The sport of mixed martial arts battles for legitimacy, being perceived somewhere between a barbaric form of pugilism and a glorified WWF match. Likewise, MMA movies have had to forge a meager existence as genre films. They’re actually a subcategory of the martial arts movie, itself a genre straining for legitimacy. As a longtime martial artist with zero interest in competition, my appreciation of the sport (and the movies) has been lukewarm.
Warrior is a generic story about two brothers who end up on opposite sides of an elimination-style mixed martial arts competition. Intended to crown “the toughest guy on the planet,” the grand prize is five million dollars, money both brothers covet for different reasons. The film goes to great lengths to define the competition as revolutionary in the world of mixed martial arts, but in reality the concept is identical to the original formatting of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
What makes Warrior interesting is that all the machismo is used to set up a theme: forgiveness. The arena for this is the tableau of family ruin between the two brothers and their ex-alcoholic, ex-abusive father. Nick Nolte (despite one scene of trademark histrionics) emotes some genuine agony as the broken-down old man. Even so, he’s a tough character to sympathize with.
The two sons are played by Tom Hardy (little brother) and Joel Edgerton (big brother). While their eventual showdown is predictable, the foil worked into their personalities and motives is intriguing. Hardy plays the unhinged ex-soldier who needs redemption. He lumbers through his scenes, head down, his imposing shoulders looking mountainous over his thick neck. Edgerton is the retiree with a disapproving wife and something left to prove. He stands posture tall, with a wistful wilt to his expression. These areas of opposition combined with the family turmoil provide a realistic sense of purpose for the physical bouts: the front runner vs. the underdog, the up-and-comer vs. the washed up, the wrecking ball vs. calm waters.
Director Gavin O’Connor keeps the image pure Pittsburgh, or at least how Pittsburgh is always imagined to look in film. The color is gloomy, fluctuating between melancholy gray and syrupy yellow. O’Connor maintains a shaky but patient camera, taking time to rest and ponder after a character’s lines, even if he’s a bit too dependent on closeups. The fight scenes are well realized, with authentic choreography, drawn-back wide shots, and — the most important element — well-trained actors. The kicks and punches may end with a hyped-up sound effect, but at least they’re thrown with credible skill. Unfortunately, the customary training montage is wasted with an ill-advised floating-panels sequence. While the road to glory may be a tad cliché, the final competition is nonetheless rousing.
The title is all-telling in this case, though the realization of the event leaves much to be desired. The film involves a group of 30-something mid-level professionals, friends since high school, who throw epic parties every summer at a beach house in the Hamptons. But the beautiful estate is not their own — it belongs to the wealthy father (Don Johnson in a dull cameo) of the crew’s ringleader. Deciding that he doesn’t want his summer home used as a seasonal frat house any longer, rich old dad decides to sell the property. This leaves the gang determined to throw the wildest party they can imagine by the end of the summer. Labor Day weekend, to be exact. The titular orgy is decided upon as the most logical choice: an intimate opportunity to explore untapped worlds of connection in a tight group of friends and a chance to indulge in sexual shenanigans. Sort of a Big Chill with a porno sensibility.
From this point on, the plot is merely a countdown to the big night. The group is reduced to eight participants (one couple is barred for their status as married parents). Little convincing is needed for the remaining naysayers, and soon everyone is on board. Even at only an hour and a half, the film feels padded. Most of the jokes sound improvised on the spot, and the humor never rises above a juvenile snicker: “My dick is checking your email” and the like. The film image looks as if it were shot through gauze, with drained color and blurred focus — hardly the lively pop one would expect from a summer sex romp.
Aside from Jason Sudeikis in the lead role, the cast is populated with relative unknowns. Tyler Labine struggles for some token fat-boy humor, aiming somewhere between Zach Galifianakis and Jack Black. He misses both marks. I recognized Michelle Borth, who caused a stir a few years back with her sex scenes in the short-lived HBO series Tell Me You Love Me. Given the explicit nature of that show, a movie about an orgy might seem like typecasting, but Orgy proves tame in comparison.
Coming from the same generation as the characters, I have to agree with their theory that AIDS destroyed the free-love party. Whether or not an orgy amongst friends is the best way to reclaim the sexual revolution is another matter. Is AIDS not still a grave concern?
Brighton Rock ★★
Rowan Joffe wrote and directed this adaptation of the Graham Greene novel about warring mobster gangs in England, circa 1964. The violence, while decidedly harsh, always maintains a gentleman’s swagger — the switchblade is their weapon of choice, somehow more elegant than a pistol. But the crime element is merely backdrop to the film’s real interest, a dysfunctional love story between a young mob boss (“Pinkie”) with psychotic tendencies and an even younger, highly sheltered waitress, desperate to be his moll.
Pinkie is played with menacing complexity by Sam Riley, still handsome behind facial scars and a perpetual scowl. He looks like a scrapbook of Hollywood pretty boys, boasting a DiCaprio brow and a Pattinson jawline. The relationship unfolds like a mystery with a bit of noir and pulp thrown into the mix, while the misogyny of the romance carries a Brando-Schneider quality, sort of a Last Waltz in Brighton.
The film is colored with dull, drained tones, harkening for a sense of antiquity. Certain shots do achieve a kind of chilling nostalgia, like looking into the past. The compositions themselves have a splendid sense of depth and photographic expertise. Note the special attention given to Dover’s powdery cliffs.
The score is often overbearing: low and foreboding or charging with big-band brass and percussion. The film is more effective when striving for a more subtle poise: a splotch of dirt on a cream-colored carpet, the penetration of blaring light through a window, Pinkie pulling the legs off a spider to the cadence of “She loves me, she loves me not.” Yet for all its enigmatic plotting and glowering atmosphere, the pace is rather lethargic and interest wanes. Helen Mirren and John Hurt, despite their talent, seem in awkward orbit around the main plot.
Brighton Rock opens September 16 at Landmark Hillcrest.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Shaolin and Shark Night.