“Fight” movies – unless they’re Raging Bull – tend to follow the same well-worn paths.
You’ve got your training montage. You’ve got your chatty TV sportscasters describing the blow-by-blow. You’ve got your dramas outside the ring spilling over into the brawl inside the ring.
At heart this is the story of a fractured family somehow coming together in the fury of a mixed martial arts tournament.
Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) returns to his blue-collar home after an absence of 15 years. A veteran of Iraq (or one of those places), he’s come to heap scorn on his abusive father, Paddy (Nick Nolte, in an Oscar-nominated turn), a boxing coach whose drunken fury and womanizing drove away Tommy and his mother years ago.
Tommy is looking for revenge (his mother has since died) and is actually let down to find that his once-combative dad is now sober and apologetic about his decades of bad behavior.
Meanwhile Tommy’s older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who remained with Paddy when the family broke up, is the father of two young girls and struggling to get by on a high school teacher’s salary. On weekends he tries to pick up modest purses as a mixed martial arts club fighter.
The estranged brothers find themselves competing against each other in for a mixed martial arts tournament with a $5 million purse.
Tommy suspends his hatred of Paddy just enough to allow the old man to train him. Brendan is coached by an old friend (Frank Grillo).
The cliches fly as furiously as the punches (there’s even an “unbeatable” Russian fighter who will have to be vanquished. Shades of Rocky IV!). But the triumvirate of Hardy (he was the weapons expert in Inception), Edgerton (King Arthur, The Square) and veteran Nolte is simply terrific.
Hardy is mesmerizing and quietly compelling as the angry, brooding Tommy; filled with animal intensity, this performance pushes him into stardom.
Edgerton pulls off the not inconsiderable trick of making a nice guy seem interesting. And Nolte is very nearly heartbreaking as a man so ashamed of his past that he’ll allow himself to be his son’s emotional punching bag.
(By the way, both Edgerton and Hardy are from the UK...you wouldn’t know it from these peformances.)
I’m no MMA expert, but the fight scenes look authentic enough and build in intensity until the final fraternal bashfest practically burns up the screen.
Visually the film perfectly captures its gritty, working-class setting. It seems to have been filmed in shades of dirt.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.