Some brothers fight. Some brothers fight professionally.
Warrior seems to have been under the radar for a while. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want to be too closely associated with Oscar winning The Fighter. While both deal with sibling rivalry in violent sports, Warrior is aiming for tougher and grittier.
Tom Conlon (Tom Hardy) arrives at his father’s (Nick Nolte) home for the first time since he left with his mother when he was a boy. Pa used to be an abusive alcoholic but now lives clean and alone. Tom’s brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who stayed with Pa, is now a married physics teacher with two kids and a mortgage he can’t afford. Tom and Brendan separately decide to enter the WMA championship for different reasons, which sets them on a collision course with each other.
Sports movies are strange beasts. At their very heart they’re completely riddled with clichés, but the good ones manage to transcend the genre trappings to be genuinely affecting. Happily, we can report that Warrior does exactly that.
It’s vital that a sports movie gets you invested in the characters and their situation. Typically (especially when the sport is boxing or other fighting) this involves a blue-collar setting, estranged families, and financial hardship. On paper, what could be more cloyingly familiar than two estranged brothers fighting their way towards each other for the final showdown? Throw in the alcoholic dad, the war heroism, and the supportive-but-disapproving wife and you’re pretty much throwing every cliché in the book into a big pot.
But director Gavin O’Connor (Pride and Glory) makes it work. There’s a trio of superb performances from Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte. Hardy (Inception) is totally convincingly as the hulking, mad-eyed, battle-scarred Tom, Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) is great as the better adjusted but financially troubled Brendan, while Nolte alternately growls and wheedles as only Nick Nolte can, looking for forgiveness while knowing he doesn’t deserve it. Jennifer Morrison (House) does good work as Brendan’s wife, while Kevin Dunn (Transformers), Frank Grillo (Mother’s Day) and Noah Emmerich (Super 8) lend support.
Much of the praise that Warrior has coming its way will no doubt be focused on the cast, and rightly so. But O’Connor does more than draw good performances. He makes the fight scenes bone-crunchingly convincing, the wintry Pittsburgh setting suitably grim, and shoots the whole thing with a grounded, realistic sensibility that offsets the cheesier aspects of the story. It’s often a little overripe, but it’s acted and shot with such conviction that you’re completely swept along by it. By the time it reaches the inevitable confrontation, we challenge you to remain unmoved.
Verdict: Warrior may not eschew the clichés of sports/fighting movies, but the trio of lead performances are superb while the blue-collar setting and family dynamics are totally convincing.