The performances and well-choreographed fights are the main event of Warrior, a mixed martial arts drama that delivers counter-punches to the numerous cliches that continuously crop up. Raw emotion and rare truths are explored in this flawed film helmed by writer-director Gavin O’Connor. Equal parts testosterone-filled entertainment and a story of redemption and forgiveness, Warrior has a curious based-on-a-true-story feel. The film isn’t shy about giving you a story, clocking in at 139 minutes, and it’s that devotion to plot and background that will help it cut open a broader audience than the standard fight drama. There are hurdles to overcome as an audience, but the reward is a gritty bit of truth in an unlikely and fun package. Hit the jump for my full review.
The Conlons were once likely a happy family, but years of Paddy’s (Nick Nolte) drunken abuse splintered the household. Young Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Mom set off for the coast while older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) stayed behind to continue his relationship with high school sweetheart Tess (Jennifer Morrison). Tommy went off to war, Paddy eventually found sobriety, and Brendan lives a mild-mannered life as a high school physics teacher with Tess and their daughters. Tommy, a former wrestling prodigy that trained under his father, returns out of the blue to start training for Sparta, a mixed martial arts grand prix tournament with a $5 million dollar prize. Meanwhile, Brendan and his wife continue to struggle to live their suburban life and increasing financial pressure leads him towards underground MMA tournaments to make quick cash. Twists and turns lead the two brothers on the same path, culminating in the Sparta tournament and its thrilling conclusion.
Gavin O’Connor, Cliff Dorfman, and Anthony Tambakis create a slow burn with their writing, setting up each character and weaving them into the story for the audience to get accustomed to. Inside there is an odd situation where you know Brendan and Tommy are brothers while the outsiders have no clue. There is a moment in the final third where it is finally revealed to those within the film and treated as a huge discovery. This is one of the situations that gives Warrior a based-on-a-true-story feeling I mentioned earlier. Additionally, Paddy has an odd obsession with Moby Dick that is never fully explained and is one of the more interesting qualities because of how it relates to his own relationship with Tommy. For those looking for an action film, you get your payoff in the final act, but the focus on building these characters into people you root for, even on a secondary level, gives the finale that much more impact and emotion.
Speaking of emotion, the performances in Warrior are full of it. Edgerton’s Brendan is a humble, down-to-earth former MMA fighter that has put those dreams on the backburner for a more stable future with his wife and daughters. Or so he thought. Financial woes lead him back to the life he promised he would never return to. He seems to take no real joy in the sport, and fighting for your families future in a financial sense may have something to do with it. He also has no real love for his father, despite having stuck around when Tommy and his mother left. Meanwhile, Hardy channels his inner monster like never before.
Tommy has a hunched-back appearance at times that gives him a bestial aura, as if gravity is constantly pummeling him into the Earth and he is fighting back. He seems to always have his guard up. As we get to know him, we learn of his troubled past and why he is so detached and distant in his present state. When he speaks, it’s whatever he is thinking. He seems to lack a filter yet doesn’t titter away to himself. Instead, he is observant and at times, cruel. All of these things lead to building Hardy’s character, and he pulls off the detachment with ease. Stunningly, he also manages to become someone you root for.
While Edgerton and Hardy continue to show why their star is rising, it is Nolte that steals the show. His bruised ego and clamoring to find redemption in the only family he has left is given a heartbreaking portrayal. He’s made mistakes, and he can never seem to get out from under its shadow. Sober now, he tries to endear himself to his two sons but they want nothing of it. Tommy, in particular, has a distant relationship when he takes his father on as a trainer. No small talk, no friendliness. This is business. The arms-length-only approach to training between a father and son feels like a cruel joke as Paddy continues to strive for redemption any way he can. That may feel close to home for Nolte, who has had his own public struggles with various substances, and it makes it all the more difficult to watch.
All of this has focused on the performances and story so far, but the action will likely draw a huge following. After all, this is one of the first films to portray MMA in a big-budget production. As a fan of MMA, I was impressed by the fights. While some of the sudden swings in momentum may seem out of touch, anyone that has followed the sport knows that victory can come out of nowhere. Small gloves and the ability to submit an adversary can lead to wild victories even when the deck is stacked against you. As for the fighters, Tommy is portrayed as more of a ground-and-pound heavy-hitter that matches his mannerisms while Brendan is a submission specialist that can take a punch to his own, implied, past detriment.
The various fighting techniques the two brothers utilize should give MMA fans a clue as to the different methods that are explored. While limited, Brendan’s training showcases the idea of a calm that isn’t often associated with the violent sport. Staying focused and the understanding of the situations you are in is paramount in a sport with a million ways to lose. Keeping your opponents hands from smashing your face isn’t always your main priority and it’s rarely that simple. Thankfully, O’Connor seems to have grasped that and makes sure to give audiences reason to feel the sport has an inherent amount of strategy and intelligence instead of the uncomplicated bloodsport it has often been tagged with.
Warrior also utilizes a myriad of camera angles and ways to display the action. At times it feels hectic yet remains purposeful. Towards the end, a ground-and-pound attack is showcased from a first-person perspective that gives the audience a sense of the insanity that goes on within the cage. The film builds and builds towards the final conclusion, and it truly leaves the audience speechless. Having seen the film a second time, it’s an odd moment that gives you pause as you realize no one knows how to react because they are so invested in what is still unfolding on screen. Perhaps, more than anything else, that is the key sequence that cements the film as more than just your average sports drama.
Warrior gives you a reason to care. If you invest in this splintered family, you are rewarded with heart-felt moments of troubling emotion. The film as a whole has a gritty sheen to it. There is nothing bright nor fanciful about it, though it does have levity. At times it is raw, and at other times it is thrilling. The performances alone should leave me without hesitation to recommend the film, yet it is the culmination of all of the aforementioned factors that push it over the edge. Warrior has its fair share of cliches and flaws, yet it overcomes it and remains affecting. The road may feel familiar, but it’s still a great ride.
Warrior is rated PG-13, opens this Friday, September 9th, and is distributed by Lionsgate.