Watching the trailer for Warrior immediately reminded me of last year’s awards season juggernaut The Fighter: In both films, the main characters are brothers with involvement in the ring or the cage and come from blue-collar families living on the East Coast. (Heck, I think the marketing folks even used similar music and fonts for the trailers.) Additional comparisons to the Rocky films and Bloodsport have been inevitable and a friend of mine even said Warrior looked more like “Miracle but with mixed martial arts” (Which makes sense, as Warrior director/screenwriter Gavin O’Connor directed the 2004 fact-based film about USA hockey coach Herb Brooks and the team’s rise to victory in 1980). Point is, Warrior is not exactly a new kind of film. However, it’s the kind of film that needsto be seen. There have been many exciting and fun films that have been introduced over this last year, but there are not much rolling in multiplexes that have celebrated the human spirit and have allowed viewers to witness hardships turned into triumphs as brutally beautiful as Warrior depicts.
In Pittsburgh, Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) comes to the home of his recovering alcoholic father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), whom he has been bitterly estranged from for many years. An ex-Marine who fought in the Iraq War, Tommy has nowhere else to go—he doesn’t have friends in Pittsburgh, his mother died, and his relationship with an older brother is also broken. Despite being 1000 days sober and his apologies to Tommy for all the harm he has done, Paddy still finds himself shunned by his son. But when Tommy discovers the opportunity to fight in a mixed martial arts tournament to honor a fallen comrade and asks Paddy to train him, the older man hopes that the opportunity allows the two of them to reconcile. Meanwhile, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), also estranged from Paddy and from Tommy, is barely making ends meet as a high school physics teacher to help support his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and their two young daughters. A former UFC fighter, he starts fighting in amateur match-ups to make some side money, much to Tess’ strong disapproval. But Sparta, the biggest event in the MMA world, presents Brendan with the perfect opportunity to keep his family from losing their home. It also becomes the one event where he, Tommy, and Paddy are forced to confront each other and the issues that have haunted their pasts.
Warrior is not necessarily a film about MMA and the thrills or harms in it. In fact, some elements of the fights are fictional and would never be allowed in the cage. Merely, the sport sets the stage for the culmination of family drama, and the platform is a perfect fit for both the characters’ backgrounds and histories (Tommy being a former wrestling prodigy and war hero, Brendan being an ex-fighter). The rather violent and explosive (But still disciplined) nature of mixed martial arts can also be seen as an outlet to relieve the tensions the brothers have been plagued with for years and years. But more than anything, Warrior is a film about fighting for the things people love and believe in, not for the sake of fighting. Some viewers may side with either Brendan or Tommy right away, but for others, it may be a little more difficult. The two collide with their family ties but they have taken on different paths to get to their places in Sparta, and they also take very different approaches to the ways they fight. Brendan is seen as the underdog with the friendlier background. As a family man who now does science experiments for a living, he has to prove that he’s not washed up and that he still has the fire within him to win. Having fought professionally in the past, he also knows the rules of the game, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t faced with challenges of younger and more established fighters. Despite being a wrestler in school and fighting in the Iraq War, Tommy is much more relentless in his fighting, as if he has received his “training” as a thug on the streets. Whether he has always been that way or has simply gotten this wrecked attitude about him due to his time in the war and/or his nasty relationship with Paddy and Brendan is a mystery, but he has just enough of a good if not better reason to win Sparta for his country. Choosing a side is tough because the way their stories unfold are so compelling and admirable, yet tragic. Adding to the anticipation is seeing if and how the brothers will come to terms with each other and their father.
The stories of Warrior can’t be told as well as it does without the portrayals of fascinating characters, and everyone in the cast delivers a performance for the ages. However, all eyes will certainly be glued to Hardy and Nolte. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Edgerton, who trailblazes for the passionate underdogs as Brendan, or Morrison, whose character can be initially unlikable but takes placing yourself in her shoes to at least understand. But the characters of Tommy and Paddy are so complex that it takes outstanding actors to take upon them, and both Hardy and Nolte mesmerize and make the audience feel the pains and victories with them. As shown in his critically-acclaimed performance as Charles Bronson in Bronson, Hardy is no stranger to playing the ruthless and intimidating guy, but playing Tommy, who’s actually a good guy destroyed by troubles in his past, gives him a lighter dimension to work with and the ruthless and intimidating guy shatters into someone else at times. Then there’s Paddy, who you want to dislike since Brendan and Tommy does, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him right away, every time. Nolte melts into the role of a man feeling endless guilt and wanting to be taken back by both of his sons. The interactions with Edgerton and Hardy are heartbreaking (Also due to the fact that they’re both so believable at playing their parts) and Nolte doesn’t hold back. He lets the sadness and shame flow out and drowns us in them. The casting director also did an excellent job at noting that Edgerton, Hardy, and Nolte really could pass for a biological family with their extremely similar looks, but that’s just a quirk amongst the substantial reasons why they were all perfectly cast in such a powerful and riveting film.
Complete with intense fight scenes, Warrior is a breathtaking saga of spirit, soul, and heart. It won’t bind you to your seat—instead, you’ll be kept on the edge of it until you cheer and you cry. It may or may not be bound for Oscar gold next year, though it most definitely should be. Regardless, the impact this film will have on its audience will last much longer after those arena lights go off.