Bruising and brutal this Warrior packs a fierce punch.
There is an easy way of labeling a film that involves any form of sporting activity as a ‘sports movie’. It is an oversight all film critics are responsible for. It pigeon holes a film into a category which is not always justified. Rocky (1976) is more than just a boxing film, Senna (2011) is more than just men in fast carsand if you think Raging Bull (1980) is about fighting you need to check yourconscious. Warrior contains sport elements, but unlike 2010’s The Fighter it is a film that uses the mechanics of the sport genre to tell a powerful family drama more moving than Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale’s film because it is not based on a true story and instead delights in the pure cinematic indulgence of fiction.
Former marine and war hero Tommy (Tom Hardy) returns home to his previously alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte) in the hope he will train him for a mixed martial arts tournament. Tommy makes it clear he hates his father for what he did to his mother and is only there for his training and not to fix their relationship. Meanwhile, Tommy’s brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) are having financial problems after their daughter’scancer treatment is too expensive for his teaching job to pay for. Hearing about the tournament prize money of Five Million Dollars, winner takes all, Brendan sees his chance to escape his debts.
Director Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to sports with his ice hockey filmMiracle (2004) but, more importantly, feuding families in Pride & Glory (2008). The result here is a hugely powerful drama that keeps the sport element to one side, in fact it only comes into play in the final act, and instead focuses on the polar opposites of Tommy and Brendan. Tommy, played with brooding ferocity by Tom Hardy, is a physical beast of a man. Pent up and angry at the world his fights are short, sharp explosions of fists that rarely last longer than a round. Brendan meanwhile is withdrawn, a teacher of methodical detail who looks to fight with precision and tactics.
In the middle of the ring is Paddy a man who is at war with himself and the past he cannot let go of. He knows he has damaged his children to the point of not only alienating them from himself but also each other. Where the sport mechanics of the film work is in exorcising these demons and leading to the inevitable final fight between the warring brothers.
O’Connor chooses not to shy away from the clichés of the genre. There are montages, although he avoids slow-motion, and there is a predictability that the brothers will face-off against each other eventually, but the script unfolds in such a way that you yearn for them to clash in the ring. Outside of it their interactions are minimal, never aggressive more resigned to their fates in life. Come the final battle though we are treated to steal, grit and dogged determination leaving both characters and viewer exhausted with emotion.
Central to this are three key performances. Egderton has proven to be one of the most versatile actors around, jumping from dramas like Animal Kingdom (2010) to more genre led affairs like Smoking Aces (2006) and The Thing(2012). As Brenden he brings a grounded controlled sensibility, his scenes with Morrison dripping with warmth even his fights feeling sympathetic, a means to an end rather than violence as therapy. Hardy on the other hand has shown again and again what an electric screen presence he is. The closest thing to a modern day De Niro or Brando, he is able to convey a spectrum of emotion without ever moving a muscle. Here, looking as if he could pop your head like a grape, he’s resigned outside of the ring, at war with his past and what he has run away from. In the ring he is ferocious, bitter and twisted like testosterone and life have taken their toll and he’s going to beat it back down. It’s often harder to route for Tommy, his motives seem less heartfelt and more guilt lead than Brendan’s, but in Hardy’s hands there is something damaged and vulnerable that you ache to see him smile just once and find some inner peace. Nick Nolte, Oscar nominated for his role here, is the amalgamation of the two lead performances. Controlled and erudite like Brendan but full of regret and hostility like Tommy, Nolte never pulls a punch and never telegraphs a reaction but instead breaks your heart by being a broken man looking for any semblance of forgiveness from his sons.
Warrior, thanks to three stunning performances, will have you punching the air, dabbing a tear and melting your heart in ways a ‘sport movie’ could never fully achieve. It might bow to the conventions of the genre at times but it hits on believable characters so brilliantly as to have you longing for more.