No punches are pulled in mixed martial arts fights -- they're raw, they're violent, and they look really painful, which makes the sport as appropriate a metaphor as any for “Warrior,” a tale of two MMA fighters that’s really about the hard blows delivered by screwed-up family dynamics.
As opposed to most movies about drunk dads and the damaged kids who survived them, “Warrior” goes much heavier on the regret and recrimination than it does on the forgiveness and the closure.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself flinching more at the family arguments than at the wham-bam head-smashing.
Nick Nolte, digging fearlessly into his own personal demons, plays Paddy Conlon, a boozy veteran who spent much of his fatherhood years training his son Tommy to be a world-class fighter.
When Mrs. Conlon got fed up with Paddy’s abuse, she left with Tommy, but her older son, Brendan, stuck around, wanting to stay close to his girlfriend and incorrectly assuming that Paddy would finally start paying attention to him.
That’s the backstory in play when grown-up Tommy (Tom Hardy) returns from combat in Iraq. At first, he wants absolutely nothing to do with Paddy, but when Tommy climbs into the ring and flattens one of the top national MMA contenders, he hires Paddy to be his trainer -- and nothing more.
Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) has put his own pugilistic past behind him, and now he’s a physics teacher who’s married to his high-school sweetheart (Jennifer Morrison) and the father of two young daughters. But when the bank comes calling and threatens to take away his house, he finds himself climbing back into the ring, fighting in strip-joint parking lots for a few bucks.
When a billionaire decides to hold a winner-take-all MMA tournament in Atlantic City with a $5 million purse, both brothers decide they want to go for it. (Tommy wants to give the money to the widow of his war buddy.)
The brothers unite at the Jersey shore, but Tommy still resents Brendan for not coming with him to take care of their mother, and Brendan still resents Paddy for his past bad behavior, which all the 1,000-day-sober AA chips in the world won’t heal. (“The only thing [Brendan and I] have in common,” Tommy tells Paddy, “is that we have no use for you.”)
Director Gavin O’Connor has established himself as a skillful crafter of both uplifting sports movies (“Miracle”) and stories of complicated family dynamics (“Tumbleweeds”), and he gets to flex both muscles here. I can’t attest to the realism of the fight sequences, but cinematically, they’re stirring and taut and empathetic and everything else that they’re supposed to be.
And while O’Connor and co-screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman aren’t above tugging our heartstrings with character reversals -- Brendan’s wife tells him she refuses to go watch him fight, so you just know she’s eventually going to turn up ringside in Atlantic City -- they wisely avoid any easy resolutions for Paddy, particularly after he falls off the wagon.
The script often hearkens back to old-school fight pictures (there’s everything but the violin-playing boxer with the sister who needs an operation), and the cast comes through in a very classic-Hollywood way.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Hardy has the intensity (and the willingness to be disliked by the audience) of vintage Humphrey Bogart ,while Edgerton has the twinkly-eyed mug and just-under-the-surface violence of young James Cagney.
And in the tradition of those Warner Bros. contract players who stole every scene from the stars, Nolte acts the living hell out of his role; his Paddy is pitiable and haunted by regret, but you can’t take your eyes off him.
Where “Warrior” falls apart is in the big climax, where the two brothers climb into the ring to fight each other.
Because the movie had made me sympathize with both of them, I found myself not really caring who won, since I was rooting for both and against neither.
On top of that, the fight itself is supposed to provide some sort of emotional breakthrough for the brothers’ relationship that just doesn’t play -- if walloping the crap out of each other provides a catharsis that conversation doesn’t, the movie never clearly communicates why their fight changes things. (It obviously worked for a lot of men at the screening I attended, who were trying not to be caught crying as the lights came up, so you may feel differently about it.)
All in all, though, “Warrior” wins on points, even with a resolution that didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t be surprised if it winds up having the same effect on New Recession audiences that “Rocky” had with victims of ’70s malaise.