First off I’m no fan of mixed martial arts. So is it possible that I would find something interesting in a movie about the sport? When the movie is wonderfully constructed and features an amazing cast, the answer is a clear and profound “yes”. In fact, while the MMA sequences are intense and extremely convincing, they take a back seat to a story that digs deep into a broken family’s seemingly unsalvagable relationships.
Director Gavin O’Connor’s film is a mix of these hard-hitting MMA action and intense family drama. O’Connor, best known for his 2004 film “Miracle”, has a knack for emotional sports pictures. But what makes “Warrior” so effective is it’s focus on the characters and the development of the painfully complex family dynamic I alluded to earlier. This is so much more than a feel good sports movie and it was easily one of my favorite films of 2011.
“Warrior” is a story of two brothers who were split apart as a result of their parents divorce years earlier. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is an ex-Marine who has just returned from Iraq. He’s a tough but troubled individual still struggling with the scars of his parents split as well as his own baggage from his military service. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher with a wife and two kids who finds himself on the verge of losing his home due to hard financial times.
The two cross paths after they both enter the Sparta Mixed Martial Arts Tournament, each driven by their own desperate motivations. Nick Nolte plays their father whose drunken past was responsible for the family’s destruction. But he’s turned his life around, becoming a Christian and approaching his 1,000 day of sobriety. His desire for forgiveness and reconciliation clashes with the brother’s individual resentment which makes for some strong emotional sequences.
Even though there is plenty of realistic MMA fighting, particularly in the second half of the film, this is a character driven picture. What makes the characters work are the straightforward and earnest performances. Tom Hardy is riveting as the bitter, hurting, and rudderless Tommy and his performance should have garnered Oscar consideration. He’s a commanding presence in front of the camera and sells every scene. Joel Edgerton, who is fantastic in everything he’s in, is equally strong as the more grounded Brendan. He’s a committed family man and his performance feels authentic and genuine. And watching Nick Nolte hear is great. He tackles some of the film’s tougher scened and reminds us of what he’s capable of doing when given good material.
“Warrior” could easily be misconstrued as a typical feel good sports movie. While it does dabble in a few clichés that we’ve seen in many sports pictures, it’s the wonderful chemistry between the cast and the beautifully conceived family moments that make this an unforgettable film. The MMA action is bone-jarring and brutal and you can feel each punch and kick. But at it’s core this is a brilliant and heartfelt character study brought to life by some strong acting and a rock solid script. It’s a film that has still stuck with me since I left the theater.