4 /5 stars
The Conlon brothers are on different sides of The American Dream gone foul. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a meaty drunk, a once-dominant athlete with a now-questionable past. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher, a family man with UFC battle days behind him and a home foreclosure in front of him. In Gavin O’Connor’s gutsy, commercially heart-wrenching Warrior, these two cinematic stereotypes of American soul and glory do the only thing they know how: fight back.
That’s literal, of course, in a movie punctuated by guys punching and twisting others into oblivion. The Conlon boys, desperate for cash and accomplishment, are separately dropped into a $5 million mixed-martial-arts tournament, the world wholly unaware that they’re brothers. But Warrior believes the fight is also figurative and universal, that America is full of unfair adversity way beyond an MMA cage.
The screenplay, by O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Entourage staff writer Cliff Dorfman, knows that these guys represent a country reeling from a vicious economic roundhouse as well as the body blows and mental beating that war causes. But in O’Connor’s fantasy, anything can happen when you have the skills to literally beat the piss out of somebody else.
If that’s not well-timed cathartic rage for an angry American populace, I don’t know what is. (Ironic that these two Pennsylvania characters are played by a Brit and an Aussie.) The raw embodiment of all that anger lives in Hardy, who spends every frame seething like a prodded animal, miles away from the cool customer he exhibited in Inception. Here he’s vicious, menacing, ready to strike. In a stirring opening scene, Hardy’s Tommy confronts his long-estranged dad (Nick Nolte, in a classic twilight-of-the-career performance) with a quiet burn that makes us think he’s going to pounce on the old man at any moment.
Instead, he verbally smacks the recovering alcholic, punishing him for his violent past by wishing aloud that he was still a miserable drunk. We’re five minutes into Warrior and realize this isn’t going to be some typical punch-for-punch Rocky wannabe.
Yet, it’s the most deserving heir to the Rocky crown, some 35 years after Stallone’s emotional debut. (The 1976 classic is even cheekily referenced in one scene.) At this point, modern movies are so deep into the mythos of the rags-to-riches fight story that it takes a lot to lift the cliches out of the typical and predictable. But that’s just what O’Connor does, not just pushing all the buttons that make you want to cheer, but pounding on them. And then doubling down. If we have enough sympathy for both fellas, and we do, then we essentially have two against-all-odds movies in one.
In the first, the brutally fast Tommy is crazed enough to floor opponents in mere seconds and storm out of the cage without a word. In the second, Brendan can only survive via his wits (and, yeah, his physics know-how) to turn opponents into unwilling contortionists, forcing them to “tap out,” or risk blackouts or broken bones. It’s the brawns and the brain, set up from the first act to a finale that’s practically written in the ringside flashbulbs.
But when genre is done this well, who cares? O’Connor infuses the obvious with a shooting style that’s edgier than expected, cutting back on music and inspiring overlapping dialogue that feels more real than it has a right to. Scenes between Hardy and Nolte are particularly gripping and later sequences with Edgerton (who also stars in The Thing this year) are downright operatic. Any genre filmmaker could take a lesson from Gavin O’Connor, whether you’re watching Warrior or O’Connor’s kinder cousin, Miracle — do your thing aggressively, sure-handedly and shamelessly. Warrior lets it all hang out, with performers that should be greatly admired for doing the same.