As the title suggests, Warrior is all about conflict. There’s conflict between father and son and, most significantly, a conflict of a shatteringly physical variety between younger and elder brother. But at the same time, Warrior also presents a conflict between two varying dramatic tones – on one hand, the movie presents us with a quite uncompromising portrayal of poverty and a family driven apart by alcoholism, while on the other, we’re given a feel-good sports movie.
Everything about Warrior’s dramatic opening conversation between troubled ex-soldier Tommy (Tom Hardy and his ex-boxer, ex-alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte, fantastic as always) suggests that you should take it all extremely seriously. A combination of film grain, and documentary-style jerks of the camera tell you that what you’re seeing is intensely dramatic stuff. But then, by degrees, Warrior drifts from kitchen sink drama territory into the kind of feel-good waters occupied by Rocky, The Karate Kid or, more recently, The Fighter.
A seething, muscle-bound ball of rage, Tommy later walks into a gym and manages to lay out one of the top middle-weight fighters in the world with only a punch or two. The incident is captured on a mobile phone, and Tommy is soon a YouTube sensation. Deciding to fight professionally, Tommy hires his recovering alcoholic dad to train him for Sparta, a prestigious tournament with a $5 million prize fund.
Meanwhile, it so happens that Tommy’s estranged brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is embarking on a fighting career of his own. Himself a former wrestler, Brendan’s now a physics teacher in a Philadelphia high school. But in spite of his hardworking nature (and the fact that he and his wife work “three jobs” between them), they can’t summon up the cash to pay their mortgage.
Desperate to keep his family home, Brendan enters a mixed martial arts contest to make some extra funds. He wins the bout, but when his superiors hear of Brendan’s extra-curricular activities, he’s suspended from his day job. Through a series of coincidences, Brendan’s offered the opportunity to fight in the Sparta tournament, where he finds himself on a collision course with his raging bull of a brother.
It’s here that Warrior morphs into a kind of two-handed Rocky, with two characters to root for rather than one. Brendan is the obvious underdog; comparatively wiry, ageing and with constant cuts under his eyes, he’s the movie’s loveable Balboa. Hardy, meanwhile, rages and seethes in his role as a kind of modern-day Caliban. He channels his hatred towards both his father and himself into his fighting, and he brings the role a hunched, animal presence, and also a subtle touch of sensitivity.
The script, it has to be said, is less than perfect. The fight commentators, in particular, utter some unintentionally funny lines, though it may be perfectly normal in the world of MMA for pundits to shriek things like, “He tore the door off a tank!” I’ve no idea.
For all the film’s varying dramatic success outside the ring – and Warrior does falter a little in its later stages – the fights are utterly electrifying, and the moments before they start are filled with apprehension. I can’t think of another movie of this ilk that has managed to evoke such a palpable sense of danger before the opening bell rings.
There’s a bit of a downside, though, for people with no knowledge of mixed martial arts. More than one fight is won in a manner that, to someone as ignorant of the rules of the sport as I, didn’t make much sense.
Nevertheless, Warrior is a great piece of entertainment, with some stunning fight scenes courtesy of director Gavin O’Connor. These battles may be implausibly bloodless at times (there’s no way anyone could take these beatings without a detached retina or a profusely bleeding cheek), but the sense of violence and danger is brilliantly brought to the screen through a mixture of razor-sharp editing, often brilliant camera work and expert sound design.
The Fighter, a structurally similar drama about men hitting each other, hung together as the better drama overall, but Warrior most definitely has the better fight scenes. Tom Hardy is amazing, too, and it’s a timely reminder, if any were needed, that he’s more than capable of terrifying us as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
In Superman, Christopher Reeve made us believe a man could fly. In Warrior, Tom Hardy really does convince us that he could tear the door off a tank.