Warrior (2011) is the latest film from Gavin O’Connor, the director of Miracle (2004), and stars Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte. The film tells the story of Tommy Reardon (Hardy), a troubled young man who grew up in the shadow of an alcoholic and abusive father (Nolte), but fled with his terminally ill mother when she had finally had enough. After her death, Tommy joined the Marines, and tried to put his past behind him. Unfortunately, we can never run from ourselves, and now Tommy is back, not because he wants to reconcile with his father, but because he needs the old man to train him for Sparta, an upcoming MMA tournament designed to find the best fighter in the world. Meanwhile, Tommy’s estranged brother, Brendan Conlon (Edgerton), is drowning in debt, and is on the verge of losing his house to the bank. Knowing that his teacher’s salary isn’t enough to pay the bills, he decides to return to bare knuckle boxing, and spends his evenings sneaking out to fight in strip joint parking lots. Eventually, Tommy and Brendan both manage to secure spots in the Sparta tournament, and become overnight sensations despite entering the tournament as totally unknown underdogs. They work their way up the tournament, beating each opponent they come up against (sometimes just barely), until they finally find themselves facing one another. Now they have put aside their feelings for one another and confront the tattered remnants of their past, all while waging a brutal war for a prize that could redeem them both. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner, and neither man is willing to back down.
Warrior is not a “Great” movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a really, really good sports movie. Sports films are difficult to make, as they all tend to hit pretty much the same beats, and thus they are often predictable and stale, a problem that affects pretty much the entire genre. Often, they tell the tale of an underdog team who perseveres against the odds, and manages to come out on top at the end. On the other hand, there are those sports films that chronicle a particular team’s rise to the top, only to see them fail to win the big game at the end, and we’re meant to admire them for simply rising to the challenge. Warrior breaks this mold slightly, following two underdogs as they train to enter a tournament that represents redemption for both men, and then pitting them against one another at the end. The audience has spent the first two acts learning to care for both characters, and thus our loyalties are divided when they finally face one another. This provides a whole new level of tension and uncertainty that is missing from a lot of other films in the genre, and gives the audience a whole new reason to become invested in the proceedings.
Of course, none of this would work if we didn’t care about the characters. Thanks to Gavin O’Connor’s deft direction, and the powerhouse performances from the three leads, that is never a problem. O’Connor’s previous sports film, Miracle, worked in spite of the limitations of the genre. It contained every single cliché, stock character, and telegraphed moment contained in nearly every other sports film, but despite all that, it was still a solid and inspirational film that never once felt heavy-handed or manipulative. Warrior manages the same feat, and manages to surprise even when it is hewing closely to convention. O’Connor’s direction is never flashy or overbearing, which is good, because with a film like this, it doesn’t have to be. At the same time, though, it isn’t flat or uninteresting, either. Most of the film is mostly shot with a handheld camera, giving even the dialogue scenes a sense of urgency. But there is a subtlety to the direction that helps elevate the material. The handheld camera is not like the persistent “shaky-cam” that plagues so many modern Hollywood films, but it adds a level of reality to the story. It feels as if the viewer is in the same room with these characters, eavesdropping on some uncomfortable conversation or heartfelt moment. O’Connor drops us right in the middle of things, and keeps us there at ground level, immersing us in the smallest details of the characters’ lives. He brings us closer to these characters so that we develop a connection with them, and thus have an emotional investment in their climactic confrontation.
