As a sports film, Warrior doesn’t offer any new twist on a tried and true template, but it could be held up as a perfect example of how to make an uplifting sports film. This story of two estranged brothers trying to make their way through a newly formed mixed martial arts tournament hits almost every beat the audience expects, but it does so with near flawless precision. This isn’t exactly the reinvention of the wheel, but it sure does give one of the smoothest rides of the year.
Pennsylvania brothers Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) are about as different as brothers could be. Tommy is a brooding Iraq War veteran and former high school wrestling champion who has just wandered back into the life of his deadbeat alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) with a whole lot of emotional baggage. Brendan is a married high school physics teacher and former UFC washout in desperate need of a large sum of money to save his house from foreclosure. Separately they begin training for a grand prix style tournament known as Sparta where the best MMA fighters from around the world compete for a five million dollar purse.
The film works best as an acting showcase for everyone except Hardy, but it isn’t his fault that Tommy gets the short end of the stick as a character. Tommy only has two emotions (pissed off and deadly silent) and his backstory really isn’t explained until just past the halfway point of the film. Hardy’s scenes with his on-screen father are explosive, with the veteran Nolte giving his best performance in years. Nolte proves worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod for the upcoming awards season. Hardy and Nolte are great, but it is the other brother that steals the show.
The majority of the film focuses quite wisely on Edgerton’s Brendan, since the character is far more textured. Brendan is an incredibly sympathetic person for the audience to get behind. He has the same past as Tommy, and he seems to have turned out for the better, but that darkness still hangs over him. He is a hard worker and loving father who isn’t exactly proud of having to go out and lie to his wife that he is working as a bouncer in bar when he is really fighting for cash in strip club parking lots. When it finally comes time for Brendan to confront Tommy and his father after years, the movie roars to life almost as much as it does during the fight sequences, and it’s mostly thanks to Edgerton. He creates a dynamic portrait of a man driven back to all the things he thought he had left behind in an effort to salvage a life going down the tubes. It is the star making performance I always knew Edgerton had in him.
Fight fans will be happy to know that Warrior contains easily the best depiction of mixed martial arts fighting committed to film. The fights themselves are fairly brutal and filmed with a combination of visceral close-ups and inventive camera movements that take viewers as close to the action as humanly possible. Hardy and Edgerton are easily up to the physicality of the roles, as are the people they are fighting (including wrestling superstar Kurt Angle as an undefeated Russian who hasn’t met an opponent that has ever gone the distance with him). The fights provide the bulk of the film’s energy down the stretch, and rightfully so.
Director and co-writer Gavin O’ Connor knows the ins and outs of making a sports film from having previously worked on the mostly excellent hockey film Miracle. However, Warrior shares that film’s biggest flaw: it is too long by at least thirty minutes. There isn’t anything in Warrior that is actually bad, but it often covers the same ground over and over again without necessarily furthering the story or the characters. In some ways it seems like O’ Connor is trying to add depth to his characters, but there are only so many well made training montages and go-nowhere fights that one can sit through before they all begin to feel the same. It picks up in intensity again once the brothers make it to the actual tournament, but the middle hour drags a bit at times. With some paring down Warrior would have solidified its place in film history as a classic. Instead, it’s merely pretty damn good.