'Warrior' Shows Fight, Heart
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A double-barreled "Rocky" for the mixed martial arts generations, the practically epic fight film "Warrior" is one of the most exhilarating surprises of this summer movie season. I say that knowing full well that the specifics of its story line could be quite easily reduced to a welter of clichés. To which I can only say, name me one boxing film, besides "Raging Bull," whose story line isn't somehow a welter of clichés. And, anyway, I like the blatant obviousness of the twist that makes "Warrior" (which I know isn't strictly a "boxing film," but bear with me here) double-barreled: that instead of one underdog fighting to make his way to the top, we've got two underdogs, and it turns out that they're long-estranged brothers. Once that's established (and the film takes its sweet time establishing this) it's a given that the two are going to end up facing each other in the ring, or rather the cage, as this is near-bare-knuckled MMA fighting we're talking about here. Just how they get there is half the fun, or rather, pain, because, man, do these characters take a lot of punishment. The expertly choreographed and vividly shot and edited fight scenes of this picture really add to its effectiveness. I can't tell you how many times during these sequences I was leaning forward in my seat to get a better view even though I rationally understood that wasn't going to happen.
Tommy (Tom Hardy, so physically intimidating he's immediately terrifying) shows up one night on the Pittsburgh stoop of his old man, Paddy (Nick Nolte), now a recovering alcoholic with a few years' sobriety under his belt. Scowling, stooping, and not saying much -- and the stuff he is bothering to say is not particularly nice -- Tommy's a man on a mission. On the first leg of that mission, he stalks into a local gym and kicks the crap out of an MMA middleweight favorite nicknamed "Mad Dog," immediately earning himself a spot in a 16-man MMA clash of the titans being held in Atlantic City.
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A world or so away in suburban Philly, physics teacher Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), strapped for cash, moonlights in strip club parking lot matches against, as he puts it, "a lot of guys who watch too much UFC." His edge is that he's a onetime UFC fighter himself, retiring after loving wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) had to watch him go to the hospital that one time. His former trainer tells him that even back in the day he wasn't such hot stuff, but now, with his house on the line and medical bills for his child mounting, the multimillion-dollar purse of the aforementioned clash of the titans looks pretty good.
While Brendan's the solid citizen and Tommy's a barely contained rage machine, both characters generate considerable sympathy, in part because co-screenwriters Gavin O'Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman give them compelling, intriguing backstories that they don't lay on too thick -- not overtly anyway. Nolte's struggling father figure is also engaging, clumsily trying to atone to the two kids he's let down very badly and at the same time trying to take no guff from Tommy, who hates the old man but has asked him to be his trainer anyway. The diner scene where Paddy accepts Tommy's contemptuous offer, and then turns the tables on the kid by demanding he surrender the pills Paddy hears jangling in the pockets of his hoodie, is a fight film classic.
Eventually the varied stresses of the family and fighting struggles bring each of the characters to a breaking point. "Who controls the pace controls the victory," reads a Sharpied adage on Brendan's trainer's office bulletin board. Each of these two fighters has a different way of controlling the pace. Tommy's way is to stride into the ring and knock a you-know-what out. Brendan's is to take as much punishment as he can stand until his opponent exposes a weakness, at which point Brendan pounces. Paddy, while clinging to his sobriety and his books-on-tape (in one of the film's several apt literary references, he's mid-"Moby Dick" as the film begins), still has no sense of how to go, clinging for affection one minute and affecting steeliness the next.
This near-classical conflict is just one thread of the saga that O'Connor (also the director of the well-executed "Miracle," a sports crowd-pleaser that, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, didn't attract sufficient crowds to please) manipulates to a long, edge-of-your-seat climax that never feels drawn out. "Raging Bulls---," said a colleague who wasn't as taken with the film as I was. As for myself, I haven't enjoyed any other sports movie this much since I can't remember, and I'd be happy to see "Warrior" again in the middle of a house of paying customers, who I bet are gonna go wild for it.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.