After 14 years, ex-Marine Tommy Conlon (Hardy) returns to Pittsburgh to prepare for the world’s biggest mixed martial arts tournament, reconnecting with his father, Paddy (Nolte), who will train him. Meanwhile, his estranged brother, Brendan (Edgerton), realises he has to return to his old fighting ways if he has any hope of saving his family from insolvency.
Like The Fighter earlier this year, Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior balances brutal in-ring action with fractured-family drama, fixing on the tensions between two brothers. Like The Fighter, it features a hugely impressive, transformative performance from a British actor, who is next year to be seen in The Dark Knight Rises. And, like The Fighter, it’s entirely predictable in its sports-movie mechanics, but none the less enjoyable for it.
There are differences, of course. The Fighter was a true story; Warrior is entirely fictional. And where The Fighter was immersed in the familiar sweat and blood of boxing, Warrior’s arena is the newer one of mixed martial arts (MMA) — that punchy young sport currently elbow-striking its way into popular consciousness.
Exemplified by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), MMA is a bruising blend of, well, whatever you like, really. A match can end with a good, old-fashioned KO — that’s for those who prefer the ‘sprawl-and-brawl’ variety — or the contestants can grapple each other down onto the mat with a well-executed submission hold, finishing the fight with a tap-out. Then there’s the ‘ground-and-pound’ style, whereby a takedown is followed by a flurry of punches and elbows. So where a boxing movie has to extract its thrills from a relatively limited repertoire of moves and styles (not to denigrate its tactical richness), MMA offers a wealth of variety — which O’Connor, to his credit, uses to maximum effect.
Most obviously we see this in the contrast between the two alienated siblings at his story’s centre. In one corner, we have Joel Edgerton’s Brendan Conlon, the older of the two, an ex-fighter now working as a physics teacher, a family man struggling to make ends meet. He’s contained, thoughtful, quietly determined — and as such, he’s more of a technique man, using endurance, willpower and submission holds to achieve victory.
In the other corner we have his prodigal brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy). Tommy’s been absent from their hometown of Pittsburgh for 14 years, having left with the pair’s domestically abused mother. He’s an ex-Marine, fresh out of Iraq, and is a perfect storm of directed rage — even though, paradoxically, he approaches his recovering-alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), to train him. In the cage, Tommy’s pure sprawl-and-brawl: a sharp-shock fighter, all tightly coiled power. Hardy’s physique is astonishing, more so even than in his portrayal of Charles Bronson for Nicolas Winding Refn. Bulked up primarily across the shoulders and neck, lending him a threateningly hunched presence, he’s a muscle-laden monster (bringing to mind the UFC’s own raging bull, Brock Lesnar), but also entirely convincing as a blue-collar boy from Philly — with extreme emotional issues.
That he and Edgerton — two very different fighters — are set on a collision course from the outset is giving nothing away. But what marks out O’Connor’s film from most ‘sports’ pictures is that it’s not about one contestant, or team, but rather follows both sides, dividing the film, and our sympathies, straight down the middle.
In terms of winning those sympathies, Hardy does have a much tougher time. His precise back story is shrouded in mystery, and at first it’s hard to accept his sheer unpleasantness to those once closest to him, even his once-abusive father. He’s not big on forgiveness, and his resentment sometimes comes across as petulance. Edgerton, by contrast, is a nice guy through and through. He’s a teacher weirdly loved by his pupils, who call him ‘Mr. C’ rather than ‘Sir’. He’s the kind of dad who stays up late, attentively repairing his daughters’ dolls’ house piano. In a lesser actor’s hands, many of his scenes could become mawkish, but Edgerton thankfully has sufficient charm to make them work. He is also, by the time he and Tommy separately arrive at the big, climactic tournament (‘Sparta’, in Atlantic City — think Vegas on the beach), very much the underdog: the old-timer, a bit of a joke, only on the bill because someone else suffered an injury. Tommy, meanwhile, is a true dark horse. One with a hell of a kick.
That the pair eventually face each other in the ring hardly comes as a surprise, but by the point they do, it’s genuinely tough to predict how the match will play out. And the build up to this moment is expertly massaged by O’Connor (his 2004 film Miracle proved a valuable sports-movie training ground), who provides a massively uplifting climax. The matches themselves (for which Hardy and Edgerton mix it up with some real-life fighters) are intensely thrilling, while the emotional peak is absolutely, get-you-right-here, air-punchingly stirring. For all its leanings towards obviousness, Warrior goes the distance.
It hardly rewrites the rulebook, but Warrior is a powerful, moving and brilliant sports-pic-cum-family drama. Like The Fighter, but with kicking.