Director: Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton
Plot: Two brothers end up going head-to-head in a martial arts tournament – a fight that challenges them both on a professional and personal level.
Sibling rivalry never fails to make a fascinating subject for a film. We expect the competition to be intensely fierce, yet there is always that elephant in the room which means the family bond between them remains unbreakable. This compelling contradiction has been explored in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Godfather (1972) and given a lighter treatment with In Her Shoes (2005). Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior tackles this theme by pitting two brothers in physical and emotional combat, in what is an unflinchingly powerful film.
Former U.S. Marine Tommy Conlon (Hardy) visits his father Paddy (Nolte), a recovering alcoholic, whose drinking led him to abuse his family and tear it apart. Tommy hasn’t forgiven Paddy for his behaviour and, after questioning him about the events that led to their estrangement, is not convinced by his fathers claim that he is now a reformed character. Tommy then goes to a gym where he is invited to take on Pete ‘Mad ‘Dog’ Grimes (Erik Apple) in a mixed martial arts fight – he renders Grimes unconscious after only a few seconds. The fight is filmed on a mobile phone camera, uploaded onto the internet and goes viral. Meanwhile, Tommy learns about an upcoming tournament called Sparta being held in Atlantic City, with a winner-takes-all prize of $5 million. He decides that he wants to enter and if he wins, donate the money to the family of a fallen friend in the army. Tommy asks Paddy to train him, but without the possibility that their father-son relationship doesn’t get in the way.
Paddy’s older son Brendan (Edgerton) is a high-school physics teacher and former UTC fighter, who lives with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two daughters. He is struggling to pay the mortgage so decides to fight on the side to make some extra money. After winning an event held in a parking lot, he turns up for work the next day, but his boss, Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn) hears rumours of his moonlighting and is forced to suspend Brendan without pay after seeing his bruises. Without much of a choice, Brendan decides to fight full-time with help from old friend Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) as his trainer. Initially entering small fights, he learns about Sparta and persuades Frank to let him enter, despite his lack of recent experience. As the Conlon brothers progress through the Sparta tournament at opposite ends of the draw, the impending emotional and physical collision course proves to have far-reaching ramifications much greater than a multi-million dollar jackpot.
Warrior combines touching family drama with brutal fight scenes in a visceral masterclass of acting and direction. Gavin O’Connor manages to ensure that the back stories of each brother are covered in a sympathetic way, even if it is Brendan’s story that is initially more affecting. Despite the fact that many of the Rocky franchise clichés are all present – triumph over adversity, the training montage, a baying crowd and a dazzling finale – without them this would actually be a much lesser film. Recent movies such as The Wrestler (2008) and The Fighter (2010) carve a similar path between family on the one side and success in the ring on the other. O’Connor and his fellow screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman have used the same formula, but without wandering too far into predictable territory.
As audiences demand increasingly more from the so-called fighting genre than characters who just grunt, the expectation is for high-calibre acting and we get it. Rising stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton excel as the Conlon brothers, showing a convincing range of emotions during both the portrayal of their respective struggles to reconnect with their father and the blood, sweat and tears sacrificed during the tournament. The terrific casting continues as Nick Nolte gives a cracking performance as Paddy Conlon, a man trying to repair the seemingly irreparable. His Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor was well-deserved and although he faced tough competition and lost out to Christopher Plummer for Beginners, this marks a return to form for Nolte. Jennifer Morrison proves that she isn’t there to make up the numbers with a fine performance as Brendan’s wife Tess, but it would’ve been great to see more of the underused Kevin Dunn, who once again displays his versatility. Arguably the biggest quibble would be that the plot is a little dubious in explaining how two hastily trained amateur fighters can enter an apparently international martial arts tournament and do so well, but the underdog story is always a winner.
Warrior is enjoyable, sad and literally painful to watch in equal amounts. The rather far-fetched aspect of the storyline aside, this is another superbly acted entry in the fighter genre cannon and definitely packs a great punch.