There are a million spoilers in this, so it’s all going after the jump. Don’t read this until you’ve seen the film.
So today I sat down and watched this year’s “MMA Movie”, fully expecting shitty Hollywood plotlines (which occurred) and a million moves that are either one in a million, or pretty much impossible (yup, that happened too). After all the way through, all my initial thoughts were confirmed, and yet, it is the best film I’ve seen this year.
The reason? Everyone loses. Everyone.
Yeah, they tried to shoot a happy ending. There was some producer somewhere that was making sure that every character in the film was either smiling, reflective, or changed. But really, everyone lost in the end.
Take Brother B’s wife, for example (brother B being the brother who is not Tom Hardy). At the start of the film, we have a woman who is trying to raise a family with her ex-UFC husband. Aaah. Here is her character progression: she fights with her husband, accepts him for who he is, then goes and watches him winning the tournament of the century. Yadda yadda yadda, I could go on, but I would fall asleep. What actually happens: her husband risks his life getting the shit kicked out of him, completely and utterly ignores everything about them that makes them a married couple. Her one fear is him “going back” to fighting. He goes back to fighting. Not only that, but she witnesses her husband break his brother’s shoulder in a cage, and then proceed to pummel him for ten minutes until he chokes him. And then he walks off.
From where I’m standing, that rates as a dead loss. Oh yeah, he won the tournament, but even if the promoter did pay out (I’m guessing hanging around for the advertisers and post-match interview is probably in the contract somewhere) she made it blunt that she didn’t care about the house, she only cared about him. Hey! Here’s five million dollars! Hey! The dad of your kids just beat the shit out of his brother on live television. The reality where that payoff justifies the years of therapy that will likely result from the fight is the one inhabited by wannabe reality-show contestants. You could sum up the modern world in the fact that it is meant to be a happy ending.
But anyways, back to the star of the show. By this, I mean Tom Hardy. Maybe it’s because I’m British, but he stole the film with every second he was on screen. He is the antithesis of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Here is a man who never “made it”, who never “had it”, who screwed up (he must have been pretty good at it, managing to go AWOL mid-campaign in Iraq and making it back to the continental United States alive sounds like no mean feat) and effortlessly bats away every hand offered to him. When he told his dad to fuck off in the casino, I choked up. At the end of the film, he is pretty much exactly the same as he entered it. He is a singular ball of destruction that pretty much annihilates everything in his path. His teetotal dad? Now a drunk, because of him. His best friend’s wife? Still flat broke because he lost. Him? He has a broken shoulder and he’s under arrest by the military police (more directorial kudos for not bowing to cliche and pulling a pardon out of a hat). And yeah, he loses. He taps out. It’s meant to be because his brother tells him he loves him and finally he has family and whatnot, I saw all that happen on screen, just as you (hopefully) did before reading this. My brain interpreted it differently. My brain recalled the fact that this is a kid who was abandoned by his brother and took care of his mother while she died alone. My brain recalled that Tom Hardy is a ball of fucking anger that has spent the entire film slamming his way through anything and everything. Why? There is no why. He didn’t walk into a gym to sign up for the mega tournament, he walked into a gym to hit a punchbag. When something harder than a punchbag reared its head, he punched his way through that as well. He spends the entire film at war with everyone and everything. The world is just another thing in his way. He is a man upon whose head the USAF dropped an airstrike and then single-handedly carved a path back to the USA, via tearing a door off a tank bare handed. So this guy who is completely unstoppable, he gets stopped. That’s his lesson. You can’t win. Your shoulder will be broken. You will be beaten senseless. You will tap out to life.
I think that Tom Hardy was made for that role in the sense that anybody else would have been the scripted character: the bad boy made good. Fuck that character, seriously. That character was meant to be beaten down by life, he was meant to be a war hero, he was meant to make up with his dad after his father’s drinking binge, he was meant to be happy and clappy with his brother at the end. Tom Hardy replaces all that with the virulent anger that most people in his (scripted) position would have, and he rolls with it. The bit on the beach with brother B? Thinking those lines back void of Hardy, the guy (Hardy plays) is a total arsehole. He’s being irrational, they were only kids, the girl became his brother’s wife, it’s love etc etc. Another (lesser) actor would probably have submitted to all that and played the kind of tempestuous guy that the lines indicated. Hardy? Fuck. The rage bubbling beneath his skin makes the totally rational brother B come off as a complete fucking prick. Yeah, his brother was meant to leave their abusive alcoholic dad and go with their mum. Instead he picked a school girlfriend (fuck, how many of those result in marriage? Even the people that get married to their school girlfriends/boyfriends must understand what an insanely tiny percentage of the population they consist of) and the chance to be boy #1 in his dad’s eyes. And Hardy has to watch his mother die alone. Yeah, put that way, brother B is a complete prick. Hardy’s acting makes him that prick.
The bit that got me in the movie, I mean, really got me, put a painful lump in my throat and so on, is the scene on the casino floor. When Hardy tells Nolte to fuck off, that’s when I knew that a happy ending was off the cards. Because you can’t come back from that. There is no believable way of creating a rapprochement to span the gulf between the two characters in the film. That’s what gets me about the entire movie, that it doesn’t bother to try. There’s the scene where he looks after his dad, but it’s not the same. He hates the guy, he makes it clear the entire way through in his actions. But verbalising it, in such a crystal-clear manner, that is hard to do, and it takes some guts for a film maker, because it makes Hardy’s hate entirely immovable.
