[NOTE: This post originally appeared at our new home at Scientific American.]
One of the biggest movies of the fall so far is Contagion, which garnered strong reviews — including from the science blogosphere — and roared to a $23.1 million opening when it debuted a few weeks ago, easily beating out the other box office contenders. So it's understandable that a few hidden gems slipped under the radar. Case in point: many people missed the sleeper film, Warrior, whose cast of characters includes Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a.k.a., the Most Badass Physics Teacher E-VAH!
When we first meet Brendan, he doesn't look too tough: his two young daughters are gleefully painting his face during a family birthday party. But he's definitely hands-on in the classroom, instructing his students on the finer points of F=ma by means of a sledgehammer and concrete blocks. And then we see him lifting weights in the garage, and learn he moonlights as a bouncer at a local strip club to help make ends meet, since his salary as a public school teacher isn't sufficient to ward off the looming threat of foreclosure on their modest Pittsburgh house.
At least that's what he tells his wife Tess (House MD's Jennifer Morrison). In reality, he has re-entered the world of amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) to earn a bit of extra cash. A former UFC fighter, he makes quick enough work of the local "weekend warriors" with delusions of being the next Matt Hughes or Randy Couture. No doubt that physics background helps, too: martial arts is all about force, energy transfer, leverage, and momentum. (Perhaps the official motto should be, "Physics can kick your ass!") But when the school board learns of his extracurricular activities, he is suspended without pay for the semester.
Principal: "We can't have one of our teachers cage-fighting in a strip club!"
Brendan: "Technically, it was in the parking lot outside the strip club…."
What's an out of work physics teacher gonna do to save his house and protect his family? He's gonna enter Sparta, the biggest, most brutal MMA competition out there, with a winner-takes-all purse of $5 million. That means coming out of retirement to take on a field of younger, powerful, highly skilled fighters like the undefeated Koba (played by real-life MMA fighter Kurt Angle). And it also pits him against another underdog, Marine Corps war hero Tommy Riordon (Tom Hardy) — who just happens to be Brendan's estranged brother. I think we can all see where this is going, and if not, the trailer lays it all out for you:
Don't let the lackluster marketing campaign fool you: Warrior isn't just another tired retread of Rocky, despite the working-class background and underdog status of its heroes. For starters, most such films allocate a few days to film climactic fight scenes. But Warrior is so fight-intensive that director Gavin O'Connor spent an entire month filming those sequences. The pacing, cinematography, and realistic choreography of those scenes is astonishing — it captures the beauty, not just the brutality, of this controversial sport (which, for the record, is nothing like professional wrestling, despite the cheesy trappings and scantily clad ring girls).
Those sequences took their toll on the actors, too. In an interview with Den of Geek, Edgerton revealed that he and co-star Brady trained "literally from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon. It was fighting all morning, eat a massive meal with the stunt guys and then come back to lift massive weights… Because at some point Tom and I knew we had to get our shirts off, stand in a cage… and look like we belonged there."
The film is also grittier, more thoughtful, and starts slow out of the gate, carefully building up the characters and complex, layered relationships, so that by the time the two brothers face off in the Octagon for the inevitable showdown, we understand fully what's at stake, and we're rooting for both of them. It's not a prize purse, or a thirst for macho glory. Each brother is literally fighting for his life, and for the lives of those who depend on him. You desperately want them both to win — but there can be only one victor. Them's the rules.
So who will it be, the brute or the tactician? In one corner, you've got the pitbull ferocity and merciless efficiency of Tommy, a seething cauldron of pain and rage, who once tore the door off a tank in Iraq to save a fellow Marine, and who dispatches most of his opponents in the first round with a vicious knockout punch. (Announcer #1, musing on Tommy's chances before his first fight: "I dunno, sure, he's tough, but a tank doesn't hit back." Announcer #2: "Yeah, but…. HE TORE THE DOOR OFF A FRICKIN' TANK!".)
In the other corner, there's the steely, calm resolve of Brendan, the high school physics teacher with the big, big heart, who doesn't exactly dazzle with his technical prowess, and seems to lack the killer instinct. (Announcer #1: "Remember him from the UFC?" Announcer #2: "Yeah, I remember how unmemorable he was." He then compares Brandon to a harmless goldfish in a plastic bag.) But he's smart, and patient, and unbelievably tough. He can take a helluva beating and wait for an opening, a small mistake, that he can exploit to gain the upper hand and win — if he doesn't get killed in the process.
Who wins? Go see the movie! Warrior deserves a bigger audience than it's managed to find so far — which is why you should all run right out and see it while it's still in theaters. On your way home afterwards, perhaps you can take a moment to consider the plight of our woefully underpaid physics teachers, forced to engage in brutal cage-fights in the parking lots of strip clubs. Then again, is there anything more suspenseful than a physics class where the teacher might at any moment whip out a big ol' can of whup-ass to demonstrate Newtonian mechanics?
Okay, so Brandon is fictional. I know there are tons of hard-working high school physics teachers out there, laboring in the trenches to reach students who honestly can't see what possible use they could have for physics. I invite readers to nominate their favorite, most inspiring physics teacher in the comments, to be featured in a future blog post — because they deserve the recognition! Right? And hopefully, one day, a pay raise.
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FYI, I earned a black belt in jujitsu in 2000, and have been a fan of MMA since the early days of the UFC, although I don't practice anymore, nor do I follow the sport religiously. But I do write about it from time to time, particularly on the underlying science. Here's some of those prior posts:
"Band of Brothers" (3 Quarks Daily)