A trio of great performances beats sports movie clichés to make a knock out
The Conlon boys were born to fight. Father Paddy (Nick Nolte: Zookeeper) devoured their youth training young Tommy for wrestling matches and beating the life out of the family while drinking away his Vietnam flashbacks. After years of abuse, his wife makes a plan to run and takes Tommy. Older brother Brendan chooses to stay.
The boys grow into very different men.
Brendan (Joel Edgerton: Animal Kingdom) married his neighborhood sweetheart, enjoyed a brief career as a UFC — Ultimate Fighting Championship — fighter and became a physics teacher. To pay the bills after a health scare with his youngest daughter, he must re-enter the ring.
Tommy (Tom Hardy: Inception) isn’t so much a person as a wound. He suffered his father’s abuse, watched his mother die of cancer, then joined the Marines. Back from Iraq, he haunts his old gym, beating the snot out of anyone stupid enough to spar with him. Still angry with his abusive father, Tommy blames Brendan, who he feels abandoned his mother. One night he shows up on his father’s door, asking the old man to train him for a big MMA — Mixed Martial Arts — tournament. One condition: Tommy refuses to forgive his father, even though Paddy is sober. Desperate to win back at least one of his boys, Paddy agrees.
Now two brothers train to compete in the world’s biggest MMA tournament, never mind that neither has been a professional fighter for the better part of 10 years. They’ll have to fight bone-crushing Russians, Mohawked toughs and giant bruisers. Guess which two contestants you’ll see fighting each other in the final round?
Warrior is not a film afraid of sports movie clichés. Director Gavin O’Connor (Pride and Glory) embraces them — I don’t believe he misses one — and makes them work. You have the DeNiro-esque Tommy, a snarling ball of rage and lost-little-boy sadness versus gentle giant Brendan, a family man with soulful eyes and a heart of gold. You know within the first few minutes who will win, who will be redeemed and who will learn a life lesson. Knowing all that, you still worry about the boys during each bout.
Performances save Warrior from sports movie drudgery. Hardy, unrecognizable as a bulky brawler, seethes with barely suppressed rage. In every scene, there seems to be only a thread holding him back from violence. Yet outside the ring, his Tommy has the mannerisms of a little boy.
Edgerton gets the easier role of kind family man, but he makes Brendan’s desperation to keep his family afloat palpable. He’s a good teacher and happy outside of the ring, but he can’t afford to be a man of peace.
The real champion in Warrior is Nolte, who makes abusive alcoholic Paddy a sympathetic monster. He’s wracked with guilt for his past and doggedly seeks forgiveness from his boys, allowing them to punish him at every turn. When Tommy taunts him with liquor, Nolte resigns himself to the torture, allowing his boy to exact revenge for years of abuse.
Wrapped up in the world these actors have created, the audience yelled encouragement to Tommy and Brendan during our screening. You may want to catch an early showing if you want to see the movie without interjections of Yeah! Get him!
Warrior is not about intricate plotting and cinematic flare. It’s a great story of three screwed-up men resolving their issues with blood, sweat and tears.