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In ‘Warrior,’ Does Lionsgate Know it has a ‘Rocky’?

Decades ago another film came out of nowhere and told a story of a down-on-his-luck fighter when Americans needed to believe the little guy could overcome the odds

A movie with tons of heart, about regular people rising to life’s challenges, facing impossible odds and succeeding. A movie about family. About the trauma of war. About manhood, and raw-knuckled, bare-footed competition between them.

That, in a nutshell, is ‘Warrior,’ a movie that upon seeing for the second time tonight I am convinced could be a stealth break-out hit and a contender for the Oscars if enough people see it.

It’s certainly one of the few movies I’ve seen this year to remind me of the power of story–telling on the big screen.

But does Lionsgate know what it has on its hands?

In the hands of Harvey Weinstein, ‘Warrior’ would sail into a Best Picture nomination. When I asked a Lionsgate executive about Oscar plans, I got a response that went something like: ‘Depends how things go at the box office.’

The studio ought to believe.

The story is of two estranged brothers, who through a series of circumstances end up fighting one another in the finals of a mixed martial arts tournament.

It may not sound like the movie for you (and definitely not for me), but you’d be wrong.

One of the things I like best about the film is the actors are barely known: Tom Hardy (now shooting in “The Dark Knight Rises”) plays Tommy, an AWOL Marine so filled with rage and pain that he can barely move but to punch and kick at things.

Joel Edgerton (about to play Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”) plays his older brother Brendan, a teacher and family man forced to fall back on back-room martial arts fighting to stave off foreclosure on his home.

Nick Nolte offers a moving portrait of a father and alcoholic, striving to make amends for a lifetime of failing his two sons.

And Jennifer Morrison – best known for Fox’s “House” – plays Brendan’s level-headed wife.

The independent studio has held the movie’s release for two years, according to several people I talked to close to the film. In chatting at the after-party, Nolte said the studio was waiting to see if Tom Hardy (“Inception”) would become a break-out star.

A Lionsgate executive said they were just waiting for “the right moment,” though I’m not sure what that means.

The writer and director Gavin O’Connor cried at length in introducing the film at the Arclight Hollywood. While his emotion was certainly unexpected, he did say this:

“Every studio passed. Every studio, every film financier.” Then Lionsgate’s head of production Joe Drake took a meeting and told O’Connor that they would make the film.

O’Connor added: “I’m grateful to be an underdog film at an underdog studio.”

If that’s the case, then this underdog studio needs to believe that it has something special, because it does.

At a time when Americans are hurting, this story of two brothers – one suffering from the war in Iraq, the other struggling to maintain his dignity in providing for his family at home – will surely strike a chord with regular people.

Thirty-five years ago, another film came out of nowhere and told a story of a down-on-his-luck fighter at a time when Americans needed to believe that a little guy could overcome the odds.

“Rocky” went on to win three Oscars and make more than $100 million.

“Warrior” could go the distance. The movie opens September 9.