Speaking generally, sports films tend to be among the more formulaic stories in cinema. When it comes to movies about professional fighters, most modern movies take their cues from a handful of films, namely the underdog classic Rocky (1976) or the abstract melancholy of Raging Bull (1980). Despite the sense that on some level, these works are an imitation, that is not to say that they cannot be successful, as many of these themes have become cinematic cliche for a reason.
In many ways, the Gavin O’Connor fronted Warrior (2011) is a familiar amalgamation of its predecessors. It is a fight film, centering around the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). To that end, it is a film spiked with well-timed shots of adrenaline, as the fight scenes are increasingly thrilling, and mostly shot with a clear sense of style and geography. While it has a certain machismo, it is by no means a brainless punch-fest, and any familiarity with the sport itself is secondary to appreciating the action, much less the film itself. This is helped significantly by the fact that the film is not really about fighting (just as no great sports film is only about its chosen sport) as much as it is the lens through which O’Connor and co-writer Anthony Tambakis explore a broken family.
The story opens with former Marine Tommy Riordan, (née Conlon) (Tom Hardy) returning to his childhood home in Pittsburgh, to the considerable surprise of his recovering-alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). After stepping into a local gym, Tommy puts a serious beating on a professional MMA fighter (knocking him out cold in under a minute) and gets the attention of a promoter who wants to represent him in Sparta, an elimination style tournament with a $5 million purse for the winner. Tommy recruits his father to train him under the condition that there will be no attempts at reconciliation between them.
Across the state in Philadelphia, Tommy’s estranged brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a schoolteacher with a family of his own, and a mortgage that he is unable to keep up with. A former UFC fighter turned educator, Brendan has taken to low-level exhibition fights as a means of making extra cash, against the wishes of his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison). After the school catches wind of Brendan’s extracurricular activities, he is suspended without pay. Left with few options, Brendan turns to old friend Frank Campana (the always welcome Frank Grillo) to help get him back in fighting shape. When Campana’s Sparta fighter goes down with an injury, Brendan is called up to the big leagues.
Anyone who has been to the movies before can figure out what direction the wind is blowing. By the halfway point in the film, when the two long lost brothers come face to face for the first time in many years, the emotional stakes are laid bare, as old wounds are reopened and family history is messily unearthed. While the film employs familiar tropes leading up to Sparta (including a training montage that is somewhat visually unique) what feels so singular is the way O’Connor divides the viewer’s loyalties. Eschewing the traditional Rocky-esque approach, there is no hero or villain; equal screen-time is given to both Tommy and Brendan’s journeys, and each man is driven by deeply personal motives, creating a strong rooting interest in both of their success. It is the rare fight film where who wins is secondary to the emotional stakes at the center of the conflict. O’Connor has said the title [Warrior] was “always intended…to be about spiritual warfare.” As the tournament winds down, the drama becomes less about kicks and punches and much more about reconciliation and forgiveness. It is not so much that the film dodges cliches as much as it simply elevates them. It is a damn fine example of the power of telling a familiar story with enough verve and emotion to make it feel fresh again.
The performances are top-notch, across the board. Tom Hardy imbues Tommy with a cold ferocity that calls to mind a young, feral Marlon Brando, all hunched over swagger and fury. It is a special performance from a guy who has since reliably become one of the great actors in his generation. Joel Edgerton is given the less flashy part, but manages to bring real gravitas to a role that could have been mawkish and silly in a less capable performer’s hands. While it is a supporting role, Nick Nolte nearly walks away with the film as the broken father of the two men. It marks a real high-point for the grizzled vet, as it is a performance that is frankly difficult to watch at times, and will feel uncomfortably familiar to any man who has ever struggled to make sense of his relationship to his father. In the years to come, this will be the sort of film that fans of both Hardy and Edgerton will rediscover (as this writer will bet on both men having long careers) and wondering how they missed it the first time around.
By the time the final match rolls around, it feels like things could break either way, and the tension in the ring is never higher than during this bout. As the final minutes play out, scored to “About Today” by The National *, it is clear that this is not the usual sort of climax, where the audience stands up and cheers for the victor. Rather, it is the rare sports film which will top the list of those that can reduce grown men to mere whimpers through sheer catharsis. The outcome hurts, but it must, as facing the pain is the only way to truly move forward. As the song builds to a crescendo, it is clear the film will offer no easy answers, only the promise that what was once lost might yet be recovered.
*The version played in the film, recorded during “The White Sessions” can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r26VsCGCgb0 It is a personal favorite of this writer, as far as sad songs go.