Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte in Warrior

Warrior is an underdog story, a misfit story, a dueling brothers story, a father and son story, a blue collar guy on the ropes story and a redemption story. Not content to set the record for cramming the most sports movie clichés into one film, director/co-writer, Gavin O’Connor then smears the whole thing with a couple of healthy handfuls of dramatic horseshit. The remarkable thing? It still mostly works like gangbusters. It’s a movie that will not only allow the ESPN set to get their cry on without anyone thinking they have vaginas, but it should also appeal to anyone with at least a single emotional cell left in their bodies. While Warrior occasionally strains too hard to push your buttons, it still succeeds on a trio of wonderful performance from all three of its lead actors and winds up packing a powerful emotional punch.

Set in the world of mixed martial arts where characters manifest their bitterness in physical brutality, Warrior tells the story of the estranged Conlon family from blue collar Pittsburgh. Nick Nolte is Paddy, the grizzled, recovering alcoholic father. Tom Hardy (Bronson, Inception) is Tommy, Paddy’s youngest son, the state wrestling champion who, along with his mother, fled Paddy’s disease and his abuse. Joel Edgerton (The Square, Animal Kingdom) is the older son, Brendan, who stayed behind to marry his high school sweetheart, to become a physics teacher and to start a family of his own.

Following the death of his mother, Tommy returns to Pittsburgh full of rage and resentment and harboring a big secret. He seeks out Paddy, whom he still hates despite the old man’s 1000 days sober, to help train him back into competitive fighting shape. Faced with the foreclosure of his home and the end of his American Dream meanwhile, Brendan also resumes his fighting life. He was never the success that Tommy was, but there’s a lot of money to be made fighting amateurs in towns up and down the East Coast. The scene is then set for the two battling brothers to find themselves in the cage opposite one another for the inevitable final fight with $5 million and a lifetime of resentment on the line.

The most powerful moments of Warrior are in the interactions between Paddy and one or both of his sons. On their own, neither Tommy nor Brendan’s stories are all that compelling. Tommy’s especially is particularly dull and his big, awkward, tacked on secret just makes it ridiculous. When they clash with Paddy though, sparks fly and it’s almost entirely up to the three actors.

As you’d expect, Nolte is terrific. He lives and breathes a tentative, broken old man who was once a monster and who has to come to terms with the fact that he may have fixed himself, but can’t just repair the emotional carnage he’s left in his alcoholic wake. The hard life is written in every one of the hundreds of lines on Nolte’s sagging face and in ever chunk of broken concrete in his voice. This kind of thing is well within Nolte’s wheelhouse, but O’Connor is smart to maximize it.

Joel Edgerton is a talented actor with a lot of potential, but he’s saddled with the most thankless character. The perfect husband and father with the bank breathing down his neck doesn’t give the actor much of an opportunity to prove his performance in Animal Kingdom wasn’t just a fluke, but he still manages to make the most of it. Most importantly, he’s fully believable as both a family man and as a warrior in the cage.

And then there is Tom Hardy who was magnetic in Nicolas Winding Refn’s otherwise empty stylistic exercise Bronson and injected a much needed jolt of charisma in a small part in Christopher Nolan’s too-often sterile Inception. In Warrior, Hardy is finally given a mainstream starring role in which to show his stuff and he is ferocious. His handsome, boyish features barely hide his character’s rage which simmers malevolently during dialogue scenes and then explodes violently in the cage. He’s got a magnetism you can’t help but watch when he’s on the screen. He’s got the wattage of a young Cruise or a Gere, but he smolders more like a Brando and he’s a much more imposing physical presence than those other two. It remains to be seen if he can (or even should) parlay his presence into being a major movie star, but he definitely has the raw material. With upcoming roles in high profile films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Wettest County in the World, and The Dark Knight Rises, I expect we’ll soon find out.

Despite the great performances, Warrior unfortunately suffers some from a certain predictability, from its assemblage of time-worn clichés and from an all too frequent heavy-handed touch by O’Connor and the screenwriters. The unnecessary Iraq subplot (reaching its crescendo with the Marines lustily singing their anthem), the rallying of Brendan’s students, pops obsessing about Moby Dick and the brothers’ final words to each other all turn the drama up to 11 when the raw material is more than enough to make a major impact through restraint. The emotions at work are admittedly so powerful that I wanted to ignore how baldly I was being manipulated. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t do it and it mars what is otherwise an effectively moving family drama.

I suspect a lesser cynic will have an easier time warming up to the film and Warrior has the potential to be a major crowd pleaser even (and especially) for people who find fighting sports repellant. Though it moderates the violence slightly less than last year’s The Fighter, the fight sequences in Warrior are still fairly well scrubbed. The camera never dwells on the brutality, yet it maintains a visceral intensity and a believability even between actors who aren’t professional fighters. The squeamish will be glad to know the audience is never forced to see the real consequences of some of the pummelings.

3.5 stars (out of 5)

4 Responses to “Warrior (2011)”

  1. I’m not really sure of any worthwhile reference point aside from the one you gave yourself here on THE FIGHTER, as I haven’t seen the film. But wow, what a terrific comprehensive piece you’ve offered up here, one that compellingly peels away the gauze to frame this for good and for bad (mostly good of course.) Not at all surprised that Nolte turned in such a compelling performance. Edgerton was indeed extraordinary in ANIMAL KINGDOM, though of course you note he doesn’t have the material here.

  2. The one to watch in Warrior for me was Tom Hardy. Nolte was terrific, yes, but we already knew he had it in him. I suspected as much from Hardy, but it was nice to see him shine in a mainstream film.

    I’m being a little hard on the movie actually, I liked it a lot better than The Fighter even though The Fighter is probably technically a “better” film. Despite Warrior’s flaws it managed to grab me in a way Fighter never did and at a certain point I think that has to be acknowledged.

    Warrior works in the moment, but I don’t see it having any kind of repeat value, but then that describes most movies that come out in a given year.

  3. I have to say I think this is the film The Fighter wanted to be. Reading your review, I admit I am a lesser cynic. I was completely suprised by this movie.

  4. Like I said in the comment above, I liked Warrior much better than Fighter. It worked emotionally and at a certain point you just have to say maybe that’s enough.

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