Inside the ring, the underdog fighter fights for the championship of his life. Outside is where the depression of family conflict and differences affects them. In Warrior, that depression takes place both in and out of the ring.
You have two leading protagonists, both of whom we do not want to see lose. While films like Raging Bull and The Fighter portrayed brothers as boxer and trainer, it is the brothers in Warrior who are fighting each other for the championship.
Tommy Conlan (Tom Hardy) returns to his hometown after he fought in the Iraq War. He pays a visit to his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), who has become a Christian and a recovered alcoholic. Times have been tough for Tommy and has little love for Paddy for the way he treated him during his childhood.
Meanwhile, Paddy’s other son Brendan (Joel Edgerton) lives with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two daughters, but can’t make ends meet as a high school physics teacher, so he starts moonlighting as a fighter. Eventually, both brothers become participants in the Mixed Martial Arts contest in Atlantic City for the prize money beyond their dreams.
This is all pretty conventional really. The conflict between two brothers, including the family man and the lone ranger, isn’t entirely original and you know that the recovering Paddy is going to have a breakdown. However, it didn’t bother me so much because this is a beautifully-made drama without being shamefully manipulative.
There are scenes of family sadness and grief, but also some winning heart-warming moments, as well as some genuinely funny scenes between Brendan and his students. It is engaging to watch as scenes with the family, the trainers, the school faculty and the fight matches are treated equally.
Gavin O’Connor’s hand-held direction gives the film so much subtly and authenticity like you’re watching a documentary, despite the familiar actors, all of whom give superb performances.
Nick Nolte’s rustily aged face and voice suits his character Paddy. We do sympathise with this old man of demons trying hard to reconnect with his distant sons. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Nolte get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for this.
Tom Hardy is unrecognisable as Tommy. He gained an amazing 28 pounds of muscle for the role and he gives an emotionally boiling performance, and Joel Edgerton brings his iconic solidity in his biggest Hollywood work to date.
It does use some old tricks in the book. There’s the training montage which doesn’t feel organic in terms of its style and the mixed martial arts scenes are overstuffed in editing. There were times when I couldn’t tell what was going on.
The finishing fight where the brothers go head to head does have its edge-of-your-seat moments followed by an emotional resolution. What does hurt it though is that the film closes at that emotional send off, which is getting a bit clichéd in movies these days. An aftermath would not have been so bad (what is the winner going to do with the prize money?).
Still, with its simple-hand resources to bring you so much honesty and compassion, Warrior is a human drama that never attempts anything surreal to manipulate your emotions. Despite the things I have against it, it is one of this year’s films that should be seen.