Without a doubt, Warrior is one of the best films of 2011, and packs more than a simple punch in the ring. The film uses the sporting world of MMA to tell the classic drama story of a splintered family. The fight sequences are intense, but the film greatly benefits from Nick Nolte’s incredible performance.
Written and directed by Gavin O'Connor (who brought the great cop drama Pride and Glory to the screen in 2008), the film stars Nolte, Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn, Maximiliano Hernández, and Kurt Angle.
The film focuses on Brendan Conlon (Edgerton), his brother Tommy Riordan (Hardy) and their estranged father Paddy Conlon (Nolte). From the opening moments of the film, it is clear that growing up was extremely hard on both brothers. Their father trained them to be great wrestlers (even Olympic level competitors), but he was also a drunk who was abusive to the boys' mother.
Tommy (who uses his mother’s maiden name) returns home after leaving with his mother when he was still a teenager. Out of the Marines, Tommy ends up on his father’s front stoop to inform him that Tommy’s mother has died. It is clear that Tommy has an intense hatred of his father, and is shocked to see that Paddy has become sober and a Christian. Tommy even mocks his father trying to push the old man to have a drink with him.
Adrift, Tommy heads to a gym where he knocks out professional fighter Pete "Mad Dog" Grimes (Erik Apple) in under a minute. The fight is caught on video and quickly becomes a massive hit on the Internet. The encounter and success of the viral video gets Tommy the opportunity to take part in an upcoming mixed martial arts tournament called Sparta - which carries a massive prize purse for the winner.
Tommy knows he can’t win without proper training and is forced to ask his father for help – though he makes it clear he only wants training and has zero interest in trying to fix their past.
While the audience is getting to know the intensity of Tommy, they are also introduced to his older brother Brendon – who works as a high school science teacher, is the father of two children (one who has had health problems in the past), and is in a successful marriage to his high school sweetheart Tess (Morrison).
Both Brendon and Tess are extremely hard working, but are not earning enough income to pay the bills. In danger of losing their house, Brendon (who has a MMA background in his youth) starts fighting in local cage matches to earn extra money. The school district frowns on one of their teachers fighting in strip bars on the weekend and Brendon is fired – despite being well liked by the students and backed by the principal (Dunn).
With no income, Brendon decides to return to the ring professionally (much to Tess’ disapproval), and goes to an old friend Frank Campana (Grillo) to train. The plan is for Brendan to fight small matches against fighters who he knows he can beat. He is in it for the quick payday, but joins the line-up for Sparta due to the opportunity for the big bucks.
Brendon (who hasn’t seen his brother since Tommy left with his mother) also doesn’t speak to his father, and hasn’t even let Paddy meet one of his granddaughters. O’Connor makes the most of the drama in a heartbreaking scene with Paddy on the front lawn trying to show Brendon his medal for being sober, seeing his granddaughters only to have Brendon push the girls inside the house and shut the door.
During the tournament, a confrontation on the beach between the two brothers reveals that Tommy is also enraged at his brother for abandoning him as a teen and not moving to California with their mother. Brendon tries to defend his actions and show Tommy his nieces, but Tommy says they are just people in a picture. Tommy also continues to push his father away not caring if his treatment will result in Paddy falling off the wagon.
All the family drama is wrapped tightly around some incredible MMA sequences that see Tommy cutting his way through his opponents with record speed while his brother has to endure round after round of ground and pounds with each of his opponents – including the dreaded and undefeated Koba (Angle).
The film climaxes with the two brothers forced to face each other in the ring in a match that sees all the family tension finally boil over.
While Warrior is a somewhat predictable movie, the great performances from Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte make it impossible to dismiss as a Rocky wannabe. The three actors bring it all to the screen, and make their characters completely believable.
Fighting for his home and to feed his children, Edgerton’s Brendon is easily the most identifiable and likeable character in the film. The actor seems at ease in the role of father, husband and fighter. As he tells his principal, he used to be one of those animals in the ring so his transition back to one by the tournament feels like the character is coming full circle (even if he is far from some animal).
At the same time, the character has grit to him in the way he treats a sober Nolte when Paddy shows up at his door. It is clear Paddy knows he ruined the two boys’ childhood, and he accepts that they can never forgive him. Still, he repeatedly tries to start fresh his two sons only to have the door slammed in his face. Brendon is justified in his treatment of Paddy (he fears what could happen to his daughters if his father was around them and drinking), but it still makes his character seem cold.
Hardy’s Tommy is all hate and fire. A backstory about his Marine duty overseas and his questionable status as a “hero” add fuel to his reasons for hate, but the character is hard to like. He too has noble reasons for entering the tournament, but Hardy makes zero attempt to give the character any kind of likeable charisma – which just makes him more powerful to watch on screen.
Like Brendon, his feelings toward his father are justified, but the way he drives his father to fall of the wagon is at times hard to watch. There are moments where it seems there could be reconciliation between the two characters, but Tommy pushes or drives the moment away. He also seems to have zero interest in connecting with his brother and even unleashes years of hatred on him when the bell rings.
The emotional glue to the film has to be the incredible performance of Nolte. Without question, his character deserves the treatment he gets from his sons, but the fact he continues to try makes him extremely redeeming. The fact that he is listening to Moby Dick on tape also helps define the character and was a nice touch by the filmmakers. Nolte carries the film as its shattered emotional center, and the ending leaves you wanting to see where the three characters go from there.
The film looks incredible on Blu-ray with the format giving the picture a grit that reflects the street level of Tommy and a fake gloss to Brendon’s suburban life. It also comes loaded with features that take you into the MMA world, takes a look at how the film came to be and the fighter who helped inspire it.
Warrior could possibly be the best film I saw of 2011. It is a movie that works on multiple levels and manages to combine all the ingredients into a near perfect film. Fans of MMA will enjoy the action sequences, but the story and performances will hook those wanting a solid drama. This is a movie that I highly recommend taking the time to watch.
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