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The Movie Like Never Back Down That Martial Arts Fans Need To See

Every martial arts movie has to answer one question: Why are so many people fighting each other? 

One of the easiest ways to shoehorn as many one-on-one battles as possible into your movie is to structure it around a tournament where different fighters compete to see who is the best. The Bruce Lee breakthrough "Enter the Dragon" is centered around a no-holds-barred martial arts tournament on a private island, though the conceit is soon overshadowed by its James Bond-style espionage. Jackie Chan first tried to break into America by winning a Chicago-based martial arts tournament in "The Big Brawl." Jean-Claude Van Damme made "Bloodsport" and "Kickboxer" –– both martial arts tournament movies featuring Van Damme prevailing against big, brutal opponents in Southeast Asia –– in consecutive years.

So as mixed martial arts began to rise in popularity in the early 2000s, it's no surprise that there would be attempts to fit the new style to this classic format. "Never Back Down" offered an edgier but still youthful take on the granddaddy of all high school martial arts tournament films, "The Karate Kid." The 2008 movie stars Sean Faris as Jake, a new kid in Orlando who signs up for an underground fight tournament after being provoked by the reigning champion and school bully Ryan (Cam Gigandet), and features its hero and villain battling each other and a series of other opponents both in and out of the ring. But it's far from the only film to look to capitalize on the MMA boom.

Warrior brings MMA-tournament drama into an adult setting

"Warrior" – not to be confused with the Cinemax/HBO Max historical martial arts crime series "Warrior" or the themed-gangs-battling-across-the-length-of-late-'70s-New York City Walter Hill classic "The Warriors" – is essentially the adult version of "Never Back Down," an underdog story of family drama, honor, and sacrifice that plays out around the setting of a big mixed martial arts tournament.

Its heroes are the brothers Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), one of them a former U.S. Marine, the other a high school physics teacher, both talented fighters. Tactiurn Tommy returns to his father Paddy (Nick Nolte) for the first time since childhood to ask him to train him for the Sparta MMA tournament, which has a $5 million purse. Brendan, meanwhile, is suspended from his job at the school after his principal learns he's been participating in underground fights to make extra money to cover his daughter's medical bills. Out of other options, he convinces an old friend (Frank Grillo) to make him an injury replacement for another fighter so he can enter Sparta, setting the two brothers on a collision course with each other in the tournament.

The film and its fights are powered by its protagonists' divergent styles

The way "Warrior" is structured, Edgerton's Brendan is undoubtedly its Rocky. Outmatched in every fight, he grits his way through, absorbing punishment and refusing to tap out until he can force his own submissions. Hardy's Tommy, on the other hand, is essentially a mid-period "Rocky" villain – think Mr. T's Clubber Lang, or Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago – played as a real, nuanced person. He's big and strong and nearly unstoppable in the ring, ending most of his fights in a matter of seconds. Hardy bulked up for the role on his way to playing Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises." But he also has a tragic past multiple layers deep and an ability to tap into his own swirling currents of inner rage that come in handy when you're knocking out guys for a living.

Balanced between the pair, and keeping them estranged from each other, is Nolte's Paddy, a one-time abusive alcoholic. When he was still a boy, Tommy fled from Paddy with their mother, but Brendan didn't go in order to stay with his now-wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison), leaving Tommy to nurse her through illness on his own. Brendan claims to have forgiven Paddy but remains estranged from him; Tommy agrees to train with Paddy only if his father doesn't try to repair their relationship. The differing styles of the two brothers keep the film's fights fresh, just as their dissimilar personalities outside the ring drive its drama. Fans looking for the kind of fight action they saw in "Never Back Down" could do a lot worse.