Tom Hardy as Tommy Reardon
Joel Edgerton as Brendan Conlon
Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon
Jennifer Morrison as Tess Conlon
Kevin Dunn as Joe Zito
Noah Emmerich as Dan Taylor
Bryan Callen as Himself
Denzel Whitaker as Student
Frank Grillo as Frank Campana
Erik Apple as Mad Dog
Kurt Angle as Koba
Gavin O’Connor as JJ Riley
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Tommy Reardon and Brendan Conlon (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton) are two fighters on their way to a high-profile MMA Tournament in Atlantic City coming from very different backgrounds, except they have one very important thing in common… their recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). Separated years earlier, this family is reunited in a tense stand-off as they try to make arrears for years of anger and regrets within a world that’s all about fighting.
Having seen so many sports movies over the years, we’ve become accustomed to waiting cynically for what can only be one of two possible conclusions – the hero wins or the hero loses. Probably the biggest strength of this sports movie set in the world of Mixed Martial Arts and ultimate fighting is that while you may know where it’s going, you’re never sure how it will end. “Warrior” comes from the director of “Miracle,” a movie with an ending most knew going in, but this one doesn’t have that hurdle being an original story. Like “Rocky” and “The Fighter,” it’s not just about the fighting and it finds its way into the characters through the real world drama of an alcoholic father (played by Nick Nolte) trying to connect with his estranged sons.
The first hour basically sets things up, introducing the characters and creating the dramatic tension between them. The way things are laid out, you might not even realize the two main characters are related unless you’ve seen the film’s marketing which gives that fact away. Wisely, O’Connor doesn’t overload this first hour with exposition to explain how the two guys got to where they are–for instance, how does an extreme fighter become a science teacher?–but everything important is explained as the story goes along, while the rest is left up to the viewer’s imagination to figure out.
Brendan and Tommy are very different men with different fighting styles, Brendan the calm and methodical fighter while Tommy being all rage, an animalistic brawler who rarely needs to spend much time on his opponents. Both are played by terrific actors in their prime, Edgerton’s Brendan always likeable as the underdog family man with Hardy’s Tommy being heartless and completely unforgiving of his father and brother for what happened between them. When they finally confront each other on a beach in Atlantic City, it’s like the scenes between Pacino and De Niro of “Heat” and it will give you similar goosebumps.
Throughout the film, O’Connor finds a way into this material without ever making it feel like a traditional sports movie; even the obligatory training montage being done in an incredibly original way. All the MMA matches are extremely well-staged and shot as well. Sure it might be a little unrealistic to think this physics teacher can be the one to finally take down the undefeated Russian Kobe, played by Olympic and WWE wrestler Kurt Angle, but boy, are you going to root for him that entire match. In that way, “Warrior” harks back to O’Connor’s earlier film “Miracle” just as the feuding brothers is reminiscent of his last movie “Pride and Glory.”
Although the primary focus is the drama, O’Connor wisely finds ways of making the whole thing lighter whether it’s Kevin Dunn as the principal at Brendan’s school or the patter of the ring announcers at the matches, which keeps the matches entertaining even if MMA isn’t your thing.
Likewise, the score is terrific, subtle and subdued when necessary and never going overboard on the schmaltz. The use of The National as the film begins and ends is nothing short of genius even if the Brooklyn band tends to be overused by filmmakers.
Although there may not be as much action as some might hope, the film always earns its drama, and even after we get a few fights in rapid succession, it doesn’t lose sight that it’s really about this damaged family, leading up to the final match which delivers an impact as unforgettable as “Rocky.”
The Bottom Line:
A brilliantly executed film that succeeds both as a family drama and one of the most exciting sports films you’re likely to see this year, “Warrior” is a powerful, emotional story that can be enjoyed by everyone, whether or not they’re fans of Mixed Martial Arts.