But back to the rest of the people that lose. Take the dad. The dad starts the film an ex-alcoholic whose children have rejected him. He ends the film a lapsed alcoholic whose children have… rejected him. Wait, what? In between that, he gets to live out his dreams through his kid again. From all the wrestling references, it is quite clear that he was one of those sports dads who live through their kids, kinda like a non-female, non ex-ballerina mother from Black Swan. Except Tom Hardy can obviously beat the shit out of his dad in this film. He lives his life through his kid, and then the kid he was coaching loses, he isn’t even there to corner him because he got drunk, but it’s okay, his other kid won. Except that’s the kid he didn’t give a fuck about to the point that he had cut him off also. I suppose we’re meant to take the little satisfied smile at the end to signify that everything is alright now that his kids are happy being brothers, but we can’t. Why? Because he’s still cut off from both of them. They both still hate him. Tom Hardy takes pity on the guy, but obviously hates him enough that he puts him to bed and splits. Hell, he doesn’t even pour the bottle of Jamesons out. The dad never gets to see his grandkids (who don’t even know who he is) and wait for it, he’s meant to take some sort of satisfaction from watching both his children annihilate each other in a cage. As a human being, he’s a piece of shit and Nick Nolte manages to avoid all the woe is me crap to the extent that he stays that way the entire way through the film. There is no Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart happy turn around/enlightenment. The guy watches his two kids break each other and goes home alone. Fin.
And finally, brother B, played by Joel Edgerton (yeah, I had to IMDB that detail), well, I’ve already said most of the things about this guy. But seriously, what the fuck? He’s meant to be a science teacher, and by the end of the film he has the entire school cheering him on as he mangles people in a cage. I like MMA. I do brazilian jiu jitsu. It is not for everyone. People that think it’s okay that teachers should be setting an example by fighting in a cage should never be let near a school. Go kids! You just figured out that violence is good! Well done! But anyways. At the start of the film, we have a family man who has turned his back on fighting and is trying to make an honest living in a declining economy. Okay, so maybe the whole “I won’t move to a smaller house in order to safeguard my fiscal future” thing is a bit dickish on the whole, but apart from that, he’s a good guy. He loves his wife, he loves his kids, he loves his job. Except that he completely ignores his wife (see above), he goes back to a sport that has almost killed him once (which is a bit of an arsehole thing to do when you have kids to raise) and he loses his job (yeah, we suspended you for fighting in back alleys, then you did it on TV, say hello to five million dollars and unemployment). The message we get from this character is meant to be “I will risk everything to gain everything”, instead it’s something like “Fuck everyone, I’m safeguarding my suburban existence”. And the funny thing about it? He’s not that good. It’s not like Rocky (coulda been a contender), he either sandbags idiots at backwater MMA events, or gets lucky in the ring with professionals. Somewhere in between being brutalised like a human meat shield, he manages to pull off a lucky submission every time. The only time we see him successfully hitting someone is when Tom Hardy has a broken shoulder, and even then, Tom hardy gets in a few brutal shots. Asides from the fact that its highly unlikely any UFC veteran wouldn’t get noticed at a backwater event, it is a nasty thing to do. A bit like White Guys Can’t Jump, but with head shots. The standard for those things is quite accurately put at “Guys who watch UFC”. I’ve been to a number of them and seen people who should not have been in a cage. As in, a danger to themselves. So really, what this guy is doing, in a totally cold and calculated manner, is annihilating weaklings for cash. It’s like what 13 year olds with level 85 characters in World of Warcraft do to new players. The guy is meant to be the example-setter of the film and instead, he’s bludgeoning people way below his level for money that he could make as a bouncer. It is the choice of the modern world in a nutshell: work a decent job, or fuck someone over for an easy buck. Sportsmanship, eh?
So yeah, to sum it up: everyone loses. And I like that. I like that because it is honest. I like that because despite the veneer they put on everything, despite the way they trammel the characters into a Hollywood movie, the people they scripted were too goddamn nasty and the actors that they drafted played them in just such a way that it couldn’t possibly come out that way. I like that because that is life. Shit happens. People get upset. People do things that are completely irreversible. People don’t just cry on their parent’s shoulder and say everything is okay. Every god damn day we are fed images of perfection and happiness. Every god damn day. There are entire industries of people devoted to feeding us some saccharine reality that exists in thirty second bursts on TV. Even on the news they feel the need to interrupt their daily dose of misery and unending tales of human fragility with dancing fucking squirrels and cute dogs. Hollywood is pretty much devoted to churning out coming of age stories and anything else where the chaos of living is turned into a moment of clarity and the meat grinder of a happy ending. Yet here is something that stuck. Here is something that they tried to turn into a happy story but they couldn’t. They tried to make a heroic coming of age story, combined with slaying the Russian monster. Instead, they managed to produce a fine tragedy. We all knew they were doomed from the moment it was made apparent that they were both fighters. We sat and watched them tear their lives apart (or in Hardy’s case, continue tearing his life apart), and at the end of it, they both lost. Just like most of us do.
Well done to everyone involved.