The brutality he subjects himself to is perhaps particularly painful to watch since the film makes it clear that he's been seriously injured in the arena before. The fact that he's on the wrong side of 30, battling blokes so much bigger and more violent than he is, adds to the audience's discomfort. During one round, the announcers practically beg the referee to stop the fight to keep Brendan from suffering irrevocable injury. And in doing so they lend punctuation to the film's emotional assertion that Brendan is risking his life (or at least his health) every time he climbs into the cage.
I've already referenced Paddy's domestic violence, which we hear about but don't see.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and 15 s-words, along with "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard" and "h‑‑‑." Jesus' name is abused four or five times, and God's name is misused another 10, sometimes paired with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Even though it was Paddy's alcoholism that drove his family away, Tommy lambastes his father for getting sober, nearly demanding that Paddy have a drink with him. When Paddy refuses, Tommy says, "I think I liked it better when you were drunk."
Some of that attitude may have to do with the fact that Tommy can't break the chain himself, often drinking to excess, and turning sullen and hateful when he's had too much. He also pops pills—which Paddy makes him give up before they start training again.
After a horrible encounter with Tommy, who once again tells his father how much he wished he still drank, Paddy goes up to his room and does just that—getting drunk while listening to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. In his drunken condition, he gets the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale confused with his own family situation, and he paces the room, weeping, begging the rage-filled Ahab to give up the pursuit. "We're lost!" he hollers at Tommy when his son finds him. "We're lost, Tommy!" And Tommy, finally, sits down on the bed, allowing his father to rest in his lap as he still mumbles and weeps. "I always loved you," Paddy says.
Other Negative Elements
We learn that war-hero Tommy is actually a deserter, and that he now competes under his mother's name to evade capture. Brendan lies to Tess at first about his fighting, knowing she'd disapprove. He finally confesses after the marks on his face grow too obvious.
Warrior features strong performances from Hollywood staples Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte. It's a quality film, but it's harsh, pushing the PG-13 boundaries with its violence and language.
It's also being marketed as a Christian film—a label director Gavin O'Connor (who helmed Miracle and Pride and Glory) doesn't try to shirk.
"In regard to Christian values, I think the message is very Christian," he says.
The advance screening I attended was filled with local faith leaders, and representatives handed out a small "film companion" loaded with Christian discussion points and Bible verses. Clearly, the makers are hoping Christian audiences can take Warrior's theme of forgiveness to heart—forgiving the film of its content while embracing its messages.
"In real life, we are faced with ugliness at times, and we're faced with massive challenges and pain and heartbreak and harsh language, profanity," O'Connor says. And he adds that to deliver the film's message of forgiveness he had to show that ugliness: "For me, I didn't know how to get that message across in a film without having to deal with the flip side of it."
Which leaves me, at the end of this review, conflicted—strangely wishing that the movie wasn't being pushed so explicitly to a Christian audience.
When it comes to mainstream movies, we (Plugged In reviewers and, perhaps, Christians in general) walk in assuming it will be "bad," at least in some respect, infused with problematic content or a point of view that's not very Christlike. Then, if the film delivers resonant, maybe even Christian messages, we're pleasantly surprised and correspondingly laudatory.
With explicitly Christian films, the strictures are by definition different. We walk in assuming the point and ethos of the film will bolster our values. We assume (perhaps unfairly) that the content will be suitably reined in. And when such a film falls short in one or both of these areas, we must deal with the disappointment.
Warrior is a violent, profane movie, far from the universe of what we've grown to expect from Christian films. It's also resonant, inspirational and, artistically, quite good. It works in ways that art sometimes does: It challenges, it questions. And it intentionally tries to shock us into grappling with its message.