Imagine if Rocky, instead of fighting Apollo Creed, got into the ring with another Rocky. And they were brothers.
I know, I know, but somehow it works in a surprisingly affecting story of the sons of an abusive alcoholic who have not seen each other since they were teenagers and end up fighting each other for a mixed martial arts championship title.
That’s the magic of movies. Somehow, they can take a story of a welder who does post-modern dance numbers in a Pittsburgh bar and dreams of being a ballerina or cartoon characters are live in old-time Hollywood and feel real-er than real life. As cheesy as this movie gets, it keeps raising the emotional stakes over and over again until we just tap out and go with it, largely because of full-hearted, powerhouse performances from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.
Tommy (Hardy) comes home. He’s been away a long time. His father, Paddy (Nick Nolte) is glad to see him, but Tommy says he wants to deal with his father only as a trainer. He has no interest in catching up or mending their estrangement. He just has one goal, to win a $5 million mixed martial arts championship.
Brendan (Edgerton) has a good life as a high school science teacher with a family. His wife says, “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to raise our children in a house were their father gets beat up for a living.” But paying for his daughter’s health care has put the family at risk of losing the house. He needs a lot of money fast and the only way he knows to get it is to win the mixed martial arts championship. He goes into training with an old friend. Cue the montages.
The script by writer/director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”) is as corny as an “up close and personal” Olympics athlete profiles, but as effective, too. Every time you think you’ve made up your mind who to root for, it switches around on you, and then switches around again. The fight scenes are powerful, but in large part due to the emotional weight given to Tommy and Brendan by Hardy and Edgerton. The final bout, well, its a knock-out.
Parents should know that this movie includes references to substance abuse, domestic abuse, the illness of a child, the sad loss of a parents, and wartime violence, as well as many scenes of brutal mixed martial arts fights. Characters drink and use some strong language.
Family discussion: Who were you rooting for and why? How did the choices Brendan and Tommy made about leaving home affect their outlooks and choices as they grew up?
If you like this, try: “Rocky” and a documentary about mixed martial arts, “Fight Life.”