With a fractured nuclear family that Eugene O’Neill would embrace and electrifying fight scenes in the not-quite-mainstream sport of mixed martial arts, Gavin O’Connor’s "Warrior" makes for a sturdy, visceral entertainment. It’s a long movie that feels short: It grabs you in early scenes, intense though low-key before all hell breaks loose, then keeps you riveted to its mostly male characters — a father, two sons, a trainer and, yes, a wife who gets left out of key decisions — as members of a blue-collar family head for a winner-takes-all tournament in Atlantic City.
Each role is a meaty one for the movie’s highly watchable actors while O’Connor’s crew, especially cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and no less than four editors, has carefully constructed an atmosphere in which the implausible might flourish.
Superior to last year lionized "The Fighter," Warrior may go several rounds starting in early September. Lionsgate needs to put some muscle into its marketing campaign though, and word of mouth will have to energize the fight film’s male demographic.
O’Connor, who previously helmed the sports movie "Miracle," about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, and "Pride and Glory," a multi-generational police family saga, more or less combines these themes within two sets of highly contrasted worlds. There is the darkly shot, working-class neighborhoods of Pittsburgh where a despised pater familias, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), sober for nearly 1,000 days following a lifetime of drunken abuse, hangs out, and the sunny suburbs where his high school teacher-son, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), lives with his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and two youngsters.
A further contrast comes from that city’s sweaty, dirty gyms and a temporary tent in a strip joint parking lot where local punks beat each other into raw meat versus a “World Series” of mixed martial arts staged within the neon glitz of Atlantic City.
The movie begins in Pittsburgh where a wary ceasefire between Paddy and his son’s family, with everyone refusing to acknowledge the other’s existence, gets disrupted by the abrupt re-appearance of Brendan’s brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy). He is a ghost from the dead as no one has seen him in 14 years.
A back story gradually materializes: Neither brother could stand their dad but Tommy chose to head west with their mother, where she died a painful death from cancer, while Brendan opted to stay in Pittsburgh to be near his sweetheart, whom he eventually married.
Tommy resents his brother’s “betrayal” almost as much as he does his father’s abuse but, oddly, it’s his father he chooses to look up: Once a talented amateur wrestler trained by his dad, Tommy wants the old man to train him once again so he can enter the mixed martial-arts event.
In a coincidence, of which the film abounds, Brendan also wants to enter that contest as his house is headed for foreclosure and he sees no other option. So the brothers are on a collision course, and the film blithely assumes one can willy-nilly enter this contest despite having no recent experience.
A video showing Tommy taking apart a champion while sparing gets posted on the Internet, which partially explains why Tommy is able to enter the tournament. This is the same video that leads to the revelation of Tommy’s heroic rescue of fellow Marines while stationed in Iraq, which makes this dark-horse combatant a popular favorite.
O’Connor and fellow writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman concentrate on their characters, giving you enough information but leaving plenty of room for these most capable actors to fill in the idiosyncratic derails.
Surly and brooding about wrongs, real and imagined, Hardy’s thickly muscled, highly tattooed ex-soldier is a ticking bomb. Emotionally, he is in a permanent fighter’s crouch, in constant vigilance for the next punch fate will throw his way while looking to do damage to any and all foes.
Edgerton is a more nuanced character. Backed into a corner financially, he has no choice, or at least thinks he doesn’t, but to fight. His childhood has taught him the need of a strong family so he pores his affection and devotion into his own. Yet, shades of his dad, his decision to re-enter the ring is a selfish one that he shares with his wife only after he’s made it.
Like many ex-alkies, Nolte’s Paddy wraps himself in blandness as a kind of disguise. He’s hiding from his former self, even to the point that Tommy says, more than once, he prefers the drunk to this dull and weak person.
The “normal” characters in the screenplay help to balance the three Old Testament types. This would include Frank Grillo, who plays Brendan’s trainer, dubious about his client but too much of a friend to say no, and Morrison as the wife whom the script shortchanges. The voice of reason is too muted here.
For the footage of extended fights over a two-day tournament, whether shooting from the rafters or up close in the feral ring itself, Takayanagi’s cameras dart and weave just like fighters. Sometimes they may even miss a punch and instead come to rest on an anxious corner man or a screaming face in the crowd. The excitement of these matches is brilliantly captured, almost horrifyingly so. Did a chiropractor invent this sport? Being slammed on your back or neck repeatedly is a tough way to earn a buck — or even five million.
For an “entertainment,” "Warrior" accomplishes a lot. The family drama resonates strongly with a resolution that, in retrospect, seems like the only way the brothers could have rediscovered blood ties. Meanwhile their fights are downright compelling. Instead of interrupting the drama, the story continues in the ring as the two fighters drag a lifetime of emotional torment in with them. They’re fighting their demons as much as their opponents. "Warrior" is one of the few fight films in which winning or losing is not the key factor.