Of course, the audience wouldn’t be able to develop a connection with these characters if the actors portraying them were unable to properly convey their inner turmoil and emotions. Thankfully, that’s not a problem, as O’Connor has filled his cast with some of the finest young actors working today, and an elder statesman who turns in one of the best, most emotionally raw performances of his career. Tom Hardy scowls his way through the film, and stalks through every scene like a tiger waiting to strike. Tommy is a ball of barely contained rage, and there is a sense that at any moment he could explode and take it out on whoever happens to be near him at the time. Tommy doesn’t talk much, content to let his fists do most of the talking, and thus Hardy lets his massively muscled body do a lot of the work for him, conveying most of his feelings in the way he stands and carries himself. It’s a powerful performance, and he throws himself into it fully, and those who only know him from Inception or Star Trek: Nemesis will no doubt be surprised by his physical transformation alone. Anyone who has seen Bronson, however, already knows that Hardy is capable of giving an intense performance, and we can only hope this trend continues with his turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
On the other hand, Edgerton is the real revelation here, especially after his small but completely wooden turn in the lackluster Attack of the Clones. He is believable and real as an over the hill fighter who is having a hard time making it in the real world. At times, he feels a bit like a cinematic cousin to Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) from The Wrestler, but not nearly as lost or alone. Brendan Conlon is undoubtedly a family man, and it is only because of the intense love he feels for his wife and children that he is willing to put his body on the line once again. He wants to provide for them, and keep them in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed, so much so that he is willing to risk severe injury and even death to make sure they are comfortable. More than that, though, he needs to prove to himself that he can do it. When Tommy and their mother left, Brendan stayed behind because he had fallen in love, and now he feels the need to prove to the world that he made the right choices in life. More than that, though, he has to prove to his father that he is capable of winning, because when he was growing up, he was constantly standing in Tommy’s shadow. Even now, dear old dad has chosen to train the ungrateful and emotionally absent Tommy, rather than the son who stood by him when no one else would. Now Brendan has managed to reach the end of the tournament all by himself, and he finally has the opportunity to show dad that he’s been backing the wrong horse this whole time.
All of which brings us to Nick Nolte, who steals the show as the boys’ father, Paddy Conlon. Nolte spends the film as a man haunted by the mistakes he’s made, and his hang dog expression is perfect for the role. Early in the film, he tells Tommy that he quit drinking, and that he is 1000 days sober, as though that is enough of an apology. But Tommy is not willing to accept that his dad has changed, and he is definitely not ready to forgive him. It’s obvious that Paddy expected this, but nonetheless, it is a crushing revelation, and Nolte conveys Paddy’s heartbreak expertly. Paddy is not the type of man to shed tears all that easily, so it’s all in the way his face falls and his shoulders slump when Tommy simply tells him “You had a choice, okay. You had a choice.” It is a powerful and harrowing moment between the estranged father and son, but also a quiet one. It is nothing compared to the moment when Paddy tries to reconcile with Brendan, who hasn’t allowed Paddy to visit or see his grandchildren in over three years. Paddy is making a sincere effort to connect with his son, but Brendan doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that he doesn’t trust him. This mistrust is like a fist driven right into his chest, and thanks to Nolte’s superb performance, you can practically see the hope of a heartfelt moment seep out of his body as he fights back the tears he can no longer contain. Paddy is the true heart of the film, as he is the one person trying to pull his family back together, and if we don’t believe in this character, then the whole thing falls apart. Thankfully, Nolte manages to deliver a quietly intense performance that pulls the whole film together.
Aside from all that, Warrior works in spite of itself. It’s often clichéd and manipulative, but the performers really elevate the material. Thus, the film is thrilling, absorbing, and all around entertaining. The fight scenes are all expertly staged and shot, and manage to deliver kinetic, hard-hitting action without ever becoming confusing or muddled. The music is great, too, and the film features great use of a couple songs by The National, particularly during the climax. The film’s only real weakness is the script, but everything else works so well, that it is easy to overlook the occasional gap in logic or cheesy moment.
Ultimately, Warrior is a character study more than anything else. It is the type of film that lives or dies by its characters, and rests entirely on the performances of the actors chosen to play them. If the audience does not believe in the characters, then they are unable to buy into the reality of the film. Thankfully, Warrior is filled with great characters played by incredible actors who deliver powerful, touching, and believable performances. Thus, we are able to become involved with the film on an emotional level, and perhaps be more forgiving toward some of the weaknesses of the script (there are more than a few gaps in logic throughout), or those that are inherent to the genre itself. In that respect, Warrior succeeds.