Chances are you’ve seen much of “Warrior” before, whether it was directly from its spoiler-heavy trailer, or indirectly last year with “The Fighter” or a few decades earlier with “Rocky.” Still, the surprise it holds has nothing to do with a story that's been told so many times before.
Filling a need for audiences that’s as primal as the one that drives grown men to beat each other senseless for sport, “Warrior” joins a long line of underdog tales where fights are metaphorical for class struggle, wives and girlfriends shut their eyes and cross their arms in protest until they don’t and the men are men, even if they shed a tear now and then.
It would be easy to dismiss Gavin O’Connor’s second stab at this type of comfort food (his first being the 2004 hockey drama “Miracle”) as simply adding a new coat of paint to one of the sturdiest of genres, changing the fighting style from boxing to mixed martial arts and developing the stories of two down-on-their-luck pugilists as opposed to one. But “Warrior” is no mere retrofitting, but rather a full-scale renovation of the Americans’ version of the ring cycle.
Starting with the casting of Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy as the Conlon brothers who both have their reasons to duke it out for a $5 million purse, the film carries little baggage, unless one counts Nick Nolte’s role as the recovering alcoholic father of the two who has long held them back. As characters, each conceal a secret – Edgerton’s domesticated Brendan must keep his makeshift bouts outside of strip clubs under wraps for fear of losing his job as a science teacher and Hardy’s fierce Tommy keeps his speaking to a minimum, especially involving his time in the military overseas — but as actors that still are relatively unknown commodities in the U.S., the mystique the two hold is much larger.
O’Connor makes the most of this, slowly dripping out the brothers’ respective histories over the course of the first hour, leaning more towards Brendan as the heart of the film, just trying to make ends meet for his family, as Tommy injects some much-needed moments of brute force. Yet O’Connor’s masterstroke is the way he and co-writers Cliff Dorman and Anthony Tambakis structure the film to tell just enough of the Conlons’ story in Pittsburgh before jetting off to Atlantic City for the MMA tournament to begin for the film’s final hour-and-a-half.
Much of the fanfare that accompanies their fights defy credibility — the frequent newsflashes from CNN and ESPN show an interest in the sport that one never actually sees on TV and Mark Isham’s bombastic score competes with Nolte’s scenery chewing to ensure “Warrior” takes on the level of Grecian mythology. (As it happens, the tournament they fight in is called Sparta.) However, “Warrior” backs up its swagger. Every octagon battle is expertly staged and shot, but more importantly, every fight actually means something, even as the clasps of traditional formula begin to close in towards the end. It may be movie magic that overwhelms, but O’Connor’s become a specialist at getting an audience lost in the very real feeling of a crowd cheering in unison.
Edgerton and Hardy both deliver performances worthy of such immediate and unfettered adoration, bulking up characters that must’ve been thin on the page with an authentic grit that allows for a little movie star charisma to sneak in. In equal proportion, the hint of vulnerability they display to go with their intimidating physiques – the slight uncertainty that they may not be nearly as strong of mind or body as they think as they spar in and out of the arena – is enough to keep the film on its toes until ultimately it’s left standing tall.