Thursday, February 9, 2012

What Went Wrong

I can’t believe it took me this long to see this movie.  I’m no MMA fan, but I like Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) and this looked interesting to me when it came out. I remember it being a disappointment box-office wise.  I remember also hearing a lot of folks wondering why that was.  After having finally seen it, I think I can sum it up in four words: two heroes, no villain.

As always, there are spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.  The story is simple.  Two estranged brothers separately decide to enter a sixteen person, grand prixe MMA event with a winner-take-all $5 million dollar prize.  The writers do a great job of establishing the need and urgency for each to seek the money.  They also do well with the back story of each and the subplot of the alcoholic father (played by Nick Nolte) whose drinking split the family and the brothers years before.  Finally, they also use very effectively Tommy’s back story as a Marine to explain why they have different last names.  This is important since no one knows they’re brothers until the two face off in the finals.

But that’s the fatal problem: the two brothers face off in the finals of the tournament.  That they do so seems inevitable which, according to Aristotle, is half of what you need for a satisfying ending.  The trouble is that the writers did such a great job of making both brothers sympathetic that you simply don’t know which one to root for.  I found myself hoping both won – or lost.  For one to get the money and not the other ends up being a great disappointment.

In classic myth stories, the hero faces off with the villain in the final battle in the third act.  It’s been that way for centuries of storytelling.  This movie doesn’t lack for potential antagonists.  The Russian MMA fighter is better than both brothers and appears “bad”.  But we don’t really know anything about him and he loses to Brendan in the semi-finals.  The father is also villainous in a way, or at least he had to have been in the past. But he’s pretty sympathetic in the present.  In the end, neither of them rises to the level of a true villain.

The result is that the writers wrote themselves into a corner.  They obviously felt that they had to have the brothers face off against one another, but in doing so they were then forced to have one win and one lose, thereby pissing off at least half the audience.

Further exacerbating the problem is that there is a bad denouement.  Brendan wins the final battle by separating Tommy’s shoulder and forcing him to “tap out”, meaning he concedes defeat.  In the short denouement that follows, he helps Tommy to his feet and escorts him out of the ring.  The end.

The best denouements give us a glimpse of what is going to happen to the main character after the outcome of the final battle.  They do so by showing the main character’s reaction to that outcome.  The writers did no such thing here.  We are left to assume that Brendan got the five million dollar purse.  But will he give any to Tommy so that he can fulfill his promise to the widow of his Marine buddy who was killed in a friendly-fire incident? And since we know the government is going to prosecute Tommy after the event for going AWOL just prior to saving the lives of an entire squad of Marines, we'd kind of like to know how that’s going to turn out.

The writers did a hell of a job with the father subplot, and we see a bit of resolution of his relationship with Tommy prior to the final bout.  However, we never get to see what Brendan is going to do with respect to his father.  Similarly, we're unsure about the status of the brothers' relationship after the fight.  Another function of the denouement is to resolve subplots, and this ending falls short in that regard as well.

I stated at the start that the problem was that there were two heroes and no villains.  And that’s true.  But you can really say that the problem goes all the way back to the original idea. By choosing to make neither brother a villain, they made a satisfying ending nearly impossible to achieve.

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