WARRIOR: The Way of MMA without MMA
by Dr. Craig Reid
When it comes to modern-day MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), one could view Bruce Lee as an honorary founder. One could also borrow, and paraphrase, one of Lee's famous philosophical martial tenets to summarize the new film WARRIOR as "The art of MMA without MMA."
WARRIOR is a gritty family drama full of death, despair, retribution, and redemption. The family is torn apart by alcohol, an abusive father and betrayal. Two close brothers, Tommy and Brendan, make choices of allegiance that create a deep abyss of distrust, turmoil and hatred between them. Fourteen years later, as luck and fate would have it, they must butt heads in Atlantic City. As blatantly stated in the trailer, "The two men fighting for the Championship are brothers." In fact, if you watch and listen to the trailer carefully, it truly does tell the whole story of the film, the problems that caused the brothers to go their separate ways, what the brothers are running from and running toward, and the angst and anguish that mark each road. The only thing we don't know is who is going to win the final fight and win the $5 million purse. There's also the old proverbial MacBeth rub: the mainstay of the movie really has nothing to do with winning or losing.
The film's director Gavin O'Connor shares, "Balancing the audience's sympathies and alliances between the brothers was one of the biggest challenges inherent in the filmmaking. Both fighters are fighting for something so important that you're rooting for Tommy to keep winning, and you're rooting for Brendan to keep winning. But then, the audience is faced with a decision: whom are you going to root for when the brothers finally face each other?
"Despite Tommy's noble motives for entering the tournament, the trick to the movie is that the audience has to be ready to see Tommy lose, which for him is also actually to win. Tommy's win is losing, because he's so spiritually bankrupt. He needs to die at the hands of his brother to be reborn. It's very Old Testament storytelling in the most contemporary way."
Inspired by the real life examples of the Williams sisters facing off at Wimbledon, or the notion that one day the Manning brothers will meet up in the Super Bowl, or a future match-up between the Ukraine Heavyweight boxers the Klitschko brothers, WARRIOR is about two extreme underdogs who against all odds end up fighting each other for the world championship of Sparta (film version of UFC). Haunted by a tragic past, marine hero Tommy Conlon (English actor Tom Hardy) returns home to Pittsburgh for the first time in fourteen years to enlist his father Paddy's (Nick Nolte) help in preparing for Sparta, the biggest winner-takes-all event in MMA history. A former wrestling prodigy, the no-nonsense and seemingly unstoppable Tommy one-punches his way to the final, while brother Brendan (Australian auteur Joel Edgerton), a not-so-great ex-fighter-turned-teacher, returns to the ring in a desperate bid to save his family from being tossed out into the streets. It's a game of chicken, as the two brothers have their engines running, tunnel vision in full view, pedal to the metal, steering wheels frozen for a head-on collision.
The first intelligent move O'Connor brought to the table was to cast professional actors who would be taught to fight rather than cast real fighters who would be trained to act. This is a major difference that separates a martial arts film from films that use martial arts as a thematic device. The latter can only work if the emotional complexity of the characters works, which demands the use of experienced actors who are then trained to look and feel like authentic fighters on screen (which in my opinion the film accomplishes).
Enter stunt coordinator/fight choreographer JJ "Loco" Perry, who enjoyed the fact that shooting the film in Pittsburgh brought everyone together to focus on the training and work in total "eat, train, and sleep" mode. This was one more choice that O'Connor smartly incorporated into the film's emotional arc because in its most primitive mode, WARRIOR is a fight film in the vein of Sylvester Stallone's ROCKY (1973). The parallel between Tommy's slow-minded wit and drawl to Rocky is obvious. So it's no accident that another spiritual connection between the films is that they were both shot and set in the gritty environments of Pennsylvania's two biggest cities that begin with the letter "P."
Although Edgerton's physical preparation involved gaining almost twenty pounds of muscle for the role, his fighting style in the film didn't call for him to bulk up beyond recognition. Perry describes Edgerton's physical presence in the film (in contrast to Hardy's) as more of a technician. "He uses jiu-jitsu, the slick maneuvers, and is the underdog who comes from nowhere, whereas Tom is like the Raging Bull that just comes through and wrecks everything in his wake."
While both lead actors were put on a grueling ten-week, full-time training regimen and a strict high protein diet of six small meals per day, Hardy's regimen focused much more on heavy weightlifting with the goal of bulking up, a whopping 28 pounds of muscle. Furthermore, Hardy didn't have previous athletic experience. The son of a Cambridge academic father, Hardy readily admits that prior to WARRIOR he was not a fighting man, and not intimately familiar with "alpha male territory." Certainly Hardy's average day, consisting of two hours of boxing, followed by two hours of kickboxing and Muay Thai, two hours of fight choreography, and finally two hours of lifting, won't be missed by him, but undoubtedly his sense of accomplishment and newfound athletic prowess will remain rooted in his psyche. It's a personal powerful message to rise up from his previous alcohol and crack cocaine addiction to now looking like a mini-version of the incredible hulk.
