Tommy (Tom Hardy, left) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton, right) face off in 'Warrior.'

He-Men Command Belief in MMA Film 'Warrior'

Dennis Harvey September 13, 2011

Gavin O'Connor does a remarkable job making his two-and-a-half-hour fight film gritty, involving and as credible as humanly possible.

Cartoon machismo has always had a place in American movies, though in our current era of superheroes and CGI it's hit heights not seen since the Reagan-Rambo era. It's the rare mainstream film now that uses any kind of combat more seriously than a video game might; as in the Batman TV series of yore, it's all BANG! POW! THWAAAP!!, thrills devoid of empathy or pain.

So there's considerable refreshment in something like Warrior, which at a distance might look very much like an ordinary, exaggerated he-man dustup in a junk-food action flick mode, but actually turns out to be more like last year's The Fighter—in fact, a lot like it, since both are working-class East Coast good brother/bad brother scenarios. Still, it has its own atmosphere, style and impact, so much of each that you might not notice until well after the final credits roll that the whole concept is more than a little ridiculous.

Nick Nolte, fruitfully typecast, plays Paddy Conlon, a recently sober alcoholic whose violent abuse under the influence sent his now deceased wife fleeing with one son who's been incommunicado ever since, while another is nearby but estranged. The latter is Brendan (Joel Edgerton from Animal Kingdom), who's now got a wife and two young children of his own he's anxious to keep away from even this new, improved “Pops'” influence. He's also got a rewarding schoolteacher job plus a necessary moonlighting one; spouse Tess (Jennifer Morrison) works as well, yet their debts are such that they're at risk of losing their home.

It's a considerable surprise to Paddy when after many years of silence Tom (Tom Hardy, Bronson and Inception) suddenly turns up on his doorstep. Time hasn't softed in the least this younger son's bitterness toward the now-repentant father's cruelty. Yet for reasons he keeps secret from Pops (though the viewer is tipped), Tom agrees to take ex-boxer dad on again in his old role as trainer, since he wants to enter and win a splashy Mixed Martial Arts tournament with a $5 million purse. Meanwhile, former pro fighter Brendan decides he'll enter that contest as well, arm-twisting old friend Frank (a delightfully gung-ho Frank Grillo) into training him anew.

This whoppin' coincidence naturally leads toward the two brothers (neither knowing until late that the other was participating) climactically squaring off in “the cage” to work out their family issues with fists, feet, and other body parts as weaponry. Sorry if that's a spoiler, folks, but was there a chance in hell the screenplay could head anywhere else?

Dressed to look like Eminem (i.e. an angry ghost glaring from beneath a hoodie), Hardy's Tom has a quarter-century-plus of sheer rage on his side. (A good recurring joke has him stomping out of the ring after he's knocked each opponent flat, not even bothering to wait for the fight to be called—a TV commentator says he “leaves the cage like he's walking away from a crime scene.”) Super-niceguy Brendan has his family's welfare at stake. Warrior loads its narrative agenda almost to Rocky IV levels of emotional manipulation: As we learn fairly early, Tom is an Iraq War hero who went AWOL rather than accept his medal, and wants the prize money to honor a promise to a fallen comrade; Brendan's debts are so not-his-fault they include medical expenses that saved a daughter's life.

Warrior punches and weaves its way toward what would be perhaps the most theatrical public expression of brotherly love in history. There's no reason why the movie shouldn't be completely ludicrous by then, or garishly melodramatic throughout. Yet director/coscenarist Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds, Pride and Glory) does a remarkable job making his two and a half hours gritty, involving and as credible as humanly possible. It helps that the fight sequences—that climactic Atlantic City tournament takes up pretty much Warrior's entire second half—aren't just good, they're painfully good. This is violence that makes you involuntarily wince and exhale four-letter words, seen-it-all-before mallflick cynicism trumped by brutal immediacy.

Australian Edgerton and Brit Hardy—both managing creditable New England accents—are fast-rising stars who more than carry their weight here. If they don't quite match the chemistry of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter, chalk that up to their characters' relative lack of humor and affection (let alone scenes together).

Warrior is a pretty terrific movie so long as you don't think about it too much. Or at all, ideally. In an era when most popcorn flicks wear their preposterousness on their sleeve, here's a rare one that can, even should convince you it's smart, heartfelt, real-world-grounded entertainment while still requiring a massive suspension of disbelief.