Gavin O’Connor continues his trend of family-centric dramas with Warrior, a story of two brothers on a collision course through a high stakes tournament of mixed martial arts (MMA). As someone who is utterly disinterested in mixed martial arts, I didn’t think this film would have much to offer me, but contrary to my cynical first impressions, I ended up liking this movie quite a bit. It’s a well-executed drama that has a nice balance of family conflict and hard-hitting action, and the main actors all give great performances, creating a cast of compelling main characters. What else do you want from a MMA movie?
Tom Hardy continues his rise to stardom by delivering a standout performance as Tommy, the down-on-his-luck younger brother who looks to MMA as a distraction from his military past. Hardy is a terrific actor, utilizing a slouched posture, mumbled speech, and a fire in his eyes to depict his character. He is in excellent shape here, too, recalling his physically demanding role in the under-seen 2009 film Bronson that really grabbed Hollywood’s attention. One can assume Hardy acted in Warrior and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises in close proximity since he’s taking the part of the hulking villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s sequel. Joel Edgerton, a name not yet well-known among the general public, proves he can lead a Hollywood movie here, giving a more well-rounded performance than some of his co-workers and really making the audience root for him in a dire situation. Edgerton is probably more famous for parts he hasn’t even played yet, with a lead role in the upcoming prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing and a huge part in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan.
Surprisingly, the best performance in the movie comes from Nick Nolte, a guy who many (myself included) had all but written off because of drug problems. There may be some Best Supporting Actor talk for him once Oscar season rolls around, and he probably deserves a nomination. He’s sympathetic, earnest, and his character’s downward spiral late in the movie comes as a heartbreaking blow to the audience. Some may say it’s melodramatic or a bit over the top, but that would be the fault of the writers, not Nolte himself. He does some great work with what he’s given.
Boiling it down to its most basic elements, Warrior is this year’s The Fighter. The influence of David O. Russell’s Best Picture nominee can be felt all throughout O’Connor’s movie, from the handheld verite style (nearly every shot has an object out of focus in the foreground) to the underdog vibe running throughout. In fact, one might say that this is the ultimate underdog sports movie, considering it has not one, but two underdog stories running simultaneously. Comparisons to FX’s short-lived television series “Lights Out” are not unwarranted either, as the relationship between Edgerton’s Brendan and his wife Tess (played by Jennifer Morrison) is similar to the one depicted in that fantastic show. I’m all for progressive narrative storytelling, but some movies are actually better off it they benefit from the familiar; Warrior takes the tried-and-true approach to its story, and though it has elements that we’ve seen in many of the Rocky films and other sports stories over the years, they work very well within the context of this movie.
And for those of you who come for the fights, you won’t be disappointed. Overall, I’d label this a family movie, but there are some pretty bone-crunching sequences that actually drove my audience to applause multiple times. O’Connor shoots the action as effectively as the family turmoil and – thanks to some excellent sound design – you can almost feel it when someone gets lifted and body slammed to the mat. Professional wrestler Kurt Angle even makes a cameo as “The Russian,” essentially a copy of Dolph Lundgren’s seminal character in Rocky IV.
The relationships in Warrior aren’t quite as interesting as those in The Fighter, and though the cast does fine work, there isn’t anyone who comes close to Christian Bale’s towering performance as Dickie Eklund; I’m simply warning against raising expectations too high. But if you’re jonesing for a good sports movie, you won’t find a better one this side of 2011 than Warrior. Until next time…