“Warrior” was the third of three films I saw Wednesday. At the first movie, I took five pages of notes. At the second, I took four. At “Warrior,” I took less than two. In other words: I got lost in this movie. I stopped thinking about the fine points of cinematography, editing, and score and simply gave myself over to the story and characters. Right up until a poorly chosen ending, I was caught up in every twist and turn. This is a fun movie.
It’s set in the world of mixed martial arts, and done in the “Rocky” style, only this movie has two Rocky figures. They’re brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton). Life dealt them both the same bum hand; each played it in different ways. Their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) was a a great wrestling coach and a terrible alcoholic. The exact dimensions of his abuse are left vague but from the way the brothers treat their father in the present day, this much is clear: he was one bad dude. Tommy and his mother left, but Brendan stayed so he could be close to his girlfriend Tess (Jennifer Morrison). Years pass. Brendan and Tess are now married, living in Philadelphia with two daughters and one mortgage they can’t afford. To pay the bills, Brendan works as a high school physics teacher by day and a mixed martial arts fighter at night. Meanwhile Tommy returns from a tour of duty in the Marines to Paddy’s house in Pittsburgh. He hates his father, but he’s thinking about fighting, and he needs someone to train him.
A few enterprising MMA promoters devise a new eye catching elimination-style tournament called Sparta: 16 fighters, one winner. You see where this is going. Despite the fact that Tommy and Brendan are both unranked nobodies, each will get the opportunity to compete at Sparta and, potentially, have the chance to settle years of festering animosity in a final cage match.
The climax of “Warrior” is never in doubt. And the contortions the film takes to put the brothers into that climax are ridiculous. But the journey to that destination is nonetheless very satisfying. So many movies pit a hero against a villain; this movie gives us a battle between two heroes of equal stature, a much rarer but arguably more suspenseful conflict. After all in a battle of good and evil, the ending, especially in a Hollywood movie, is never in doubt. In a battle of good and good, either outcome is plausible. “Warrior” reminded me — in a very good way — of watching “WrestleMania VI,” and the fight between the two biggest good-guy wrestlers of my childhood, Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. The tension was incredible because either man could win, and you had no idea what was going to happen. The same holds true here.
Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte, all from different countries — Hardy’s English, Edgerton Australian, and Nolte American — do a very credible job of creating a cohesive, if effed up family. Nolte channels all of his well-publicized problems with substance abuse into a powerful portrait of addiction. Edgerton has great chemistry with Morrison, and makes both a believable prize fighter and teacher. And Hardy, who gets very few lines, is terrific as a bottled-up beast of a man, who, with his wide open stance, enormous muscles, and jittery hands, looks like a bull charging a matador when he’s in an MMA cage. He is an intimidating figure.
“Warrior” was directed and co-written by Gavin O’Connor who made the very solid hockey movie “Miracle” and the very underwhelming cop movie “Pride & Glory.” The former film was about the sacrifices a husband makes to achieve a career goal; the latter, the thorny connections between family members who share a common vocation. O’Connor combines both those themes here, with strong results: the drama is intense but not overly melodramatic, and the sports movie cliches are all effectively deployed — at least until the finale, which I will not spoil, but which left me scratching my head for its total implausibility and its maudlin sentimentality. Even worse, it totally derails the big confrontation we’ve been waiting all movie to see. And it’s overly sentimental without actually resolving a lot of the major emotional conflicts between the characters.
Up until that ending I really enjoyed “Warrior.” It’s the sort of sports movie you want to see: one that acknowledges its forefathers (there is a very pointed “Rocky” reference early in the film) but isn’t above embracing all the tropes we love to see in this sort of story. But the last few scenes lost me. That’s when the funniest thing happened. I started taking notes.