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Two estranged brothers have little in common except their hatred of their father and their exceptional skills in mixed-martial-arts fighting. Knockout performances by these three central characters and powerfully effective fight sequences are the key ingredients that spur this male weepie into the realm of the prizefighter. What might have been a cliché-ridden movie about drunken Irish boxers and sibling rivalries is instead a carefully modulated film about acceptance and redemption. Not that Warrior isn’t a tad overlong at 139 minutes or that the plot is cliché-free, but director and co-scriptwriter Gavin O’Connor (who also helmed Miracle, that uplifting movie set amid the slightly less violent sport of hockey) has a firm handle on his material and how to convey it sans crocodile tears and gratuitous mayhem.
Each brother has different reasons for entering the film’s Sparta competition – an MMA, single-elimination event with a $5 million purse. Tommy Conlon (Hardy, so electrifying in Inception and Bronson) is an Iraq War vet, who is back in the States under mysterious circumstances before arriving on the front stoop of his father, Paddy (Nolte, dependably fine). It’s been 14 years since he and his mother left Paddy, who was a brutal alcoholic. But once Tommy decides to enter the Sparta bout, he asks the now-sober Paddy, his former boxing trainer, to resume the position – although not without constant put-downs from Tommy, who doesn’t allow his dad an easy redemption. Meanwhile, older brother Brendan (Edgerton, of Animal Kingdom), who stayed behind with Paddy when his mother and brother left, is a high school physics teacher with his own family, who has severed all ties with his reprobate dad. But his teacher’s salary can’t cover the mortgage and the expense of repairing his daughter’s heart defect. So when the bank refuses to help and he loses his job for participating in some unregulated fights, he’s lured back into the cage by the Sparta competition. Despite the fears of his wife (Morrison) and being on the wrong side of 30, he turns to his old boxing pal Frank Campana, a trainer who uses Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as part of his regimen.
The first half of the film is mostly devoted to the dramatic setup and character backgrounds, before it launches into the Atlantic City bouts that take up the majority of the second half. O’Connor’s filming has a gritty, grainy sensibility that enhances the realism of the Pittsburgh locations and the inside of the MMA cages. The camerawork in the family’s dramatic scenes relies too much on uninspired shot/reverse-shot mechanics, but these actors are strong enough to power through these rote visual tactics. Yet Warrior resists many opportunities to seal an easy resolution, and for this you remain with it until the final punch.