Hardy went through a demanding training routine for gaining muscle during the film's pre-production, raising his overall weight to 205 pounds. Edgerton had his own epiphany during what he calls a somewhat transcendental moment during filming: "I always imagined that when you're fighting, the crowd just disappears, and I had an experience of that sort on set. You can see them, you can hear them, but for some reason, when you step into the ring, it all falls away. Then you step out, and you're like, 'Oh, that's right. There are thousands of people watching.'"
Working with Perry as the film's technical adviser and the man that put Hardy and Edgerton through their grueling training regimens was the award-winning MMA trainer Greg Jackson, who won the Best MMA Coach and Best Gym in 2009 as well as the MMA Coach of the Year in 2010. He's also been selected as the 8th Most Powerful Man in MMA by Fight! Magazine.
Production of the fight scenes went on for six straight weeks, with over two hundred hours of footage ultimately shot for the film, much of it extra fight coverage. While both actors did have stunt doubles, Edgerton and Hardy did about 85% of their own fight work on screen. Jackson notes, "I was incredibly impressed with the quality of the actors on this project. They were dedicated to really understanding what it takes to be high-level fighters and trainers. They partook in heavy training and the results speak for themselves. I was honored to be a part of such a significant project for our art. The script positively shows the great impact MMA can have on individuals and families."
As a fight choreographer who's worked with a lot of actors who didn't know martial arts and didn't know how to fight, the difficulty of doing MMA style fights is that the actors are even more vulnerable to injury because they're out there baring their chests, arms and legs, wearing a pair of shorts. Just the fact that you can wear something to cover your body, not just in film but in real life, immediately gives you a sense of protection. Furthermore, you can wear padding under your clothes. Martial arts stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu, Robin Shou, Tony Jaa and, yes, even Jean Claude Van Damme, have been quick to get those shirts off . Why? It's not always just about showing muscles but also about letting the audience see that they are making themselves more vulnerable on camera with no protection, creating a greater sense of confidence in their abilities and pride in their bodies. I wonder if Jet Li will ever do a shirtless fight.
It's as Perry says, "If we do a fight scene in a nightclub and you're wearing clothes, I can use knee pads and elbow pads. We can cheat a lot of things. Also, these guys are using MMA gloves, four ounces, far thinner and less padded than boxing gloves, less protection. Still hurts when you get hit."
To help offset the risk of injury, the gloves' thin padding was replaced with equally thin but higher density padding, and a special gymnastics style spring floor was installed in the bottom of the cage to help absorb impact, making it a bit "easier" for both actors to literally throw themselves into a physically precarious shooting environment.
Hardy and Edgerton also had to face real fighters from across a multitude of specialties. The film features Olympic champion wrestler and Pittsburgh local hero Kurt Angle as Koba, the Russian wrestling champion who is expected to win Sparta. Imagine that-yet another Russian bad guy in a fight film. But when the Russian says, "I must break you," you know that in MMA it can truly happen. As an actor, having the shadow of Angle on your mind and having to face him in a fight as well as other world-class martial arts professionals who make appearances in the film, from Nate Marquardt, Erik Apple, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, and Yves Edwards, has to be intimidating, because we all know that even choreographed fights carry a certain amount of risk.
Perry continues, "Apart from the challenge of training two lead actors to make them credible fighters, we also had to train real fighters who have spent a lifetime physically crushing opponents in the ways of stunt fighting and 'selling' punches versus actually throwing them. In others words train them not to wreck the actors."
Despite his best efforts, the occasional punch did connect, and there were a handful of "comes with the territory" injuries on set, including Hardy's personal tally of a torn ligament, broken foot and cracked rib, and a serious injury to the MCL of Edgerton's right knee that jeopardized the shooting schedule. Despite doctor's warnings, the Australian toughed it out and finished the shoot despite the tear in his knee. Perhaps the steepest learning curve for each of the film's real fighters, however, was to go against the grain of everything they've ever learned and accept that they would ultimately lose the bout in their filmed fight.
O'Connor adds, "When it came to the choreography, I didn't want any Hong Kong fighting. That stuff looks great. It's highly stylized and it's great cinema, but it's movie stuff. I also didn't want any move in the film that he couldn't see on YouTube in a clip from a real match." Thus to get things right and have good time economy, before they started rolling the fight cameras, Perry pre-shot digital video mock-ups of each fight scene as he was envisioning it for O'Connor's approval before filming began. The fights needed to be shot in an intimate way rather than with a glossy veneer, thus the use of multiple cameras, long lenses and a lot of hand-held work, like in the Rocky films, which help to create a better sense of realism and a natural look. For these kinds of film fights, using wide angle lenses won't work well because it reveals weaknesses in choreography and takes away that combat-in-the-ring look. And of course having in-your-face, loud sound effects and smashing bodies onto those spring floors adds to the "crush" look of the body slams.
But as mentioned earlier, the key to the film, and what makes it successful, is the emotional stakes behind the fight, rather than just which brother eventually wins. We are faced with fights every day, and the important thing about each one, win or lose, is what we learn from that fight.
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