Warrior starts out with three men fighting, before two of them actually proceed to duke it out. They’re each railing against their respective pasts, their elusive futures, intimate regrets and bureaucratic aggravations, and it’s this character-driven emphasis that gives full weight to the emotional punches of Miracle director Gavin O’Connor’s latest underdog anthem.
When Tommy (Tom Hardy) arrives on the Pittsburgh doorstep of Paddy (Nick Nolte), the former’s surprised by the latter’s newfound sobriety and the latter by the former’s appearance after years of estrangement. Tommy enlisted, same as his dad did, and whatever happened over there, he doesn’t want to talk about. He doesn’t want to talk about much, really. He doesn’t even want to forgive his father for tearing their family apart with his alcoholic carelessness. The former wrestling champ simply wants to train and fight like he used to, and if it earns him a place in the heavily promoted Sparta tournament -- where the cash prize is a cool $5 million -- then so be it.
Little do Tommy and Paddy realize that younger brother/other son Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is equally drawn to the dough. Hospital bills for one of his two daughters have piled up, while the bank threatens to foreclose on their Philly home, forcing the seemingly mild-mannered high school teacher to take up his old mixed martial arts habits after hours. His wife (Jennifer Morrison) isn’t happy to see fresh bruises crop up, and neither is the school administration (led by Kevin Dunn), so when Brendan is consequently suspended without pay, the Sparta tournament seems like the only answer to their financial woes.
It hardly seems like a surprise that Brendan and Tommy will indeed face one another in the ring (or the octagon, or the cage, or what-have-you; underneath the MMA trappings, this is essentially a boxing movie), but what the three leads pull off here is a commendable lowercase counterpoint to the all-caps blue-collar confrontations of last year’s The Fighter. The manifestations of desperation and determination between Nolte, Hardy, and Edgerton are as quietly divergent as they are equally captivating.
Although I’d keyed on Edgerton most recently in crime dramas The Square and Animal Kingdom, I’ve yet to see him issue equal amounts warmth and physicality like this. Hardy, meanwhile, hardly says a word, masking substantial remorse with one fierce assault after another. The latter already proved himself an outstanding showman in Bronson, but here he retreats effortlessly into a feral sort of state and manages to wield mere eye contact every bit as effectively as his fists. That leaves Nolte as the man responsible for driving the siblings apart and aching for forgiveness in his later days. His character is partial to an audiobook of Moby Dick, constantly chasing what he may never get, and nearly every scene with Nolte in it is akin to Mickey Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler, tapping into a sense of shame so potent that the result is heartbreaking more often than not.
Any of these three men could be the focus of their very own redemption story, and yet O’Connor’s screenplay (co-written by Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman) isn’t too overcrowded for its own good, even as the running time pushes 2:20. The cumulative impact is instead ideally multiplied as blatant antagonists give way to unbeatable odds, unbearable circumstances, unstoppable forces.
That isn’t to say that Warrior isn’t without its fair share of corny contrivances, whether it’s the hoary commentators spelling out the stakes of the final matches, the dismissive colleagues who end up cheering Brendan on, or the questionable military procedure that allows Tommy to remain in the fight. To its credit, at least this isn’t a film where the aforementioned sick kid is currently, cloyingly ill, watching Daddy do his damnedest while awaiting a critical surgery, and this isn’t a film where a character going off his meds results in hardcore scenery-chewing (although one character’s moment of relapse does verge on the brink of melodramatic hysterics, if not crossing entirely into it).
The beats are familiar, the stakes are high, the fights are brutal, and the rewards are just. Warrior is ultimately as much about a family forced to pummel through their demons and their doubts as it is about a country working through its setbacks in the wake of conflict abroad and collapse at home. It’s less about going from rags to riches, and more about getting back up in order to simply get by.