Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, two actors who've been around for years but really came into their own over the last two or three. Nowhere are their talents more evident than 2011's Warrior, a movie that quickly climbs into my list of favorite movies.
Thanks to his drinking for years, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) has torn his family apart. Years have gone by since he's even seen his sons until one night his estranged son, Tommy (Hardy), shows up on his doorstep in Pittsburgh. He's popping pills and doesn't say much. He asks Paddy to help him train, start fighting again after years away from it, years away from his high school career as a state champion wrestler. In Philly, Paddy's other son, Brendan (Edgerton), is married with two kids but struggling to make ends meet. He's months away from being foreclosed on his house. Neither brother has seen each for years, and Tommy is even going by his deceased mother's maiden name. Both have fighting experience though and manage to get into Sparta, a 2-day, 16-man tournament of single elimination MMA bouts. The pay-out? $5 million, winner take all.
The best sports stories -- in film or real life -- are those that are personal. We can't always relate as viewers to a multimillionaire pulling down ridiculous amounts of money. This movie is Rocky. It's Rudy. It's Remember the Titans. This is one of the great sports movies of all-time in a quickly developing sport, MMA (mixed martial arts). Director Gavin O'Connor is clearly invested in his story and it shows in the film. Sports in all their emotions can hit you right in the gut, packing quite the emotional wallop. Just like its fights though, 'Warrior' doesn't let up. It whales away at you, emotionally throwing punch after punch. It is an incredible, realistic, humanity at its most base type of story. I love this movie. LOVE it.
Playing brothers who have long since drifted apart, Hardy and Edgerton are revelations as Tommy and Brendan. I've seen and knew they could both act, but their performances are perfect in their familiarity. Hardy is a caged animal and a wounded one at that. Intensity doesn't begin to describe him. He doesn't look like he's acting. He appears ready to literally rip your head off. His Tommy is an Iraq war vet just brimming with hatred, anger and demons that threaten to tear him apart inside. Edgerton is the high school physics teacher and family man, married to Tess (Jennifer Morrison) with two kids. His family has fallen on hard times with some medical issues, and Brendan is out of options. What more can you ask? Tommy is fighting to right a wrong, to save himself in a way. Brendan is fighting for his family and their future. Edgerton's Brendan is the more obviously sympathetic of the two, but you're rooting for both. Great, great performances.
With this script, O'Connor does something impressive. It is familiar. It isn't particularly new. If you've seen a sports movie, you've seen variations on it before. In a lot of ways right down to the music (great score from Mark Isham, soft and subtle but driving emotionally), Warrior reminded me of Friday Night Lights. More or less, you have a good sense of where it's going in terms of story. Getting to that end goal, that final fight though is the fun. O'Connor takes what we know as a viewer and manages to tweak it just enough to not only make it worthwhile and enjoyable, but to make it unique and original. I can't even put my finger on it as to why this works so well. Supporting performances are uniformly good, starting with Morrison as the loving but obviously quite worried wife, Frank Grillo as Frank Campana, Brendan's out-of-the-box thinking trainer, Kevin Dunn as Zito, the principal of the school Brendan works at, and Bryan Callen and Sam Sheridan as themselves, providing ringside commentary for the fights.
Clocking in at 140 minutes, Warrior has time to breathe. The first 75 minutes set everything up, putting characters where they need to be and hinting at the backstories for all these individuals, hinting but never spelling anything out. A scene between Hardy and Edgerton on the beach in Atlantic City the night before the fights begin is a tour de force scene, intensity exploding off the screen as the two brothers talk for the first time in years. I didn't think you could top the emotion of that scene...for about 5 minutes, and then the fights start. Hardy's Tommy is a brawler, fighting with brute strength and power, Edgerton's Brendan fighting technically, waiting to strike with an array of moves. As a non-fan of MMA, I came away impressed with the brutality of these fights, movie or not. They keep building and building on momentum until you can't take it anymore. The final fight -- no SPOILERS here, but come on, think about it -- is one of the more gut-wrenching, emotionally charged scenes I can even think of. The final shot of the movie is a thing of beauty too, couldn't have asked for a better one.
I'm searching for something, anything to rip about this movie, and I can't. Hardy and Edgerton carry this movie both physically and emotionally with Nolte not far behind as a father who admits he did a hell of a lot of wrong things to his family growing up, driving his wife away and scarring the kids. I hope there's a Best Supporting nod for Nolte. His scene late with Tommy in a hotel room is picture perfect; two individuals who are scarred and beaten down, one holding the other. The scene the night before in an Atlantic City casino is just as heart-breaking, making it all that much more effective. Underdog, fighting against the odds, fighting to save themselves and their loved ones, this has it all. Too many moments like that to even bring up. There aren't any easy answers for this torn-apart family, and the movie doesn't try to fix things thankfully. This is a movie in real life, and that real life thing, it's messy. It ain't easy, and you can't always fix it.
I loved, loved, LOVED this movie. Easily one of the great sports movies of all-time, but more than that, it rises above a genre distinction. It's just a great movie.
Warrior <---trailer (2011): ****/****