As the fall film season starts gearing up this month, one particular film already has critics talking Oscars, and it’s only September. Having garnered some of the best reviews of 2011, “Warrior” seems like the film to beat right from the start — and understandably so.
“Warrior” is a movie that has all the trappings of a major crowd pleaser. It’s an underdog story about redemption and family, all tied together in a sandpaper-rough package of a fighting movie.
It tells the story of two estranged brothers who are torn apart by the aftermath of a childhood ravaged by their alcoholic father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), and the death of their mother. Now grown up, the two find themselves reunited against each other in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournament.
The stakes are high for both brothers, and the pressure is on for both to win. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a pill-popping mess and a deserter from the war in the Middle East. He wishes to use the tournament’s $5 million prize to support the wife and children of a fellow solider whose death he feels responsible for. He’s so desperate to win that he goes back to his formerly abusive father to help him train.
His brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a married father of two, is under deep financial strain after medical bills from his youngest daughter’s heart surgery pile up.
He’s suspended without pay from his position as a high school physics teacher after being caught fighting in amateur parking lot MMA fights. He sees the tournament as a last-ditch effort to keep his family’s house from being repossessed, against the protests of his deeply concerned wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison).
It’s very easy to draw comparisons between “Warrior” and the recent awards darling “The Fighter,” which also dealt with the turbulent relationship of brothers in the fighting world, but beyond some surface details, “Warrior” maintains its own identity with an altogether different feel.
“Warrior” is a sports movie that harkens back to “Rocky” and others in the long line of blood sport fairy tales. But instead of patronizing its audience with schmaltzy speeches and reveling in the rags its fighters have to punch their way out of to reach riches, the movie keeps itself grounded by leaving much unsaid. It’s not afraid to be quiet and allow the characters’ actions speak for themselves.
Hardy and Edgerton play each role beautifully and fully commit to their characters without ever getting carried away by the narrative’s heightened sense of sports movie reality.
Hardy gives a nuanced and layered performance as the highly damaged Tommy, doing much with comparatively less screen time than Edgerton.
Edgerton plays the earnest Brendan with heart and honesty, wisely avoiding any overdramatic outpours of emotion other actors might be tempted to make. Nolte also makes a memorable turn as the brothers’ estranged, former alcoholic father.
Despite the quality of the performances, the development of the brothers’ relationship is hindered by the movie’s refusal to spell things out for the audience.
They spend most of the movie apart and besides some small allusions to why they may have went their separate ways, the audience is left in the dark about the true nature of their feud.
Yet, their relationship and personal struggles truly play out on the ring. The many fight scenes featured are brutal and kinetically shot. Every blow looks like it hurts, and you’re left dumbfounded no bones are broken.
Hardy’s character really only comes alive when in a fight, unleashing all the pent-up anger toward his father and brother in the ring. This rage speaks larger than any word he utters throughout the movie, and it makes the pummeling he gives his opponents heartbreaking.
The movie’s willingness to turn something like MMA, with its hyper-masculine glamorized brutality, into something so emotionally revealing is one of its great strengths and surprises.
“Warrior” hardly breaks new ground, but it’s a good example of the places its genre can go. The film respects its audience and emotionally satisfies in the end without neatly tying up the characters’ problems with a bow.