Until Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is officially released in a couple of weeks, Warrior will briefly hold the title of “the best sports movie in years.” But unlike Moneyball, which successfully subverts the sports-movie formula, Warrior doubles the formula and quadruples the emotion. It’s Rocky times two: Twice the violence, twice the underdog story, and twice the acting capabilities. There’s absolutely nothing new here, but Warrior capably wrings every last bit of rousing, feel-good energy out of the tired sports-movie template to create an astoundingly entertaining film that just happens to be about MMA.
Gavin O’Connor wrote and directed Warrior and he does exactly what he did with 2004’s Miracle: He hits those high notes hard. He has an uncanny ability to to create movies that grown men would feel comfortable crying over, and the degree of difficulty here is even higher: The trailers give away every single plot turn in Warrior, except the outcome. Yet, it still manages to bowl over its audience.
In Warrior, O’Connor takes the classic underdog story and multiplies it: Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) plays Brendan Conlon, a former MMA fighter turned Philly teacher who comes out of retirement when his daughter’s hospital bills force his house to the brink of foreclosure. Even in his MMA prime, Conlon was only a .500 fighter, better at withstanding punishment than he was at dishing it out. To the dismay of his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison) — who never met a pair of pants she cared to wear — Brendan begins secretely competing in amateur matches only to be outed by a student and subsequently suspended. He reconnects with an old trainer (Frank Grillo) and by virtue of some dumb luck, winds up in a winner-take-all MMA Tournament with a $5 million cash prize.
Meanwhile, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), after a mysterious 14-year absence and a stint in the military, shows up in Pittsburgh out of nowhere, and after dismantling the world middle-weight MMA champion in a sparring match at a local gym, he, too, punches a ticket to the MMA Tournament. Tommy, a naturally talented fighter, is fierce but quiet, holding on to a dark secret that builds some conflict into his underdog story.
What connects Brendan and Tommy is a mutual father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a lifelong drunk whose abuse drove his wife and Tommy into hiding. The only thing that Brendan and Tommy — who haven’t seen each other since high-school — have in common is an intense dislike and distrust of their father, who has recently sobered up and has attempted to re-enter the lives of his sons.
What really elevates Warrior above its sports-movie cliches are the performances of the three leads. Edgerton, who flashed signs of brilliance last year in a supporting role in Animal Kingdom, imbues his character with a gritty but believable determination. The stakes for Brendan — all things relative — aren’t really all that high, but Edgerton makes us believe that saving his home is worth risking his life. Hardy’s character, meanwhile, is ruthless and brutal, capable of knocking a man unconscious with a single punch. With a less talented actor, Tommy could’ve easily be seen as the film’s main villain, a sibling Apollo Creed, but Hardy makes us believe that somewhere beneath the his stoic exterior and years of emotional baggage, there’s a tender heart desperate to reveal itself. That the audience feels so much for both characters makes the finale that much more compelling and gut wrenching.
But it’s the veteran Nolte that is the true, Oscar-contending stand-out in Warrior. He is flat-out phenomenal, a grizzled old man who wears grief and regret on his sleeve. His two sons despise his character, and have every reason to do so, and yet it’s Paddy for whom the audience feels the most compassion, conflicted as it is. More than either of the brothers, it’s Paddy we want to find redemption.
The other factor at play here is the sport itself. MMA is — in my opinion, at least — an ugly, morally reprehensible sport where two men are put in a cage and basically given free reign to beat the shit out of each other. Unconsciousness is the goal, and if there’s a little swelling of the brain, well, so be it. The fact that it’s even legal is proof that we are indeed on the verge of Idiocracy, if we haven’t already crossed into that territory. And yet, there’s no denying that it’s a compelling sport to watch. The stakes are high because death is an actual possibility, and O’Connor does a brilliant job of framing the matches, extracting every last bit of fist-swinging brutality allowed under a PG-13 banner.
Warrior boasts a potent combination of superb acting, vicious beat-downs, and two populist underdog tales that hit all the brain’s red spots. It’s one terrific endorphin high, folks, and if you can tolerate the intensity of the sport, I can’t recommend Warrior enough.