Family drama as intense as the cage fightingMovie Review Friday, September 9th, 2011
I must admit that going into the theater to see the mixed martial arts movie Warrior, I thought it was based on a true story. I don’t know why I thought this. It may have been its gritty similarity to The Fighter, last-year’s Oscar-winning movie about the real-life boxer Micky Ward and his brother Dicky. Or maybe it was that the last time Tom Hardy, the break-out star of last year’s Inception, was bulked up this huge, he was in Bronson, the mostly true story about an infamous British criminal.
Whatever the reason was, I think that believing that the brothers Brendan and Tommy Conlon were real people helped me to fall for the film in ways that were quite unexpected for me. Because I must also admit that the reason I was initially so excited to see Warrior is that I knew it would feature a lot of shirtless muscle gods wailing on each other.
In some ways, Warrior is a traditional sports movie: An underdog needs to win the big game not just for the big cash prize but also to regain self-respect. We have a worried wife, wise trainers, and, yes, a training montage. The twist here is that there are two underdogs. They are Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Hardy), estranged bothers from working class Pittsburgh. When they were teens, their mother left – actually ran away from – their abusive alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte).
Tommy, the younger, went with mom, but Brendan stayed because he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend Tess (Jennifer Morrison), who he eventually married. After their mother dies, Tommy, who had been a star wrestler, joined the Marines, and the movie opens with him sitting on now-sober Paddy’s doorstep, not having been in contact with either his father or brother in more than a decade. Brendan in the meantime has escaped Paddy and become a high school physics teacher after spending several years as a professional, but not famous, MMA fighter.
Both Tommy and Brendan have good reasons to get back in the cage. Tommy wants to train for a tournament called Sparta that has a $5 million purse so that he can help the family of his best friend, who was killed in Afghanistan. Even though he hates his father, Tommy asks Paddy, who trained him in high school, to train him again. Brendan and Tess’s house is being foreclosed on, and he needs the extra money to keep up the payments. After he is suspended from teaching for fighting, he really needs the money. One thing leads to another, and both Brendan and Tommy end up in Sparta.
This coincidence is not the only hard-to-believe plot point that made me realize that Warrior couldn’t be a true story; another involves Tommy’s Marine experience. But this screenwriting problem is subsumed by the intensity and authenticity of the performances and the scenes in the cage. Hardy, who seems to be channeling some cross between Rocky-era Sylvester Stallone and On the Waterfront-era Marlon Brando, is the size of a gorilla and as angry as a rabid one. It would be perhaps too simple if not for a scene with a cowed Nick Nolte toward the end that flips our opinion of Tommy completely – he is more than a furious brute.
But Edgerton, in the Aussie’s first major role in an American film, is the biggest surprise here. As the sensitive, guilt-ridden family man and the smarter, rather than the bigger, fighter, he learns more of love and support than the damaged, unnerving Hardy. This is an excellent family drama masquerading as, and slightly hampered by being, a sports film.
The final scene, as powerful and gut-wrenching as anything I’ve seen this year, merges the two genres brilliantly. I surprised myself and cried.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman
Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte
Opens Sept. 9 at your local multiplex
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