Duration: 140 mins
You might sense déjà vu when you come face-to-face with Gavin O'Conner's tale of underdog turned prized fighter and it's hard to look past the idea that Warrior is little more than a hybrid of The Fighter, Million Dollar Baby and the Rocky movies rolled into one. However, scratch beneath the clichéd exterior and you'll discover something a little special with more depth.
First and foremost, Warrior is a drama. It's set within the context of sport (Mixed martial arts) that takes a back seat until the final third of the movie. The three major components that form the narrative are ex-fighter and reformed alcoholic, Paddy (Nick Nolte), short-tempered drifter, Tommy (Tom Hardy), and physics teacher/family man, Brendan (Joel Edgerton). The latter two are separated brothers with Nolte as their shunned father. The plot involves Tommy returning to his hometown after a long absence and, as a result of a YouTube video showing him pounding a UFC contender to a pulp, enlists his old man to train him. Meanwhile, across the other side of town, Brendan re-enters the fighters’ cage after realising his teaching job isn't enough to prevent his home from being repossessed. The two stories run parallel, occasionally overlapping until the pair are reunited at a UFC tournament.
The film progresses as a complex drama that sets its leads up as dysfunctional and uncommunicative alpha males; this is a film packed with testosterone as it's tonally juxtaposed with muscular, broad physiques, most notable that of a beefed-up Hardy. It is the actors’ physical presence that adds authenticity to the characters, as Nolte could quite easily be a washed-up fighter battling the torment of booze, loss and alcoholism, not to mention the complete disconnection from his family.
The tension within the trio makes for some gripping, as well as emotionally fuelled scenes; at times the abuse Paddy gets from his sons, mainly Tommy, is heartbreaking, but this dislike for one another can also serve up some raw and very touching moments too.
Due to the nature of the film it is imperative to mention the performances and in this instance they must deliver as the weight and depth of the script is measured on how said characters are brought to life. Hardy offers us a tortured soul that struggles with his inner demons to communicate on a basic human level. He looks the part too, as his visible commitment to bulk-up for a role (which includes some beast-like trapeziums) draw comparisons to the Christian Bale School of Method Acting. He handles a short-fused persona convincingly, often void of decency as he flies-off-the-handle, however Hardy perhaps doesn't offer the standout performance you’d expect. That accolade is left to Nick Nolte who, without question gives one of his best career performances. His down-and-out oddity and gruff voice of a broken-man really tug at the heartstrings, and even though we aren't explicitly informed of the family's turbulent past, we cannot help but feel for the man abandoned by his offspring.
What's refreshing, and ultimately avoids complete cliché, is the lack of back-story of our characters; never once are we subject to a flashback in order to explain a person’s motive or bitterness towards another. Instead subtle dialogue hints at feuds gone by without the need to spoon feed us. This aspect makes it a tad grittier as combining with an intimate, handheld shooting style and comes across like we're intruding on a family dispute as opposed to merely observing a film.
Speaking of style, when it comes to the fighting O'Connor handles it with poise as it maintains a credibility with its sharp direction and edit; a slick, ultra fast pace represents the frantic and ultra intense style of MMA, yet holds a professional validity. Unlike The Fighter, where bouts consist of men possessing unlimited stamina as they knock ten-bells out of one another at lightning speed, Warrior is more composed and true to reality. Its choreography is its strength as a large portion of fisty-cuffs occur in the final third, which is the turning point where the film steps up a notch and away from the methodically paced drama.
For most part, the dialogue is good. Aside from spurts of classic underdog lines- as seen throughout the Rocky series with its 'every-dog-has-it's-day' spiel- it narrowly avoids completely falling into a pit of triviality. It is this zero-to-hero formula that drives the narrative and gives it passion, if a little too conveniently at times, as it conforms to patriotic, American-ideology. Both brothers go from being nobodies to competing on a world stage and through plausible, yet questionable plot devices, the script allows this to happen, which again can be seen as a criticism on the writing.
Towards the end, Warrior begs the question as to its outcome: what will happen, who will win and so forth, as an alternative, yet highly emotive conclusion plays out as the film finishes exactly where you want it to. In fitting with the feuding relationships during the narrative- yet in stark contrast to the familiar nature of the rest of the movie- O’Connor doesn't offer us anything resembling a feel-good, Hollywood ending per se, which again is one of the picture's strengths. We are, however, at least presented with some clarity in reference to the emotional roller-coaster experienced over the two hour slug, which is gratifying in itself.
Warrior is a very character driven effort. It's well executed and displays an emotional depth and complexity that renders it a worthy sports-drama. Hardy and Edgerton do fine jobs, but Notle is the shining light here, he is the backbone to the story, holding everything together as the subsequent magic stems from his actions. Expect an Oscar nod for the veteran, as well as for director Gavin O'Connor's achievement too.