A Warrior worth fighting for
It’s safe to say all men have father issues. And perhaps just as many, if they have siblings, have brother issues. It’s the complexity of those familial relationships that “Warrior” is primarily concerned with, though it’s wrapped in a mixed martial arts drama that is as formulaic as it is crowd-pleasing.
Boxing films—MMA contains elements of boxing and wrestling, including a similar gladiator brutality—are one of the industry’s most common genres. “Warrior,” which follows the typical underdog-to-champion theme, can’t be totally faulted for its predictability.
Which fighter gets crowned in the final round is hardly the point. “Warrior” has much more in mind and a greater ambition: to tweak the tear ducts of its adult male demographic while serving up a rousing dish of adrenaline-pumping storytelling.
To that end, “Warrior” is a knockout.
Threatened with the foreclosure of his home, good guy physics teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) moonlights in mixed martial arts and gets suspended for doing so. Fueling the initial anger of his high school sweetheart wife (Jennifer Morrison), Brendan decides to continue fighting and seeks the support of his former trainer (Frank Grillo).
Meanwhile, younger estranged brother Tommy (Tom Hardy)—having recently and mysteriously left the Marines—decides to get back in the ring himself and summarily knocks out a contender during an impromptu sparring exercise.
The two brothers were separated when their alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte) and mother split, leaving emotional scars that the film handles with uncommon honesty and restrained poignancy. Edgerton is credible as the underdog hero, while Hardy bristles with smoldering ferocity. But it’s Nolte as the father who can’t get the redemption from his sons he desperately craves that grounds the film. It’s an aching, powerhouse performance.
It comes as no surprise when the brothers are on a crash course to face each other in the single elimination, winner-take-all “Sparta” competition and its $5 million purse. What is a little surprising is how the film avoids an edgier R-rated level of content and manages to stay credible (at least for newcomers) to the sport of mixed martial arts, which today appears to have eclipsed boxing in popularity. (Though an argument could be made that in reality MMA is far more bloody than portrayed here.)
In spirit and story, “Warrior” falls somewhere between “Rocky” and “The Fighter.” Despite what it lacks in originality it, like those two films, makes up for by giving us embattled competitors we root for regardless of whom takes home the belt.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material.