The rousing new sports drama, Warrior, starts out quiet and slow. Director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle) shoots intimate character-driven scenes of dialogue in a handheld, naturalistic way. For a while there, the audience is content just getting wrapped up in the lives of the two brothers who are the focus of the film. Tommy (Inception's Tom Hardy) is a quiet, emotionally damaged former Marine who recruits his newly sober father (Nick Nolte) to help train him. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a beloved father and physics teacher, moonlighting as a parking lot fighter to bring in additional money and stave off foreclosure.
The two are on separate, yet similar, paths - training for a mixed martial arts ("MMA") competition with a $5 million dollar prize. It goes without spoiling anything thanks to the trailers, but Tommy and Brendan find themselves fighting each other in the end for the championship title. If that sounds a bit hokey, it certainly doesn't come across that way thanks to the committed performances of Hardy and Edgerton. These guys are at the top of their game, both acting-wise and physically. Hardy in particular looks like somebody you don't want to mess with - his hulking gorilla neck could beat the shit out of anybody. Good thing he's playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
Warrior hits the typical sports movie beats - at times it recalls Cinderella Man (especially with respect to Brendan's money troubles), Rocky, and Raging Bull all in the same scene. But it hits those notes like a pro and has the audience eating out of the palm of its hand. The MMA fight scenes are thrillingly staged and designed for maximum emotional investment. At certain moments, I could feel my pulse quicken, my fists tighten up, and my heart race as I wondered if and when the underdog Brendan would pull off another upset. The odds are stacked neatly in favor of each brother, so you never really favor one over the other (unlike stupid Kit in A League of Their Own - Team Dottie all the way!)
It works just as well as a rough-around-the-edge family drama. Nick Nolte really surprised me here as the dad seeking redemption in his sons' eyes. I haven't seen him this emotionally invested and in command of his craft in years, but he had two scenes back-to-back that nearly had me in tears. The first is an emotional confrontation with Tommy in an Atlantic City casino, where Tommy verbally rips him to shreds. The second is the fall-out from that first scene. Nolte is alternately pathetic, inspiring, sad, and hopeful, and, to its credit, the movie never goes for an easy resolution involving his character.
At times, Warrior can rely on the easy emotional crutch - Brendan's wife nervously waiting by the phone during a fight; Brendan's students gathering their own pep rally to watch their teach fight, but I'm so programmed to expect these types of scenes from a sports film that I wasn't bothered too much. If there's one part of the movie that could have been fleshed out more, it's the complicated history and dynamic between the two brothers. Hardy and Edgerton only share one major scene before the climactic fight, and it's a good one, but I was left wanting more. If the filmmakers had spent a little more time on their relationship, rather than all the other outside distractions facing both characters, the final fight might have had greater emotional pull.
No matter though. Like all memorable sports match-ups, Warrior leaves audiences thrilled and excited. It's the kind of movie most of you will love and recommend to others. I hear Lionsgate is even pushing for a Best Picture nomination. Hey, it worked for Rocky. And who can blame them? Warrior is certainly on the shortlist for best of the year if I have anything to say about it. In theaters September 9.