Tom Hardy gives a career-best performance as a broken ex-US Marine who has to face his estranged brother in a winner-take-all MMA event. Warrior is blood-stained and breathtaking.
Warrior might displease the cynic who derides it for wallowing in self-pity while following sports movie cliché with the studied eye of a join-the-dots picture specialist. But cast aside the emotional manipulation – and indeed the right-on-cue music montage training sequence – and you have a gripping, blood-stained and sweat-ridden bare knuckle rendition of the best attributes the genre has to offer.
Writer-director Gavin O’Connor has been around for what seems like ages but hasn’t had much mainstream success. Penning Ted Demme’s directorial debut, short film The Bet, O’Connor achieved some success with Tumbleweeds in 1999 when actress Janet McTeer was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. But his work remained largely in the background during the 2000s after setting up Final Cut Features to help finance and encourage independent film productions. With his twin brother Greg, he conceived of Warrior, in part based on United States Marine G.P. Pennington who Greg met after a fellow soldier told how Pennington heroically saved his life.
The O’Connor’s film, which follows the exploits of two brothers as they try to win the $5 million winner-take-all prize at a mixed martial arts event, begins when Tom Hardy’s Tommy Conlon returns home to find his father Paddy, played by Nick Nolte, successfully beating his alcoholism. But Tommy doesn’t believe his father has completely changed from the abusive parent he once knew, and their relationship remains fractured, possibly irreparably so. But when Tommy finds out about the $5 million MMA event, he has to call on his father to help him train.
Across town lives Tommy’s brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton). The two men, estranged since childhood after their mother and father split, have no clue both are to enter the mixed martial arts event. Brendan, a former UFC fighter, had left the sport and become a teacher. But when the bank threaten him with losing his home, he turns to fighting to pay the bills. However, the high school where he works is not pleased to see its teacher arrive bloodied and scarred by the fighting of the night before and suspends him without pay. This leads to him entering the $5 million event despite the concerns of friends and family.
Warrior will undoubtedly remind people of other combat sports films such as Rocky and more recently The Wrestler and The Fighter. Where it distinguishes itself is the great central conceit involving two warring brothers who literally have to take their quarrel into the ring. Instead of supporting the single protagonist in his or her goal to win the main prize and defeat the unstoppable opponent, we have two men who both want to take home the trophy. It makes for a suitably unpredictable journey despite the formulaic plot construction. In the film’s final stages your heartstrings are pulled in so many directions you become as dazed and confused as the brutalised fighters themselves.
“Cast aside the emotional manipulation – and indeed the right-on-cue music montage training sequence – and you have a gripping, blood-stained and sweat-ridden bare knuckle rendition of the best attributes the genre has to offer.”
While Warrior makes use of its melodramatics to draw you into this family struggle, the O’Connor’s script never becomes overly sentimental. This is evident in the ferocious, emotionally charged final fight that sees Tommy strike a heartbreakingly lonely presence in a ring surrounded by thousands of people. It brings the struggle of his life to full prominence. Of course, it would be less affecting without the commendable work of Tom Hardy. Hardy, the English actor who seems to be in every new film right now, put on twenty-eight pounds for the role. His dedication definitely paid off. He delivers the performance of his career as the emotionally-scarred ex-soldier, mixing deep-rooted contempt for a troubled family upbringing with a frenzied utopia when breaking limbs in the ring. He is ably supported by Nolte, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
Warrior delivers on its promise. As with all great sports movies there’s an expectation that needs to be met and the O’Connor brothers’ film doesn’t disappoint. Warrior’s melodrama and cliché fails to get in the way of a thoroughly good story that, at its heart, sees three disparate family members, each with their own scars from the past and their own problems in the present, forced together by circumstance. Its two-headed assault for glory tugs valiantly at your convictions and makes for a less predictable journey, while the frenzied photography during the fighting scenes is as uncomfortable as it is visually arresting. Warrior might not be able to distance itself sufficiently from its cinematic inspirations to achieve true greatness, but its more than satisfying rendition of sports movie formula is a pleasure to behold.