Perhaps a better title for this film would have been ‘Warriors’. It is, after all, a tale of two brothers. Two brothers who, unbeknownst to one another, enter the same mixed martial arts tournament ‘Sparta’ in order to take home the winner takes all prize: a gigantic pile of money. What makes Warrior special is that director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor (who previously directed 2004’s Hockey sports drama Miracle) makes both characters worth caring about, warts and all. By the time of the final bout I didn’t want either to lose and yet, as it goes, one must lose – and it’s all the more riveting for it. It doesn’t matter that Warrior is practically overflowing with many of the same underdog tropes that we’ve all seen before; the story is just so strong and the characters so rich that the familiar plot structure barely registers a beat.
It’s a good thing too, as O’Connor is fine with dedicated a big chunk of the film’s 140 minute runtime to developing the brothers and their estranged, former alcoholic father, Paddy. In this role, Nick Nolte (Affliction, The Prince of Tides) uses his Nick Nolte voice, which sounds like someone trying to talk with gravel shoved down their throat, to convey all the weathered years of a man who regrets the decisions he’s made. There were moments when I really pitied the man on screen, as he struggles to re-establish relations with his sons.
And what a duo they make! Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson) is Tommy Riordan, a U.S. Marine with initially unclear motives. He turns up out of the blue on Paddy’s front door and asks his father to train him for the upcoming tournament. And whoa… is this guy a machine or what?! Tommy is no-nonsense in his approach to training and has zero interest in rekindling any kind of relationship with his father and brother. Yet while Tommy is clearly a bit of a bad egg he’s still capable of showing emotion – it’s a rare occurrence but, consequently, those moments are all the more powerful.
On the other side of the fence you’ve got Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton; The Thing, Animal Kingdom). High school physics teacher by day and garage MMA fighter by night, Brendan is compelled to take up his former profession and enter Sparta since he needs the money to stop his home getting foreclosed and to support his wife and daughters. It’s a plight that doesn’t fail to tug at the heartstrings.
O’Connor weaves back and forth between the brothers to ‘good cop, bad cop’ effect, before transitioning to the action-oriented Sparta for the better part of the last hour of the film. Now, I don’t know much about MMA but the bouts featured fantastic choreography and were filmed in a grainy, hard-hitting style that felt authentic. Some of them were absolutely nerve-wracking, as if all the tumultuous emotions that had been building throughout the film finally exploded in an orgy of kicks, punches, and painful-looking holds. The one caveat is that I didn’t always buy into the beating the fighters took. There were times when a character would suffer a severe beating only to turn the tables and render a sudden defeat on their opponent. This was fine but when it happened again and again it began to lose meaning.
Nevertheless, Warrior is the best Rocky movie since, well… Rocky. It’s a sports underdog story as finely tuned as the best of them, but also a heartfelt look at the turbulent relationship of two brothers and their father, and it’s this emotional approach that really ups the ante and leaves a knockout impression. It takes a lot for me to want to buy a new movie on Blu-ray (Pfft… DVDs are ancient), let alone a sports drama such as this, but I’m already looking forward to adding Warrior to my collection.