The closest I’ve come to knowing anything about mixed martial arts is the occasional beatdown my older sons inflict upon one another. I love boxing, wrestling, any kind of sport movies, but Warrior seemed out of my usual area of interest. If you feel the same way, it’s time to reconsider.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor, who showed such entertaining flair for narrative and character in Miracle, about the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team, Warrior is an intense, emotional, stunning movie that’s as much about broken families as it is breaking down opponents.
Like Rocky, Warrior exudes a palpable sense of place, this time the decaying residential streets of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The jobs are going or gone, but people like Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) continue to stay, attending mass with a dwindling congregation, hoping that something’s coming around the corner. When Paddy arrives home one day he’s greeted by the surly hulking mass of his son Tommy (Tom Hardy), an Iraq War veteran with a pill addiction and the crazy notion that, if his father coaches him like he did in high school, he might have a shot at winning a “last man standing” mixed martial arts competition, which carries a $5 million purse. Tommy would like to use that money to help his best friend’s widow in El Paso; as we hear him talk to her on the phone, we know that really bad things happened in the war, but perhaps not as bad as when Tommy and his brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) were growing up with Paddy, who had been an abusive alcoholic. We find out that things got so horrible, Tommy and his mother left, while teenage Brendan, who had fallen for local girl Tess (Jennifer Morrison), stayed behind with Paddy.
Brendan, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship contender, picks up spare cash from fights in parking lots at stripper clubs. Like Tommy, he figures that the Atlantic City competition is his one shot, however far-fetched. His friend and trainer Frank (Frank Grillo) even tells him he has a better chance of starting a boy band.
This sounds like a lot of plot, but it’s essential to get an understanding of the grandiosity of this unashamed reworking of a 1930s melodrama. Like Tommy, Brendan has no use for Paddy; neither son will let Paddy have any part in his life, but moreover, Tommy wants nothing to do with his brother. Much of the power of Warrior comes from these three men circling each other, rage, and at times, at least for Paddy, pain dripping like the blood of a ring opponent. Tommy’s furor comes out in his fights, which are as violent as they are abbreviated, as he destroys those in his way before marching out of the ring, no use for anybody or anything other than utter annihilation. One gets the feeling that the underlying reason he chose to train with Paddy is to torture him, because he can. Throughout the movie, one can’t help but wonder what went on in the Conlon childhoods, and the movie avoids the pat revelatory scene, instead relying on the nuances of dialogue and little hints subtly dropped (O’Connor co-wrote the script with Anthony Tambakis).
You know from the start that the brothers will have to face off against other; what you cannot know is how much you feel for both of them, how hard it is to decide who is worthy of victory. Nevertheless, the montage of fight scenes leading to the inevitable is vital, fresh, and vibrant in their intensity. There is a raw, brutal masculinity in these fighters, in these competitions, that is as compelling as it is off-putting. The surprising thing is how emotionally moving the film’s conclusion is, and despite the clichés, how very believable.