Directed By: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn, Frank Grillo, Kurt Angle
It’s tough for a sports movie to keep out of cliché territory. No matter what, if the main player pulls through and wins big, you can’t help but to mumble, “Yeah, right.” While Warrior isn’t devoid of that concept as it’s almost intrinsic to the genre, the piece achieves an exceptional degree of realism. Yes, The Fighter is the one that’s based on the true story, but between the two, Warrior not only feels more authentic, but it’s a slightly more enjoyable watch, too.
After 14 years, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) heads home to what’s left of his broken family. A former star wrestler, Tommy decides to enter Sparta, a tournament described as the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts fighting. Incapable of putting their tumultuous past behind them, Tommy asks his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), proudly sober 1,000 days, to train him again, but only under the condition that Paddy keep the relationship business only and never touch on Tommy’s experience living with his now deceased mother or his time in the Marines.
Meanwhile, Tommy’s estranged brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is a family man and high school teacher. While he loves his job and students, teaching physics just isn’t bringing in enough to support his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and two little girls, so Brendan resorts to an old skill to make some extra cash, MMA. When the school principal (Kevin Dunn) finds out about Brendan’s moonlighting, he deems the behavior unacceptable, reports Brendan to the superintendent who suspends him without pay. Now that fighting is his only way to keep his family afloat, Brendan turns to an old trainer buddy, Frank (Frank Grillo), who agrees to lend a hand and help get Brendan back in fighting form. However, when Frank’s #1 fighter suffers an injury, he needs to send a replacement to Sparta and, after a bit of pleading, decides to give Brendan a shot.
No wonder MMA has such a strong following; the sport is addictive. Pair such an entertaining and exciting sport with an impeccable script, solid performances and incredibly appropriate shooting technique, and you’ve got a particularly powerful film.
Tommy and Brendan may not be the most likeable guys in the world, but that’s what makes the characters so rich. In Tommy’s case, he’s an absolute jerk and unsportsmanlike, yet still radiates with warmth through his dedication to supporting the family of a fallen comrade, desperation to care for his ailing mother and stepping up when his father needs him most. As for Brendan, while he may not stoop as low as his brother, his refusal to show his father even the slightest bit of sympathy leaves you questioning his morality. Tommy and Brendan are quite different, yet their shared bloodline is incredibly evident. Between their relation, personalities and what they choose to fight for, Warrior keeps your mind reeling when trying to decide who to root for.
As brilliant as these characters are on paper, it’s clearly Hardy and Edgerton who not only take them off the page and onto the big screen, but breathe a tremendous amount of honesty into them. Hardy’s ability to handle Tommy’s darker side while still making him an endearing character is remarkable. Tommy’s all over the spectrum, pledging his money to a war widow all while treating his father like absolute dirt, but Hardy’s got a firm enough grasp on him to make it feel as though all this behavior is coming from the same core. Minus a small handful of accent slips, Edgerton wins big and melts your heart as Brendan. He’s as noble as they come, yet keeps you guessing courtesy of a turbulent past that puts his dedication to his family into question. The bigger underdog of the two, watching Brendan fight is exceptionally tough to bear as he not only takes the more brutal beatings, but also has far more to lose.
With Brendan also comes a band of wonderfully fun and memorable secondary characters. Frank’s dedication is particularly comforting and Dunn steps in to bring the film an excellent dose of comedic relief. A small band of Brendan’s students even manage to make an impact via their support. His wife, Tess, has a presence too, but offers little more than a predictable hurdle and then some chill-inducing reaction shots when watching her husband take a beating. Kurt Angle steps in as the ultimate Sparta opponent, Koba, the undefeated and notably brutal Russian fighter. There isn’t much to him beyond his massive and intimidating stature, but that’s really all the role calls for.
It’s Nolte as Paddy that tops the supporting cast. Talk about a tearjerker; Paddy is the ultimate sad sap. No matter how hard he tries, his boys will never give him any credit. The worst of it comes during a scene shared with Tommy, when his youngest really rips into him. While Paddy does take quite the beating, figuratively speaking, Nolte still manages to maintain the character’s integrity, compelling you to respect him as his sons should. Then again, it’s tough not to pity a guy who’s worked so hard to redeem himself yet can’t get a single ounce of credit in return.
On the technical side, it’s an incredibly smart decision to shoot the film with a documentary-like technique. Similar to the TV show Friday Night Lights, Warrior is shot hand held using more than one camera, a format that results in an especially gritty and intimate feel. Not only does this decision help you get into both Tommy and Brednan’s heads particularly quickly, but when the action heads into the ring, you’re still with them as opposed to being just another spectator in the crowd. This solidifies cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi as a leading man behind the lens; no more second unit or B camera for him.
Sure, Warrior has a few of the typical sports movie clichés, but between the shooting style and honest performances, it never once steps into idealistic territory like O’Connor’s 2004 production Miracle. While Miracle is enjoyable, you can’t help but to second-guess the validity of the chain of events. With Warrior however, it not only feels real from beginning to end, but like you’re right there alongside Tommy and Brendan with an investment in their efforts; it’s a forcefully emotional ride and well worth it.