Writer/director Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior begins not with a physical blow, but an emotional one -- indicating from the first line spoken that there will be precious little levity in this tale of two brothers who are destined to clash in the ring. Emotions run hot in Warrior, but the unflinching earnestness of the script and the actors ensure that the feelings ring true. Even the victories that appear to come easy in the film have been earned through years of suffering and endurance, and with each punch thrown we always know exactly what can be lost to failure. But you don’t have to be a mixed-martial-arts fan to appreciate the struggles waged in Warrior, because they’re battles we all wage on a daily basis, just told on a grander scale.
Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) is an ex-Marine from Pittsburgh who's never quite shaken his troubled past. Upon learning that the purse in an upcoming tournament is the largest in MMA history, Tommy recruits his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former coach and recovering alcoholic, to whip him into shape in time for the competition. Meanwhile, as Tommy steadily ascends the ranks by defeating one powerful opponent after another, his brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), struggles to provide for his family with his job as a public-school teacher. A former MMA fighter with a devastating punch, Brendan begins to wonder if he could have a shot at winning the coveted prize as well. In time, Brendan and Tommy both emerge as dark-horse contenders in the competition, setting the two brothers on a brutal collision course. But Tommy and Brendan's biggest battle won't be fought in the ring -- it will be fought in their hearts and minds.
In recent years, Tom Hardy has earned well-deserved critical acclaim for his charismatic performances in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The emerging star maintains this steady momentum with a magnetic performance in Warrior. As Tommy, Hardy is a beast caged in his own flesh, emotionally crippled by his traumatic upbringing and seemingly incapable of focusing on anything beside his determination to pummel every contender who steps in his way -- including (and especially) his own brother. But Warrior is as much Joel Edgerton’s movie as it is Hardy’s. As the struggling teacher who’s literally willing to fight for his family’s future, it’s Edgerton who manages to make the story resonate by gaining the viewer’s sympathy. While some will indeed relate to Tommy’s struggle to care for a sick parent without the benefit of health insurance and his feelings of being abandoned by the rest of his family, given the current economic climate it’s likely that many more will find it easier to relate to a character who’s working multiple jobs just to pay the mortgage, yet is still drowning in debt and facing foreclosure. And Edgerton doesn’t simply sit back while screenwriters O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman do all the heavy lifting; in the quietly desperate scenes that find Brendan and his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) wrestling with weighty decisions about their family’s future, Edgerton conveys just as much emotional authenticity as he does physical intensity during Warrior’s white-knuckle climax.
In the vast majority of sports dramas, we can rest assured the protagonist will ultimately emerge victorious -- not only because it’s a tried-and-true storytelling paradigm, but also because most filmmakers realize that viewers won’t respond well to being put through the emotional wringer of seeing the underdog beaten after enduring so much adversity. By splitting our sympathies between two protagonists who each have something honorable to fight for and then pitting them against one another, director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor and fellow screenwriters Tambakis and Dorfman get us to invest in both characters, creating a unique and poignant story dynamic that keeps us invested even when Tommy’s words and actions are less than endearing. It’s around the point where Tommy and Brendan have their first face-to-face encounter that we realize just how effective the trio’s carefully structured screenplay has been at laying a solid framework, too. Details are skillfully meted out as the story winds to a climax, ensuring that the key revelation about Tommy and Brendan’s relationship still carries dramatic weight even though viewers have known they were brothers all along. Meanwhile, the fact that both siblings have their own dedicated cheering sections drives home the point that every fighter is waging a battle both inside and outside of the ring, and allows us to cheer along as some key supporting characters root for their man to deliver the knockout blow.
With grainy, naturalistic cinematography more fitting of a 1970s-era William Friedkin film than a post-millennial MMA drama, director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi gives Warrior a unique retro look that’s only discernible as contemporary by his occasionally erratic, handheld style. Though Takayanagi and O’Connor work to give Warrior’s quiet moments a sense of genuine dramatic weight and depth, the cinematographer’s erratic style during the crucial fight scenes occasionally makes it difficult for the audience to get a true sense of the shifting power dynamics in the ring and just who’s got the upper hand. It’s not enough to pull us out of the struggle being waged onscreen -- just enough to remind us of the artifice.
The fighter has always stood as the ultimate cinematic symbol of human strength and endurance. It’s a formula that’s worked for nearly a century, and frankly, one that has grown a bit cliched over the decades. By switching the focus from boxing to MMA, and working themes of sibling rivalry, family strife, and forgiveness into the mix, however, Gavin O’Connor and company are able to make it feel fresh and vital again. Warrior is that rare breed of film capable of eliciting enthusiastic applause from an audience, despite the fact that no one is there to receive it. Should you find yourself inexplicably clapping after the final punch has been thrown and the victor has emerged, don’t be ashamed -- the emotion is infectious.