By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
On paper, it’s about mixed martial arts. But you needn’t have any interest in the sport to enjoy the film, and there’s nothing “mixed” about it.
Warrior is terrific.
Familiar, certainly, and maybe even predictable. But executed like a well-timed punch — or kick — to the solar plexus.
Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play brothers, Tommy and Brendan Conlon, who are estranged largely because they’ve traveled divergent paths after their father, Paddy, an abusive alcoholic played by Nick Nolte, drove his wife away and she left along with the bitterly resentful Tommy, who stayed with and by her until she died of cancer.
Former wrestling prodigy Tommy, the younger brother, is a Marine who returns home to Pittsburgh for the first time in well over a decade to ask his dad — a former wrestling coach who proudly announces that he’s been sober for nearly a thousand days — for help: he wants him to serve as his trainer as he prepares for Sparta in Atlantic City, the biggest winner-take-all event in mixed martial arts history.
The contrite Paddy readily agrees.
Fighter-turned-teacher Brendan, meanwhile — the kinder, gentler, older bro — has gotten back in the MMA ring in Philadelphia to help make ends meet for his wife and two daughters (whom he won’t let his dad visit), one of whom has extensive medical expenses. But his academic employer, not exactly appreciative of his involvement in an underground activity, suspends him from his position as a high school physics teacher, which drives Brendan even deeper inside that ever-expanding ring.
But one of his bouts turns up on YouTube and Brendan gets famous fast.
The collision course that the Conlon brothers would appear to be on — a screenwriting embrace of the art of the coincidence, if ever there were one — finds the sibling rivals headed for a showdown on national television, the film’s central conceit, a mixed martial arts tournament with a $5-million purse.
Director Gavin O’Connor (Pride and Glory) made another inspirational sports-themed thriller — the 2004 hockey docudrama Miracle — so perhaps it’s no surprise that he so effectively balances drama and sports action. Crisp, intense scene follows crisp, intense scene, and the appeal of mixed martial arts competition is vividly showcased, but always as part of the larger canvas.
The fractured-family script, which O’Connor wrote along with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorman from a story by O’Connor and Dorfman, smartly balances conversation with fight footage, and takes the unusual — and surprisingly effective –approach of splitting the rooting interest between two characters.
Part of the reason that approach works is that the central triumvirate contributes three powerful performances.
Chief among the pleasures Warrior offers is the chance to see two stars on the rise come into their own and one veteran star at the very top of his game remind us of his talent. Brit Hardy, Aussie Edgerton, and Yankee Nolte should all be on voters’ minds come Oscar time.
Hardy (Inception), resembling a young Marlon Brando in just about every way imaginable, makes an indelible impression as the angry young man. Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), in the less showy role, matches him every step of the way as the sensitive and desperate young man. And Nolte, in a role as lived in as any you’ll ever see, breaks your heart as the broken old man.
That’s quite an ensemble.
Warrior immediately joins the fraternity of distinguished movies — including Raging Bull, Rocky, The Fighter, Cinderella Man, and Million Dollar Baby — that are and are not about the competitive fighting taking place in the ring. Sure, the staged bouts are exciting, convincingly paced, and expertly choreographed. But they never steal the thunder of the family dynamics being explored.
The film is energetic, it’s engaging, it’s tense, and it’s long (well over two hours). But it sure doesn’t feel long.
So we’ll body-slam 3½ stars out of 4. This ferociously intense pugilistic drama is a lot more than a weekend Warrior.