by HELEN GEIB
Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher, around 30 years old, married to his high school sweetheart Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and proud father of two adorable little girls. The family is in debt from medical bills and in danger of losing their house to foreclosure. Brendan’s first career was as a UFC fighter and to make some extra money he’s started fighting again, like the fight in the temporary ring set up in the parking lot of a strip club that gets him suspended from his teaching job.
Younger brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) is just back from a combat tour in Iraq with the Marines when he shows up on the doorstep of the old family home in Pittsburgh. He hasn’t seen his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), or his brother, since his mother left with him 14 years ago. Now he needs money, he plans to earn it fighting, and he says he wants his father, who was his coach when he was a high school champion, to train him.
Paddy is coming up on 1000 days sober, attending Mass and reading the Bible, and longing to be taken back into his sons’ lives. Alcohol-fueled abuse left a legacy of profound estrangement within the family. The bitterness is always at the surface with Tommy; Brendan’s hurt is no less deep for being cloaked in chilly civility. Matters come to a head when both brothers make it into a high-stakes Mixed Martial Arts tournament in Atlantic City.
The overarching tournament fighting plot and the tournament fights that dominate the film’s final third are a vehicle for the family drama of hard-won forgiveness and reconciliation. The fights are not exciting as action scenes, but are dramatic and interesting for what they reveal about the characters and the shifting ground of their relationships. Good pacing, a large dose of leavening humor from the ringside broadcasting team, and crowd-pleasing cutaways to hometown viewing parties- Brendan’s students, the guys at Tommy’s gym- keep the drama from getting too heavy.
The Conlon men’s dialogue has an admirable reticence that rings true to life. Brendan keeps things bottled up even from his wife- not incidentally, theirs is one of those uncommon movie marriages that closely resembles the real thing- and Tommy is the strong, surly type; Paddy seems to want to talk but his sons won’t give him the time of day. The film has something of the flavor of a mystery story as we gradually piece together what happened in the past and what they’re thinking and feeling now from cryptic-to-us, meaning-laden exchanges. The characters’ reluctance/ inability/ refusal to use words to communicate makes the fight drama genre a peculiarly appropriate choice.
Warrior eventually falls into the familiar trap of earnest dramas: piling on so many traumas that it isn’t possible to do justice to them all. There are simply a few backstory revelations too many, mostly concentrated in Tommy’s story. (The only other drawback worth mentioning is the use of shaky-cam for no evident reason other than that it’s the current Hollywood fashion.) Nevertheless, the film stays on track thanks to uniformly excellent performances, a resolute storytelling focus on the central drama, and resonant themes of fatherhood, brotherhood, and a man’s responsibilities.
3 1/2 stars
The milieu and themes of Warrior bear similarities to director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor’s 2008 police corruption drama Pride and Glory.