Gritty, laboured and totally devoid of suspense or surprise, writer/director Gavin O’Connor applies a narrative headlock to this tale of two brothers competing in a mixed martial arts contest, effectively knocking out of the ring two great performances from Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.
Edgerton – in his first outing at the top of the billing – plays Brendan Conlon, a physics teacher with a young family, doing it tough when his bank decides to foreclose on the family home. His only option is to return to a former job as a fighter to earn a few extra bucks, but before he knows it he’s in the big league – battling it out in a winner-takes-all competition with five million dollars at stake. More mysterious is his estranged brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) who resurfaces after 14 years and decides to enter the same competition, trained by their ex-alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). As the training and then the fighting plays out in nicely shot but totally predictable fashion, Tommy’s unexplained back-story and the brothers’ complicated relationship to their father is slowly revealed.
Had the running time been cut to the 90-minute mark, you might have forgiven the lack of narrative freedom in this film, but at 140 minutes the predictability wears dreadfully thin. Much of the first hour is a series of television-style dialogue scenes, over-clarifying what is going to happen in the second hour: fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and trainers all fill the time with unlikely expositional banter. When the fight scenes finally start, the pace and drama pick up, and even though you know what the outcome is going to be, there are some spectacular bouts – the mixed martial arts format allowing for a dynamic range of fighting styles.
O’Connor’s deft direction of the fight scenes far surpasses his writing ability – with the script frequently overblown and sentimental. Despite Edgerton and Hardy’s best efforts, the characters are thinly drawn – in particular the mysterious figure of Tommy. For such a driven person for most of the film, the motivation for all his behaviour is ultimately overlooked in order to keep the plot to the tight schedule. Other characters – including Brendan’s wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and the collection of fighters who take a battering are straight from the cardboard cut-out department of the boxing genre.