Middlesbrough, Teesside, one of the last steel-making towns in the UK or in fact one of the last places in the UK where they still make anything, is probably the right place to go and see, as I did last week, Warrior, the recently-released, much-hyped MMA Rocky remake set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Warrior is essentially a bromantic MMA Rocky. This time there are two Rockies: Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, playing actual brothers (rather than ‘bros’) forced to fight one another. Both Rockies are considerably easier on the eye and ear than Sylvester Stallone ever was.
The cinema in ‘Boro was (half) full of groups of young, mostly working class men, several of them even more worked-out than the stars of the movie – but in contrast to the resolutely ‘timeless’ grainy Hollywood faux butchery of Warrior that often looked as if it were set in an MMA version of the 1970s, they were fake-baked, shaven-chested, sexily dressed and very much Twenty First Century tarty. (The North East of England is after all home to Geordie Shore the UK version of Jersey Shore)
Of course, not everything about the film is trying to be timeless. I assume the young men had been drawn, like me, by the poster and trailer for the movie featuring naked, hulking Hardy and a ripped Edgerton eyeballing each other, and the promise of a very sweaty, if incestuous porno climax. (Or, as the promotional copy has it: ‘…the two brothers must finally confront each other and the forces that pulled them apart, facing off in the most soaring, soul stirring, and unforgettable climax that must be seen to be believed.’)
Like all trailers, of course, it lied. Unlike Captain America the deceit wasn’t that the trailer provided you with the only tits in the movie – for free. There were oodles of shots of Hardy and Edgerton’s tits and abs. In fact, toplessness was the default setting of Warrior, and for much of the movie Hardy’s intricate tattoos were the nearest thing he had to a shirt. No, it lied about the spornographic climax. But more of that whinge later.
There were though plenty of homoerotics. It’s a movie about brawny male love – because they’re beating the crap out of one another it can afford to be sentimental and tender, not to mention physical in a way that most ‘bromances’ (essentially a middle-class version of the buddy movie) can’t. It’s about two blue-collar brothers’ twisted, jilted love for one another. About an alcoholic, abusive father’s love for his angry, bitter sons (who of course, love him really). About the love between a coach and his eager charge. And the love between comrades/warriors.
And also about the hero-erotic love that so many straight men have for MMA fighters.
The MMA winner-takes-all tournament both brothers enter (and end up fighting one another) is called ‘Sparta’ – the Ancient Greek City State so famously warlike that according to legend, women had to dress as boys on their wedding night to lure their husbands to bed. Hardy is an ex-Marine who is the subject of a YouTube tribute from another young (cute) jarhead whose life was saved by Hardy. The Theban/Spartan band that is the US Marine Corps turns up en masse and in uniform at Sparta to profess their love and sing the Marine Corps Hymn to Hardy. If this sounds a bit camp, that’s probably because it is.
There are really no women in the movie (and there were very few in the cinema). Edgerton’s equally pretty wife (Jennifer Morrison) is sometimes glimpsed in the background worrying about his fate. But it’s almost as if she’s there as proof of his domesticated goodness – and to make the wisecrack about his flamboyant, handsome ‘unorthodox’ trainer (played by Frank Grillo) who uses classical music to ‘condition’ his fighters being his ‘boyfriend’.
(The coach chooses Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ as Edgerton’s swishy entrance music, reminding me of the Allegretto from B’s Seventh Symphony in The King’s Speech, which then made me think: a) The King’s Speech is something of a bromance, and b) It’s also something of a boxing movie -- voice coach.)
The on-screen relationship with his trainer is clearly coded as a romance. The moment Edgerton persuades him to take him on again is a classic seduction scene. In fact, Edgerton is all come-hither smiles and giggles around his coach and when Edgerton professes later ‘I LOVE MY COACH!!’ it’s quite clear what he means.
Hardy has nothing to do with and doesn’t talk about women, except his dead mother. At one point he calls a woman with kids and reassures her he will live up to his promise – and then you realise he means his promise to his deceased USMC buddy, who we learn described Hardy as his ‘brother in arms’. So it’s about male love again. Male love with big kissable titty lips.
Hardy takes on his father as his coach to train for the tournament, but abuses him in revenge for the treatment meted out as a kid. But after a drunken confrontation finally forgives him and literally takes him to bed, holding his old wreck of a dad between his legs and arms and petting him to sleep. He loves his coach too.
After a long, exhausting, slightly tedious and very clichéd final reel, Edgerton gets Hardy where he wants him in the ring, holding him tight in a ‘rear naked choke’ echo of Hardy’s tender moment with his dad – and whispers “I love you” in Hardy’s ear. They stagger out of the ring and out of the arena, clinging to one another. Brothers in arms, finally.
Essentially Warrior is one of those movies about ‘brothers’ that isn’t really about brothers at all. It’s a movie about how ‘real’ brothers are usually no match for those that men call brothers. The way that “I love you like a brother, man” is something of a lie, because most boys and men don’t love their brothers that way. As in this movie, sibling rivalry, age differences and family stuff tends to get in the way. It’s the ‘brothers’ you choose to love that you really love. At least for a while. The phrase men use, and the strapline for this movie, should really be: ‘I love you like I don’t love my brother – that asshole! – man’.
But in one way Warrior is true to the sentiment of ‘I love you like a brother, man’ – the sentiment of ‘not in a gay way’. For all the passionate homoerotics it’s channelling – and despite the very norty, very arousing trailer – it manages to clean-up MMA. A feature-length movie, Warrior is considerably less pornographic than almost any UFC match, which usually last just a few minutes. The fight scenes were mostly a headache-inducing blur of shaky, grainy, poorly lit camera movement. None of the vulgar, compromising and downright lewd positions that characterise the sport and none of the shadowless, multi-angle, explicit, zoomed, overhead voyeurism of pay-per-view UFC (that I wrote about breathlessly here) were permitted.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience disappointed not to see Hardy and Edgerton going at it in HD. Any red-blooded UFC fan – and there are loads of them in the UK, as it fast overhauls boxing in popularity – would be.
Perhaps the chasteness of Warrior’s MMA down to the fact that the two actors are just that – actors, not actual MMA fighters, let alone top-level fighters. So the director couldn’t afford to show too much. Or maybe it was because the gritty, obscene mechanics of MMA were too much – for the bromantic storyline. In the end, despite the trailer, Warrior didn’t want you to think it was that kind of girl of course, and offered an emotional climax rather than a physical or even visual one.
Though admittedly, any film starring Hardy’s lips can hardly be called clean fun.