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Marketed with as much pomp as a fighting promoter, Warrior is a film that embraces the predictable sports formula that’s been around forever. The sport here is MMA (that’s Mixed Martial Arts, if you didn’t already know), the physically demanding smackdown sport where two athletes go at in the ring, in full contact mode. It’s insane. While fighting is all over this movie, it’s not just the blood and sweat kind. It’s the kind filled with bitterness, resentment, and guilt, involving two battered and bruised brothers and their estranged father. 

After a fourteen year absence, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy, an acting chameleon) turns up on the front steps of his father’s home in Pittsburgh, PA with a bottle of whiskey. His old man, Paddy (a heartfelt Nick Nolte), an ex-marine, is beyond surprised to see a son he thought he’d all but lost. Tommy is even more surprised to see that his once-drunk father is now sober, refusing to down a drink with him. The palpable awkwardness of their strained reunion carries into a dimly-lit living room where Tommy’s painful verbal jabs find a contrite Paddy sinking deeper and deeper into his chair.

Paddy wants more than anything to make amends, but there’s no trust or forgiveness on Tommy’s end. He chides his father for replacing the bottle with the Bible, reminding Paddy of his painful past and how he was left to take care of his mother after their split. When she died of cancer Tommy joined the Marines and went off to war, taking his pain and anger with him.

This emotional opening is an impressive display of fine acting from Hardy and Nolte. In just under fifteen minutes, we see them inhabit these worn down characters with a lived-in believability. The unavoidable question is: what does Tommy want? If he still has issues with his father, what brings him back? Well, these are loaded questions which are thankfully, slowly answered.

On the other side of the state, Tommy’s older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton, a long way from Attack of the Clones) lives in Philadelphia, where he and his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison, in a fairly thankless role), raise their two girls. Brendan used to be a respectable MMA fighter, and is now having a hard time making ends meet as a high school physics teacher.

Unbeknownst to his wife, he starts moonlighting, taking some random fighting gigs around town. It doesn’t take long for his boss, Principal Vito (Kevin Dunn), to learn of his extracurricular activity, leaving him with no choice but to suspend Brendan without pay.

Facing foreclosure and a disapproving wife, Brendan decides to enlist an old friend (Frank Grillo) to train him for the upcoming Sparta tournament in Atlantic City, where the five million dollar grand prize could turn everything around for him and his family.

At the same time, Tommy asks his father to train him for Sparta as well, after taking out a high-ranking MMA fighter at the local gym where Paddy used to train fighters. ”That much,”says Tommy, “you were good at”,  making it clear that a training relationship is all they’re gonna have.

Eager to reconcile with his son and with no other visible opening to do so, Paddy agrees. The withdrawn and guarded Tommy has his own reasons for winning the prize money and has no interest in anything other than training and winning.

With the sibling showdown in all the ads, trailers, and posters, it’s impossible not to see where the story is going here. Although we know it and director Gavin O’ Connor (Miracle) tries to do something creative with the requisite training montages, it’s the three main actors that make this movie irresistible. Like other recent fighting films such as The Wrestler and The Fighter, and even the most famous lug from Philly, Rocky, the main draw here is character. Warrior may not be as great as those films, but the winning performances make it all worthwhile.

Just as Christian Bale was the highlight in The Fighter, Tom Hardy with his chiseled physicality steals this film.  At no point did I grow tired of watching Tommy storm into the ring with zero fanfare and march off immediately after defeating his opponents.

When he is in the ring, he’s like a seething bull pacing back and forth with his slouched muscular frame desperate to attack. It’s as if all the character’s anguish is in a continuous taut grip that Hardy controls with steely precision. Between this and his previous work in Bronson, it is clear Batman is going to have his hands full with Bane next summer.

Tommy may be a more mesmerizing character, but we can relate more to Branden’s plight. It’s a role that gives Edgerton slightly more depth, yet it is extremely difficult not to be more transfixed on Hardy in just about every scene he’s in. The two actors barely share any screen time and that’s fine since the dialogue during their one pre-fight interaction comes off very clichéd.

We’re better off seeing how each brother trains differently. Tommy with his no-nonsense old school approach alongside Paddy, and Brendan, whose trainer has him sweat to Beethoven in order to provide calm and focus.

For the most part, O’ Connor’s storytelling chops are well-suited (except for an odd, unexplained inclusion of Moby Dick) for this tale. Not having any knowledge of the rules of MMA or the authenticity of any particular fighting moves, I had a fairly easy time following all the action. What was infuriating was all the excessive TV commentating, which wound up repeating the same lines over and over again. Definitely a turn off and a waste of time, steeling the emotional momentum already invested.

As for O’ Connor’s handling of the characters, he really blows it with Nolte’s Paddy near the film’s conclusion. With his guttural grunts and moans, Nolte shows a tender vulnerability throughout (especially in a scene where he shows up unannounced on Brendan’s driveway), so it’s a shame to see him fall victim to such a lazily-written relapse scene. It didn’t have to go down that way, but ultimately O’ Connor is simply playing to stereotypical tropes.

Still, it’s hard not to recommend Warrior since there really is enough here that works. The final fight wisely opts out of a rousing orchestral musical cue by composer Mark Isham. Instead, we hear a solemn contemplative tune by The National, which draws us back to the fragile relationship between two brothers and their father.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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