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Warrior (2011)

by Steve Habrat

If you waved off Warrior, the Mixed Martial Arts drama that snuck out last fall, do yourself a favor and see it before all the UFC fans discover it and ruin it. Clichéd but rousing, Warrior is a vehicle for strong performances and easy dramatics. The whole UFC craze has baffled me and, quite honestly, annoyed me due to the obnoxious bros who worship before it. The beauty of Warrior is that it takes MMA seriously and it is never intolerable. In fact, it lays waste to the obnoxious fighters who dare tangle with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton with fury to spare! Warrior takes things a step further and gives the Conlon brothers, who act as the wounded heart and soul of this picture, real reasons to dish out punches. They are never doing this to simply stroke their masculine egos like so many of the MMA competitors do.

Warrior follows Marine Tommy Conlon (Played by Hardy), who returns home from a tour of duty in Iraq with a heavy heart. He joins a local gym where he jumps into the ring with MMA fighter Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes and knocks him out with one punch. Tommy’s brother Brendan (Played by Edgerton) is living a seemingly stable and happy life with a beautiful wife and two daughters. It turns out that Brendan, who is mild-mannered physics teacher, is on the verge of losing his home and moonlighting as a small time MMA fighter. Both Tommy and Brendan learn of “Sparta”, a MMA tournament that offers a $5,000,000 reward to the winner. Tommy, who decides to compete in “Sparta” to help out his deceased best friend’s widow, enlists the help of his alcoholic father Paddy Conlon (Played by Nick Nolte), who use to train him for wrestling when he was younger. Brendan also begins training so he can use the money to keep his home and family together. Paddy uses the opportunity to attempt to reconnect with his sons, who both have fractured relationships with him.

I’ve always thought that the MMA and the UFC craze was troublesome because it eggs on individuals who are desperate to prove how masculine and tough they are to everyone else. You’ve seen the fans at your local bar on a Saturday night decked out in their Tapout t-shirts, downing Jager bombs, and on the prowl for a fight. They are convinced they are just as tough as the fighters they see on television and just as egotistical too. Granted, I am not saying everyone who watches UFC is influenced by it, but sadly, there will always be those who feel they must express their masculinity by emulating the beat downs they see on television. Warrior is none of these things, making the barbaric “sport” seemed disciplined with hints of honor. These men are not only fighting muscle heads but they are constantly grappling with their inner demons. It helps that Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte all bring the A-game to the table.

Hardy’s Tommy is a haunted pill popper who isn’t craving fame or recognition. He is making good on a promise and he will fight like hell to deliver. He wants none of the glitz or glamour. Edgerton’s underdog Brendan is a family man who was dealt a handful of unfair blows by life. He will fight like hell to keep his family together even if that means taking severe beatings. Nolte’s Paddy is grappling with the demons of his past, trying to reconcile with his sons who want none of his pleas for forgiveness. He’s a recovering alcoholic who is on the verge of slipping back into the bottles grip. The three come together to make Warrior a film that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, something I don’t think is common when it comes to UFC culture.

Director Gavin O’Connor seemed to understand his film was a tough sell to viewers who are not swept up by meatheads trying to pin each other into an armbar. He makes a fragile drama that thrills when the fights take center stage but knocks us sideways when the emotions pour out. There is a scene where Paddy shows up to Brendan’s home that will puts your heart in an armbar. You want to tap out of the scene due to how agonizingly heartbreaking it truly is. Another blow-up occurs in a casino between Tommy and Paddy, Tommy unleashing his anger towards Paddy with absolutely no mercy. Warrior swipes the shaky camerawork and weary atmosphere from countless other boxing films (mainly The Fighter and Rocky), even taking place in Pennsylvania like the Stallone classic.

Warrior turns out to be a permutation of sports movie staples. It has an underdog story, family drama, and ends with a monumental showdown. O’Connor takes his good old time and builds the suspense of the fights quite nicely. One problem I had with Warrior was a last act twist with Hardy’s character that seemed crammed in at the last minute to add another layer of conflict but it ends up amounting to absolutely nothing. If you don’t give Warrior a chance over the subject matter, it’s worth it for film fans to take in Nolte’s portrayal of a man trying to make up for the mistakes he has made in life. Warrior turns out to be an accessible and memorable sports film that doesn’t attempt to reconfigure the sports film structure. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Instead, it is content with embracing all the qualities that make up the genre and delivering an end result that is enduring and uplifting.

Grade: A-

Warrior is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Red State (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.

Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.

Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.

Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.

Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.

The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!

Grade: A-

Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.