Earlier in the year, The Fighter brought the family-based boxing drama back to prominence, although that followed Darren Aronofsky’s subversion of the familiar formula, The Wrestler, which instead chose to focus on wrestling. Warrior ostensibly enters the fray a little late, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is nothing more than a retreading of old ground.
Redemptive sports-based dramas have a knack for drawing committed, often career-defining performances out of actors, and here we have not one, but two, brilliant star turns. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton star as disparate siblings brought together by chance to a high-stakes mixed martial arts tournament called Sparta. To call either one of their performances a supporting role would be unjust, for the film devotes equal attention to both of them and, despite their drastically different characters, manages to establish a great deal of sympathy for both.
Hardy plays Tom Conlon, an ex-marine who returns home after 14 years and calls upon the two brothers’ estranged father (Nick Nolte) to resume the coaching duties he abandoned over a decade ago when Tom was a star in youth wrestling. Nolte’s grizzled turn serves as a hook between the brothers. This grieving ex-alcoholic sees a chance for familial reunions in his sons’ participation in the competition – hell, at least he can spend time with them – even if they risk the possibility of facing one another in the ring. Tom’s motives for entering the tournament are initially unclear. He talks little, has no interest in patching things up with his father, and isn’t looking to forgive anybody. Conversely, we see his brother Brendan’s (Edgerton) motivations clearly laid out: he is a family man, desperate for money to provide for his wife and young daughters, who face eviction.
Hardy plays Tom as an introverted brute, all coiled frustration and repressed emotion, and he is outstanding. Not only that, but he’s a truly imposing physical specimen, too; his super-refined, hulking shoulders giving him a permanent slouch, as though he were always in the ring. Brendan, on the other hand, is a genuinely nice guy; a fighter-turned-physics teacher who is loved by his students. His abilities in the ring are separated from Tom’s both in terms of physical appearance and in fighting style – in the world of mixed martial arts, it isn’t necessarily the fastest, hardest puncher who wins the bout. They’re going at it with some real fighters in punishing scenes here, and neither looks remotely out of place. Both Hardy and Edgerton have done good work recently (Inception and Bronson for Hardy, Animal Kingdom for Edgerton) and this film will likely propel their careers even further.
The film overindulges at times, but not to any great detriment. A montage scene mid-way through feels unnecessarily derivative, given the genre, while there isn’t much time for female roles to have an impact. Jennifer Morrison is the only prominent woman, but still does well in a limited role. Meanwhile, director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) clearly had so much fun framing these fights that he perhaps draws them out a little unnecessarily at times, but this is a very minor complaint. These are expertly shot action scenes, full of drama and clarity. The final third of the film, which covers the Sparta tournament in great detail, is a breathless triumph; a genuinely adrenaline pumping crescendo.
Warrior is formulaic to an extent, but it is a formula that cinema history has proven to be worth revisiting. Hardy, Edgerton and their impressive supporting cast do a wonderful job of reminding us of that. Sport, as an analogy for facing internal demons, is a narrative that tends to work with audiences; in this case it certainly did, because I was rarely surprised by Warrior but found it captivating nonetheless. O’Connor has put together a gripping drama, framed some of the best action scenes you’ll see this year, and given both Hardy and Edgerton a worthy vehicle to prove their talent.