For quite a while at the beginning of Warrior it seems this could be a kind of sports movie that does something bigger with the genre, more like David O. Russell's The Fighter than Gavin O'Connor's own Miracle. The kinetic handheld camerawork, the frequent lack of score, and especially the committed performances from the three leads place Warrior well above the usual sports tales of redemption and self-discovery, and as the story draws closer to the Big Match it's exciting to imagine where O'Connor might take it, all the possibilities that are present when the sports movie formula is tossed out.
And then, when that Big Match finally starts, it becomes clear that Warrior is simply a sports movie-- a very handsome and well-acted and deeply affecting one, but also one in which the ending is obvious and the characters remain as easily defined as they were at the beginning. Characters who seemed potentially thorny and unpredictable, like Nick Nolte's reformed alcoholic father Paddy or especially Tom Hardy's sullen ex-Marine Tommy, are wrapped into the redemptive ending so neatly you can't help but wonder how it all might fall apart after the credits roll. Warrior is still very satisfying, in the way any well-made sports movie can bring a lump to your throat, but a more daring and original story could have taken it so much further.
The nonstop TV ads have made the plot for this one pretty clear-- Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Hardy) are estranged brothers who find themselves separately training for the same mixed martial arts championship fight, in which the winner gets a $5 million purse. Brendan is a family man living in the Philly suburbs with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and two daughters, earning a daytime living as a high school teacher but sparring in parking lot bouts to make extra cash, a hobby he promised his wife he'd quit. Tommy, half a universe away in a small mining town in western Pennsylvania, has returned home from war under mysterious circumstances, showing up on his father's doorstep expecting the violent alcoholic he grew up with but finding a 1,000 days sober, broken down old man (Nolte) instead. While Brendan trains at the local gym, his wife finally in the know, Tommy and his father start up the same training they did together when Tommy was a high-school wrestling phenom. This fractured family being what it is, neither brother knows the other will be at the fight.
The brutal, no-holds-barred style of mixed martial arts fighting is an appropriate backdrop for this particular set of family dramas, in which Brendan and Tommy refuse to reconcile with both their father and each other-- in both long, talky confrontations and glares across crowded rooms, these are men with no plans to surrender decades worth of resentment. Paddy is the only one who wants reconciliation, both thanks to the Twelve Steps and a genuine, aching desire to be with his boys again, but the one thing Brendan and Tommy can agree on is how much they hate their dad. While Warrior admirably sticks to the here and now, building remarkable tension and immersing the audience in the MMA world they might have known nothing about, a few character-defining flashbacks, especially showing Paddy in his raging alcoholic years, could have helped. Brendan and Tommy carry deep resentments that, looking at Nolte's sad and ravaged face, we have a hard time connecting with. Partly thanks to Nolte's devastating performance, Paddy becomes the movie's most sympathetic character, but aside from one key scene between Paddy and Tommy, the brothers continue treating him like the monster he no longer is.
But the movie's performances, which include Edgerton's sympathetic but never mawkish role as the put-upon family man and Hardy's feral, violent, broken take on Tommy, have a way of elevating everything in Warrior that could have felt rote or contrived. And when the movie finally boils down to what happens in the ring, the fights hum with intensity and passion-- it's a little hard to watch the incredible violence required of MMA, but undeniably compelling. At two and a half hours, Warrior feels an hour shorter than that, clipping along through conflict both physical and mental, hewing to the sports movie formula that's familiar but uniquely affecting. Even if Warrior could have or should have shaped up into something bigger, it's impossible not to recommend.