Warrior, by Gavin O’Connor, does something very rare for a sports movie; it almost equally develops two main characters, both heading into the ring for the big finale at the climax. You may ultimately have a favorite between the two, but it makes the final match extremely emotionally-loaded, because no matter who wins, the audience is also set up to emotionally identify with the loser.
In addition to that narrative hook, Warrior has one more unique story element– the fact that both of the final contenders are brothers. It’s almost too much, really– too clever and too precious. But O’Connor is a hell of a director, and he’s working with some top notch acting talent. The two brothers are played by Brit Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson, RocknRolla, This Means War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) and Aussie Joel Edgerton (Smokin’ Aces, The Square, Animal Kingdom, The Thing, and the upcoming The Great Gatsby) and their father by the inestimable Nick Nolte. All three are capable of incredible emotional depths while keeping things very natural and effortless. For Nolte’s part, it might be the best work of his career, and as good as Christopher Plummer was in Beginners, Nolte was robbed for not taking home the Oscar this year. Hardy channels Brando circa The Wild One, all muscular pathos and pain, still trying to break free of a dysfunctional childhood that has left him emotionally crippled and really unable to stand up and be his own man. Edgerton has a family of his own, and for him it’s about being able to provide for his family and not buckle under the weight of economic hardship. He’s determined to be the father and have the family that he never had, and he’s willing to fight for it if it kills him.
The backstory has to do with the fact that Nolte was a raging alcoholic and his wife left him, taking the youngest son, Tommy (Hardy) with her. Brendan (Edgerton) was old enough to be on his own, for the most part, so he chose to stay behind with their father, and before too long left home himself. But Tommy had to endure homelessness and his mother’s drug addiction until she died, then ended up going into the military. Tommy holds a lot of resentment towards both his father and his brother for not being there for him, and allowing him to suffer the amount of abuse and neglect he went through. All of this sets the stage for both contenders to take an emotionally-fueled climb through the MMA ranks in a cage match in Las Vegas for a huge payout. Brendan’s in it for his family and out of financial necessity; Tommy’s in it to prove something to himself and try to take back control of his destiny and his one-time potential to be a fighter of incredible promise.
The fights here are intense and very realistically-staged, and O’Connor smartly starts wide and with a lot of long shots during the sequential matches. As the film reaches its conclusion, the coverage keeps creeping in tighter and closer, making the successive fights increasingly intimate and personal. It’s a technique that really serves the film overall, as well as deeply connecting us to both Tommy and Brendan. And that’s really where the film succeeds and gains so much of its power. On the surface it may be a sports film, but underneath that is an incredibly personal and emotionally raw story about family and what we can and should do for each other. Frank Grillo as a friend of Brendan’s who agrees to be his trainer, and Jennifer Morrison as Brendan’s wife, both turn in great performances as well. Morrison is underutilized, but still manages to make her limited screen time one of the best performances of her career.
O’Connor previously directed Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, the hockey movie Miracle, and a theatrically mishandled cop movie called Pride and Glory that starred Colin Farrell and Edward Norton. O’Connor has a real knack for taking solid but often predictable Hollywood scripts and turning them on their ear slightly, transforming them into something truly special. Warrior is a shining example of that, with O’Connor raising the bar even further and finding new heights. Much of Warrior is heartbreaking, and there probably hasn’t been a sports movie that emotionally connects as cleanly and powerfully since the original Rocky.