Brother versus brother is a storytelling device as old as the bible. It’s visceral, and offers a good majority of your audience something recognizable; any family with two boys has seen first hand the intensity of brotherly conflict, and the blind rage that only a family member can provoke. We are least capable of reason when faced with those we love. Warrior takes this simple truth and unrolls it, encompassing a battered and rusted family and an MMA tournament of champions. It illustrates the rugged barriers that inevitably rise when hard choices are mixed with stubborn, guarded men. And most remarkably, it pulls you headlong into a story as personal and emotional as you’ve ever experienced, breaking your heart and investing more of you than you had anticipated, or even felt prepared to give.
Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) shows up on his father’s stoop in Pittsburgh, drunk, stoned, looking for a cathartic showdown. What he finds is a sober, godly Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a man whose demons are broken and diminished, a man disinterested in a fight. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Tom’s brother and Paddy’s son Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) teaches physics at a high school, scraping by for his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and daughters, with organized fights guaranteeing $500 and a few bruises. The ties between the three men are long broken, a sick mother and alcoholism having sent them all in different directions, physically and emotionally. But Tommy and Brendan are both fighters, and when the world’s biggest purse is offered in a 16-man, winner-takes-all MMA tournament, the two men find themselves squaring off across an octagon, all the bad blood and swallowed words coming together in a volatile and violent finale.
It’s important to understand that this is not a movie about MMA fighting, or the UFC. Like any good sports movie, the game is interchangeable. It’s the characters that matter, and what those characters are fighting for. For Brendan Conlon it begins as desperation; a man with a family and a home and an insufficient income to maintain it all. His nighttime moonlighting as a fighter gets him suspended from his day job, and suddenly fighting becomes his only real option. Tommy, meanwhile, is an Iraq vet with a massive, ghostly chip on his shoulder. Though he was the one left to care for his dying mother, and he surely went through some kind of hell in the war, he is a man so withdrawn from people that reasons hardly matter. It is simply enough to understand that he wants nothing to do with pretty much everybody. He fights because he still has honor, and despite it all, recognizes that honor often calls for action. Tommy and Brendan are markedly different characters, but there is no villain, and there is no hero.
In the hands of another director, with different talent and the melodrama dialed up any more, Warrior would simply be spinning its wheels. It is the rare film that feels just inside of too much, verging on ham-fisted, but only ever skirting the edge. It is the talent of the performances that keeps the film from going off the tracks, with Hardy and Edgerton leading a small but fantastic cast of actors. Surely for any actor to convince us that he could stand in the ring with the highest caliber MMA talent, he must be strong, determined, intimidating. Hardy is all this and more, with a presence that pulses onscreen. It’s like watching a jaw clench and unclench. The film is being duly praised for its excellent fight choreography, and Tommy’s fights in particular make it hard to stay in your seat. Meanwhile, Edgerton’s Brendan has none of the crazed recklessness of Tommy, instead maintaining a composure born of foundation and home, and the need to protect those he loves the most. While the average audience member won’t come into Warrior knowing anything about MMA or its fighting styles, it’s easy enough to appreciate the different approaches of the two men in the ring, particularly when they finally meet.
Nick Nolte hasn’t aged particularly well, but his chops are as strong as ever. His Paddy Conlon is the heart of Warrior, a battered old man whose sons despise him. His resilience defines him, and writer/director Gavin O’Connor has added a great deal of poetry to his struggle, with the old man perpetually listening to a Moby Dick audiotape. His life long hunt is for forgiveness, and his obsession is reviving the connection to his sons. And this, more than anything else, is what lies at the core of Warrior. Not fighting, or anger, or resentment, though surely these are all necessary to arrive at the final destination. But what truly sticks with you at the end of the film is the importance of family, and the importance of loving those closest to you, because you both need each other. In the film’s final moments (which will undoubtedly make you want to jump out of your seat and cheer), we find ourselves deeply inside the experience these two men are sharing, as we have been with them every step of the way. It is astoundingly moving.
Warrior is a film about relationships, and does a phenomenal job of balancing them. You understand the dynamics between all of the four main characters, which is not only good writing and directing, but important for a film so dependent on having us recognize and appreciate the characters’ motivations. Still, you feel Warrior with your heart as much as you process it with your head. Fighting, pain, fear, intimidation, defeat and victory. These are intrinsic elements, and in every fight–particularly those towards the end of the film–you find yourself rigid, so purely invested in the action and emotion of the scene that it becomes nearly impossible to retreat. Though Gavin O’Connor is a director of little note, he has swung for the fences and succeeded here. Warrior is rough and heartfelt, an underdog film easy to root for, and easier still to applaud.