It’s possible that I’ve never been so embarrassed to recount the plot of a movie I’m going to rave to the heavens, but here goes: Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior centers on estranged brothers, one a Marine back from Iraq under mysterious circumstances, the other a warmhearted Philadelphia physics teacher, both of them scarred by an alcoholic father, both nonprofessional fighters who end up defying crazy odds and becoming finalists in a kind of Super Bowl of mixed martial arts in Atlantic City, where they No, it’s too corny to live. But the picture is a slam dunk. I mean a ground-and-pound double-leg takedown. It’s really gripping.
The brothers, Brendan and Tom Conlon, are played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton; their father, Paddy, sober now, by Nick Nolte. These actors are so deep into their roles that they might be controlling the movie’s palette, the colors drained, the light from the side leaving hollows on faces and pockets of darkness. The screen is wide but the actors are close.
Hardy’s Tom is the scary one. He turns up swilling whiskey at the doorstep of the dad (his former martial-arts trainer) he hasn’t seen in fourteen years. Layer upon layer of bitterness and rage seem to have added to his bulk, giving him thick lips and a thicker neck. He moves toward his opponents like a tank. He pummels them, slams them against the floor, and leaves them insensible, striding just as quickly out of the ring. He’s aloof, untouchable, and yet he has come to his father for help — but more, it seems to pummel the man emotionally, to remind him what he did to his wife and children. (“Must be hard to find a girl who can take a punch nowadays.”)
Brendan’s story is especially preposterous. A former UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) contender, he tells his wife (Jennifer Morrison) — who has forbidden him from fighting — that he’s working some nights as a bouncer. But foreclosure looms, and he makes more in a night in the ring than in two months of bouncing. He’s the kind of wrestler who gets punched and kicked and slammed around and looks like he’s finished, and then somehow scissor-legs his opponents to the mat and finishes them off. Brendan hates his dad, too, but, unlike his brother, he’s functional.
What happened fourteen years ago to make one brother move across the country with his mom and the other to stay with his dad? That’s the focus of Warrior’s intense confrontations, in some ways even more intense than the ones in the ring. But the ring scenes are mighty spectacles. I’d never seen mixed martial arts, but it looks as if you can do all the stuff you’d get disqualified for in boxing and (even) wrestling — a bloody free-for-all. The monster the brothers will face in Atlantic City is a Russian called Kobe. Brendan’s pal, who runs the local gym, tells him, “You got a better shot at starting a boy band.”
The script is peppered with clichés: split-screen training montages. That Russian. “I’m not gonna watch you fight again.” “How much abuse can one man take?” And Tom’s trajectory — he’s a criminal but also a hero — would make even Stallone giggle. But Hardy and Edgerton are fiercely credible, and Nolte is indelible, a broken giant, guilt bleeding through his skin and unable to escape into booze, the actor’s voice no longer just gravelly but somewhere between the gravel pit and the pit of hell.
Warrior doesn’t have the range, the surprise, the messy originality of that other brothers-in-the-ring movie, The Fighter. But it has a rich, classical Hibernian gloom, and the brutality is an extension of the brothers’ inner turmoil: Tom must wreak vengeance, Brendan must be beaten down before he can rise. O’Connor makes the violence truly cathartic — the only way for two men to break through and reach each other. The movie leaves you a wreck — yet pumped.