by Tony Dayoub
Epic, engrossing and exciting! These are the three words that immediately spring to mind while watching Warrior, a movie cut from the same cloth as those of the age-old Hollywood fight genre. Only instead of wrestling or boxing, it is the increasingly popular sport MMA (mixed martial arts) that supplies this surprisingly successful film with a fresh perspective.
In Warrior, Tom Hardy plays ex-Marine Tommy Riordan, an MMA fighter who returns to Pittsburgh to ask his father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic, to train him again. Riordan took his mother's maiden name when he and she walked out on the abusive Paddy. Although Tommy's older brother, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) stayed behind with dad in order to continue his relationship with Tess (Jennifer Morrison)—now his wife—Brendan and Paddy are now estranged as well. Brendan, once a professional UFC fighter, left MMA behind when he started a family. Now a high school physics teacher upside down on his mortgage, he secretly starts prize-fighting in small-scale tournaments to make ends meet.
The following clip takes place after Tess finds out what Brendan has been up to:
Director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle) invests the film with pathos and style as we separately follow Tommy's and Brendan's rise through the ranks of professional MMA in a two-pronged plotline. Tommy's distrust of the father he was never able to rely on and the older brother who chose to stay behind inform his every move. Paddy seeks redemption in his coaching of Tommy. And Brendan, more comfortable in his own skin than his brother or father, looks to regain his hunger for winning despite his wife's reluctance to back him up. Midway through the film, an unexpected, but exhilirating, split-screen training montage to the tune of a rock-inflected "Ode to Joy" starts merging the parallel storylines. Until the viewer is faced with the predictable twist; a looming confrontation between the two brothers at an MMA championship awaits in Warrior's climax.
What lifts Warrior above its cliches is the film's above average cast. Hardy (Bronson) imbues Tommy with a dark streak of self-pity, particularly in moments after scenes where he and Nolte have even a minor confrontation. Though never giving voice to the notion, one can see his return to visit Paddy is his way of reaching out, and that he identifies with his dad more than he lets on. This underscores the suspicion that Tommy is nursing another wound the viewer is not initially aware of, one that only Paddy may be able to heal.
Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) has the thinnest part, that of the fighter looking to get out after one more big score. But it is complicated by his relationships with Tess, Paddy, Tommy, his coach, Frank (Frank Grillo), and his boss, Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn). In each interaction we get to observe a man torn by the different roles he plays: loving father and husband, alienated son and brother, eager but unproven student, and disobedient employee. Edgerton is up to conveying the broad range within the slight character of Brendan, using his generosity and intellect as both his primary assets and his fatal flaws.
Perhaps the most compelling performance, though, is Nolte's as the twelve-stepping Paddy. Switching from gruff to tender, ambitious to defeated, you can see how close he often getsto reaching a reconciliation with Tommy before the fighter sabotages it time and time again. You wish you could be in the story yourself to give the broken but decent Paddy a shoulder to lean on. This is a man who repeatedly turns to an audiobook of Melville's Moby Dick for solace, for Pete's sake. Nolte's tour-de-force deserves an Oscar nod, thouh I fear it may be lost in the shuffle since Warrior is opening so early in the fall awards season.
O'Connor's stirring prelude pays off big once Warrior reaches its climax. Forcing the viewer to invest in each character's emotional arc increases the stakes once Tommy inevitably faces off against Brendan. And no small part of our willingness to care about these characters is due to the acting of the film's lead triumvirate. By the film's end, Edgerton, Hardy, and even Nolte can each lay claim to being the warrior of the title.
Warrior opens nationwide on Friday, September 9.