Gavin O’Connor delved into family dysfunction with his previous picture, the crime drama Pride and Glory. Before that, he directed 2004’s Miracle, a rousing underdog story about the USA’s Olympic hockey team and their victory over the heavily-favored Russians. In Warrior, O’Connor and co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman combine both themes for a tear jerking story capitalizing on the rise in popularity of MMA and the current economic crisis.
Warrior takes the classic Rocky formula and splits it two ways. The protagonists are estranged brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy), who were raised by a drunken and abusive father in Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). The rift between siblings began when Tommy finally convinced their mother to leave with him for California where she later succumbed to cancer. Brendan chose to stay behind and marry his high school sweetheart, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), with whom he has two beautiful daughters.
Fourteen years later, Tommy returns to the family home in Pittsburgh to find his father is now a recovering alcoholic closing in on a thousand days of sobriety and full of regret. Tommy has been overseas after a tour in the Middle East with the Marines and clearly traumatized about his combat experiences. While working out at a local gym, he becomes a YouTube sensation after pulverizing one of the top welterweight fights in the country during a sparring match. Tommy, an undefeated amateur wrestler in his youth, asks his father to train him once again, but makes it clear there will be no personal connection between the two.
Meanwhile, Brendan has become a high school physics teacher who is in desperate need of money after falling behind on his mortgage. He gets an old friend, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), to train him for an Atlantic City tournament known as Sparta, where the grand prize is $5 million. Tommy too has entered the contest for his own reason.
Anyone with a firm grasp of basic Hollywood story structure will see where the film is going from the opening minutes. Tess doesn’t want her husband becoming a fighter again nor does she wish to see any of his fights. Yet, she will inevitably appear in the front row to support Brendan at a climactic moment. It also shouldn’t be much of a spoiler (especially since it’s in the trailer) that the brothers will meet in the tournament finals to finally settle the score inside the caged octagon. O’Connor keeps both Brendan and Tommy on an even keel so that the audience’s sympathy isn’t strongly in favor of one or the other. While the moment is played as a triumphant victory, there is an underlying sense of tragedy that the siblings can only solve their problems by beating the crap out of each other.
There’s nothing subtle about Warrior. The movie hammers the viewer with soap opera subplots like a fighter reins down fists on a prone opponent caught in a rear mount. There’s Paddy’s attempt to remain sober and reconnect with Tommy and Brendan, who was ignored due to the younger’s superior athletic achievements. In a ham-fisted attempt at allegory, Paddy listens to Moby Dick on tape with his own white whale being the forgiveness of his sons. Toss in Tommy’s need to overcome his harsh life and Brendan’s efforts to provide for his family. Oh, and Brendan’s youngest daughter has had health problems which required extensive medical attention and insurmountable hospital bills. Each man’s fighting style mirrors their own inner turmoil. Tommy is blunt force trauma, destroying his opponents and leaving the ring without fanfare before the official decision is even read. Brendan, on the other hand, takes a great deal of punishment before staging his comeback. O’Connor makes sure no stone is unturned when it comes to milking every conceivable emotion. At an almost inexcusable two hours and twenty minutes, he gets plenty of opportunity to do so.
Warrior mainly succeeds because of its talented ensemble. Don’t expect minimalistic performances here, this is acting that draws attention to itself. However, it works hand in hand with the tone O’Connor goes for, that of a testosterone fueled weepie. It’s hard to imagine that the two working class boys at the center of the film are played by an Aussie and a Brit. Edgerton does a solid job, but he’s outshined by the showier performances by Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy. Nolte is perfectly cast as the world weary burnout with an unshakeable sadness about him. Hardy has risen to a whole new level as an actor following brilliant turns in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Here, Hardy plays a brooding time bomb of seething frustration and hostility. His portrayal of Tommy is reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando and his iconic role in On the Waterfront.
The obligatory montage training sequences are present in Warrior though they are sadly not set to 1980’s power ballads.
Warrior drifts too frequently into schmaltzy territory and is about twenty minutes too long. Still, it is an effective melodrama for men. This is one of those movies where it’s okay for a guy to cry.