Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior is a film that, much like the director’s beloved Miracle, mixes the exceptional with the ordinary. In the grand scheme of things, it’s ultimately the screenplay — which was penned by O’Connor, Cliff Dorfman, and Anthony Tambakis — that holds the film back, though it commendably manages to approach a sappy-sounding storyline with authenticity and subtlety. Maybe a little too much subtlety.
The script is a curious one, too, because of its structure — the first half of the film focuses on the story’s boiling familial tensions, while an overwhelming amount of the latter half takes place within the cages of a winner-take-all Mixed Martial Arts tournament. It’s an interesting balancing act that doesn’t exactly allow the film to tie up all of its loose ends. That’s both a compliment and a dig because while the conclusion is surprisingly unorthodox, it’s also something of a letdown in the way it glances over conflicts that have been brewed throughout the picture.
For any moviegoer, the synopsis — two brothers, estranged over a 14-year period, end up reuniting in the ring of an MMA tournament — will reek of derivation, but the stakes are set up delicately. Tommy (Tom Hardy), a haunted ex-Marine, enlists the help of his father Paddy (Nick Nolte) to train him for Sparta, an upcoming single-elimination MMA tournament with a grand prize of $5 million. From the get-go, Tommy makes it clear that he doesn’t want this to be a bonding experience — although Paddy is coming up on 1,000 days of sobriety, Tommy despises him as a father and shows no willingness to forgive. But once upon a time Paddy led his son to a state championship in wrestling, and Tommy knows that there’s no better trainer for him. “That much you were good at,” the son says to his father.
Brendan (Joel Edgerton, a certifiable talent), an ex-fighter himself, now teaches high-school physics to support his family, which includes his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and two young daughters. (The film has a lot of fun with the whole “physics-teacher-turned-fighter” bit.) Things seem to be going well, but in an early scene, Brendan learns that his financial situation is in the tank, and that foreclosure will follow soon enough if he can’t scare up some extra cash. It’s not long before Brendan realizes that the ring is his only ticket to financial safety, thus setting the stage for the obligatory training montage. (The montage, by the way, is a strange one — I think O’Connor overestimated the impact of split-screen effects here. I would’ve much preferred something less flashy.)
What allows Warrior to rise above its screenplay is the fierce commitment of O’Connor and his actors. You’ll probably be surprised to learn that the film runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours, and this isn’t only because of the thoroughly extended tournament sequence. In the dialogue scenes, O’Connor knows when to let the camera linger on the painfully expressive faces of his actors. Nolte is completely bruising as the father trying to reach a stage of redemption. For the most part, it’s a quiet performance, but that face of his speaks volumes.
Hardy’s performance is no less dazzling. If you’ve seen Bronson, then you know that there’s few people who can emit the same level of seething intensity. At times, he’s downright frightening. (Side note: After seeing this, I’m even more pumped to see what he’s cooking up as Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.) Hardy has already proven himself to be a phenominally talented actor, and he’s now on the path to becoming an iconic one as well. Like Nolte, he carries so much damage with him in this performance — it’s the quietude, it’s the hunch, it’s the Earth-shattering physique, it’s the stare that seems to say, “Life has offered me nothing in return.” The depths that he emotes here are truly astounding.
Though the film is likely to be a destined crowd-pleaser, it’s far from standard in its construction, and the bulky running-time could prove to be a challenge to audiences. But, as Miracle showed, O’Connor is clearly skilled at crafting exhilarating sports sequences, and the same effect shines through here: While the outcome of most of Warrior‘s battles are preordained, they manage to stay constantly engrossing. O’Connor’s throwback, no-nonsense shooting style also fits well with the working-class Pittsburgh setting. In the end, the character work is more interesting on the screen than it is on the page, but the film is made with care and it’s hard not to get involved. Especially when you’ve got guys like Hardy and Nolte who just breathe life into every moment.
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