I am a huge fan of Miracle, a 2004 film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team. It was headlined by Kurt Russell, in one of those Oscar-worthy performances that no one ever sees until the thing's on home video, and directed by Gavin O'Connor. It's a sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve movie about a team coming together to try to do the impossible. The fact that they actually do it would seem the worst sort of Hollywood hokum, except that it's all true.
I admired O'Connor's non-flashy direction, and the eye for detail he brought to the games. The performances he elicited from a cast made up of, mainly, real hockey players. He told the story and got out...hell, he even made a montage palateable.
When I saw that he'd made a film about the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, staring two up-and-coming actors I've admired, and Nick Nolte, I was excited. Boxing/fighting movies have always been a favorite of mine, as I truly do believe these are sports that hew tightly to the core of why humans compete. Two men (or women), in a confined space, set against each other with only their own strength, skill and will to reach for victory. It smacks of gladiatorial combat, survival of the fittest, a will to survive, that few other types of sports get near.
And, let's be honest, MMA is the extreme end of the scale. A brutal combination of boxing, wrestling, full-contact karate, and just about any other form of fighting sport you can imagine. With extremely limited padding. These guys beat the hell out of each other.
Of course, being a movie, it couldn't just be a MMA tournament. No, O'Connor and his team merged a family drama to it, with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton playing estranged brothers, and Nick Nolte their estranged father. Everyone's estranged in this film. Brendan (Edgerton) and Tommy (Hardy) Conlon haven't seen each other since their mother ran away from their abusive father. Tommy went with her, while Brendan stayed, because he was in love with Tess (Jennifer Morrison), whom he eventually married, with two daughters.
The film smartly keeps Tommy and Brendan away from each other for most of the running time. The two men don't speak or interact until almost two-thirds of the way through the running time. What this does is allow us to understand each man, not as a reflection of each other, but as individuals. Tommy is an Iraq vet with a simmering anger over the ugly death of his mother. Brendan is a physics teacher with money problems. Both of them have a history of fighting, Tommy having been a top-seat wrestler, and Brendan a former low-level MMA fighter.
The point is, each character gives you a reason to root for them. As the plot unfolds, and more an more of Tommy's motivations become clear, this only intensifies. What it sets up is a series of events where you truly wonder who will actually be the victor in the tournament. Tommy? Brendan? Will they both lose? Now, it is a populist film, so...yeah, you can probably guess who's fighting in the final, but you still wonder who'll come out on top.
I loved the performances in this film, I love the fight direction as well. You can see the personalities of the two brothers in how they fight. Tommy, in particular, made me laugh out loud with each victory. He's simply a monster, driven, and with no time for social graces. He has a mission to fulfill. Brendan, the teacher, the thinker, works the bouts more like a chess game. Looking for weaknesses and an opening to exploit.
Which isn't to say that Hardy and Edgerton only shine in the ring. No, both guys (both from Australia - they must but "acting juice" in the water down there) are good in all facets of their roles. Likewise Nolte and Morrison are fantastic. In what is becoming an O'Connor staple, we also see Brendan's co-workers and students watching the fights from home in really well-done vignettes.
I really loved this film, and I'm so glad I made the time to see it in the theatre. It's a bit cliche, and there are moments of "you're kidding me." That said, when these two brothers step into the ring against each other there's more than just a prize purse, or a championship on the line, and that's because O'Connor, his cast, and his crew made the fighting part of what was going on outside of the ring, rather than the reason for it. The final moments had me on the edge of my seat.
Sadly, it hasn't been tearing up the box office, despite lots of great reviews. I encourage you to go see it, it's worth your time. I can't wait to own this on Blu-Ray.