Gavin O'Connor's Warrior is like Rocky squared -- an underdog story with two underdogs who, just to up the emotional stakes, happen to be brothers who have to fight each other.
What's intriguing about Warrior is that, while this is the kind of formula-action tale that often goes straight to video, O'Connor and his cowriters aren't afraid to be heart-on-the-sleeve with the characters' emotions. Films like this usually either are about strong, silent types who suck it up to defeat their foe -- or they're unbearably schmaltz-laden, with soap-operatic extravagances that make the feelings seem overheated and contrived.
Warrior, however, finds an appealing blend of the two, creating characters you can plug into, with whom you can identify and sympathize. Is it formulaic and, ultimately, predictable? Of course. But you get so caught up in the brute power of the action that, ultimately, none of that matters -- because you've given yourself over to the movie.
Tom Hardy plays Tommy Conlon, who shows up one night unannounced on the doorstep of his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Where he's been, what he wants - -well, he's not saying much. Indeed, he barely seems to tolerate his father's company.
Then he stops in at a local gym -- and, after offering himself as a sparring partner for a brutal mixed-martial-arts fighter named Mad Dog, lays out Mad Dog in nothing flat. A cellphone video of his beatdown begins to make the rounds and Mad Dog's manager tracks Tommy down to offer him a shot: He'll manage Tommy and take him to the big-money UFC open championship in Atlantic City. So Tommy engages his father -- who trained him to be a championship wrestler when Tommy was in high school -- to get him ready for the tournament.
The parallel story involves Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a high-school teacher who moonlights (to help his family makes ends meet) by fighting MMA matches for money in a tent behind a local strip club. When his principal (Kevin Dunn) is forced to suspend him (for activities not consistent with the high standards his school keeps, apparently), Brendan decides he's got nothing to lose and begins to train for the same tournament.
You know where this is headed. Brendan and Tommy are estranged; so are Brendan and their father. The two brothers eventually cross paths, but it's hardly a tearful reunion. Instead, Tommy carries years of hard feelings at the fact that, when their parents split up, Brendan left with their mother and was rarely in touch. There's also a subplot involving Tommy's recent history, as a Marine serving in Iraq, that adds a level of jeopardy that's the only facet of the film that feels unnecessary.
Ultimately, it comes down to the tournament itself, as each brother works his way through his bracket to the final. You know where this is headed -- and you still get caught up in the rugged competition.
Rugged? If you're a fan of MMA and the UFC, then you'll enjoy the kind of close-up coverage that O'Connor and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi provide. And if you're a newcomer to this particular sport -- if, for example, you're a fan of the more polite brutality that boxing provides -- you may be stunned by a sport in which, once an fighter drops his foe with a punch or kick to the head, he then jumps on top of him and begins pummeling him further.
Hardy has a brooding, beefy vulnerability, but also the ability to enclose himself in the hard-shell mindset of combat. He should be truly fearsome as Bane in the upcoming Dark Knight film.
Edgerton is turning into the male counterpart of Jessica Chastain: the unknown (Australian) actor who suddenly is in everything. Though he's played fearsome gangsters in the past, he's the open-faced good guy here - the kind of teacher the kids adore, the underdog with too much will to quit. Nolte brings surprising heart to a role he could have played in his sleep.
Warrior is a blast of excitement and roaring physicality. You don't have to be a fan of the sport to get a charge out of this film.
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