Warrior wants a great deal out of its audience. It wants the viewer to suspend their disbelief that unbeknownst to one another, two brothers torn apart by crumbling family drama both end up having to fight for extremely important, personal reasons, and end up fighting in not only the same tournament, but facing off against one another in the final round. For me, this was too much. Although there are definitely some impressive performances on display from time to time, Warrior is a manipulative movie that goes for broke in the last act and comes up empty.
The first of the brothers is Tommy (Tom Hardy), who helped his mother get away from his alcoholic, abusive father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), when he was younger. Now a former soldier and in need of cash, he returns to his father's house to find his dad going to church and off the booze. Long ago, his dad helped train him as a fighter, and Tommy is interested in reviving that aspect of their relationship...and none of the others. At the same time, the second brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is a high school teacher struggling to support his family. Unbeknownst to his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), he enters a fighting competition at a local bar to earn a couple hundred bucks, but when his school finds out, they suspend him, leaving him no choice but to find a real trainer (Frank Grillo) and fight for some bigger prize money.
Edgerton is excellent. He and director Gavin O'Connor are careful to find an appropriate level of intensity that allows the viewer to like Brendan as a family man and high school teacher and believe in him as a viable fighter, while at the same time not hiding his intensity when he's with his family and students or making him too compassionate when he's in the ring. In a film that wants the viewer to root for everyone, he's the guy that's actually worth getting behind. Meanwhile, Nolte is right behind him. He's good in predictable scenes where he and Tommy butt heads, but even better when he really gets emotional, specifically his plea for forgiveness on Brendan's lawn. O'Connor manages to avoid making Nolte look like too much of a sad sack while his family rightfully rejects him, even if there's probably too many of these scenes in the film as a whole. It's a far cry from the awkward, barely-there performance Nolte gave in Arthur earlier this year, which is a real relief.
Aside from Edgerton and Nolte, however, the film is hard to like. Hardy's performance is impressive on some levels: his one note, brutish, meathead man is a far cry from the witty, intelligent trickster he played in Inception or even the slightly slow, slightly deranged title character in Bronson, but the writing isn't there to support what he's willing to give, turning the movie into a series of scenes where Hardy does his schtick without any new facets of the character to uncover. Without something on the page driving his actions on a scene-by-scene basis, the character quickly becomes a repetitive drag, allowing Edgerton to gain all of the sympathy; by the time Hardy's motivation is finally revealed, it's too little, too late.
The first two acts of the movie are basically setup, filling the viewer in on the two characters and their relationship with each other and with Paddy, building towards a third act that's nothing but fighting. I remained hopeful that the action would really bring the movie home, but O'Connor's direction turns out to be uninspired. He places his camera a little farther back and holds his shots a little longer, but it still basically looks like a 21st century action picture, meaning too much camera shaking and not enough bone-cracking intensity. Although the audience for the film might not quite be the same audience for the sport, there's no question watching a real UFC match would pack a more satisfying punch than this.
Since the viewer knows it's going to come down to Tommy and Brendan, none of the other matches are all that interesting, delivering the final blow to the film's dramatic tension. O'Connor throws in a cartoonishly indestructible behemoth named Koba (Kurt Angle) to take on Brendan, but no amount of threats and one-punch knockouts helps to stifle the feeling of a foregone conclusion. The same goes for several other elements tossed in during the third act: a pre-fight beachfront encounter between Tommy and Brendan, the reveal of the mysterious stakes Tommy is fighting for, Tommy getting into an argument with Paddy. Warrior wants to be a rousing struggle to the top, but O'Connor's methods of stacking the deck are the film's version of steroids, sapping the magic of seeing something extraordinary.
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