Warrior *** ½
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor.
Written by: Gavin O'Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorfman.
Starring: Joel Edgerton (Brendan Conlon), Tom Hardy (Tommy Conlon), Nick Nolte (Paddy Conlon), Jennifer Morrison (Tess Conlon), Frank Grillo (Frank Campana), Kevin Dunn (Principal Zito), Maximiliano Hernández (Colt Boyd), Jake McLaughlin (Mark Bradford), Vanessa Martinez (Pilar Fernandez), Denzel Whitaker (Stephon), Kurt Angle (Koba), Erik Apple (Pete 'Mad Dog' Grimes), Anthony Johnson (Orlando 'Midnight' Le).
Since the UFC became hugely popular, I have seen several movies about mixed martial arts, but they all seem to be done cheaply and exploitatively. Like the recent spat of dance films, the MMA films up until now have all been about the fighting, with little things such as character development, plot and even basic visuals taking a backseat to seeing a bunch of muscle bound thugs beating the shit out of each other. There is plenty of muscle bound thugs beating the shit out of each other in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior as well, but for the first time, a movie about MMA has been made with care and intelligence – great acting and a fine visual look and feel. Yes, Warrior is as clichéd as they come as far as underdog sports movies go, but I didn’t much care when I was watching it. I was too busy being entertained.
The movie is about two very different brothers, who grew up with a hard drinking, hard driving, and abusive father named Paddy (Nick Nolte) who trained both of his boys to be fighters. At some point during their teenage years, the younger brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) took off with their mother to get her away from her abusive husband. The older brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) stayed around, because he was in love with – and would eventually marry – Tess (Jennifer Morrison). The brothers haven’t spoken since, and in fact Tommy hasn’t spoken with much of anyone, joining the Marines and fighting in Iraq, just to show up on Paddy’s doorstep one day. Paddy tells him he has stopped drinking, but Tommy hates the old man anyway. Brendan will at least let Paddy call him, but he doesn’t want him near his wife and kids.
Meanwhile, a rich man has decided to put on the biggest MMA tournament in history – Sparta, to take place in Atlantic City over the July 4th weekend. Tommy gets in because he makes him a Youtube sensation by beating the crap out of one of the top contenders in a sparring match. He needs a coach, and Paddy was good at that – if nothing else – so he enlists his help. Brendan, who was once a UFC fighter, is now a high school teacher, but needs money badly, so he fights in pickup matches in the parking lot of a strip club. After showing up with too many bruises, he is suspended for the rest of the year. Needing money, he decides to train harder to win bigger purses, and enlists his old trainer to do so – who also happens to be training one of the top contenders for Sparta. When a few days before the start of the tournament his contender hurts himself, guess who gets to take his place?
So yes, the whole movie is about the lead up to Sparta, and what we know will be eventually be a brother against brother battle, between two men who act like they hate each other, but really do love each other. You get no points for guessing that fact, especially since they have built almost the entire preview around that. But Warrior is not just another mindless movie about men who kick the shit of each other. There are real characters beneath the three grizzled tough guys at the center of the movie. And three excellent performances.
Nick Nolte is perfectly cast as Paddy. A lot of guys can, and have, played recovering alcoholics, but Nolte brings credibility to the role because we know his assorted history of alcohol and drug abuse, and we can see the ravages of what it has done to him all over his face, and hear it in every raspy word he speaks. Remember, Nolte was once selected by People magazine as the “Sexiest Man Alive”, but those days are long behind him. He brings the right note of regret and longing to his role as Paddy, a man who just wants his family back, and knows he has no one to blame but himself. Tom Hardy, so good in recent years in films like Bronson and Inception, here seems to be trying to channel a young Marlon Brando – he is all dark, brooding intensity. He says very little, but you can tell whatever secrets he is hiding are tearing him up inside. The movie only gradually reveals his past, and unlike other movies, here this works. The main character though is Brendan, and it’s hard to find a more sympathetic character than Joel Edgerton’s in this film. He is a man fighting for his family – and that elevates him. He doesn’t get to be as dark and brooding as Hardy, or as full of remorse as Nolte, but he carries the movie.
The film was directed by Gavin O’Connor, who seems to have made a career out of doing underdog sports movie. Warrior follows the hockey film Miracle and the swimming film Pride and Glory on his resume. For me, this is inarguably his most complete film. I love the dark, visual look he gives to the film early on, and MMA has never seemed as exciting to me as it does here (every time I stop on a UFC fight on TV, it just looks like two half naked guys writhing around on the ground).
Warrior certainly does not bring anything new to the table of underdog sports movies, but I cannot think of the last time I enjoyed one as much as I did this one. Yes, the movie is manipulative in the extreme, and as it progresses, it gets more and more unbelievable. But I didn’t care. Warrior is one of the most purely entertaining films of the year.