A film centering on the world of the raw and brutal form of competitive fighting known as mixed martial arts would hardly make this reviewer rush to the cinema. But director Gavin O’Connor’s new film, “Warrior,” much like last year’s Oscar contender, “The Fighter,” goes beyond the ring to deliver a solid dramatic punch with its story of two estranged brothers competing in the same tournament.
Tommy and Brendan are brothers riffled with the emotional scars of a childhood raised in a blue-collar Pittsburgh home with an abusive and alcoholic father. He coached them to compete in local high school wrestling matches, pitting the two brothers against each other, not only physically, but battling for attention and approval. Tommy escaped his toxic home with his mother while Brendan stayed behind, eventually marrying his childhood sweetheart and becoming the exemplary father to his two daughters that his own father never was.
When Tommy returns after a 14-year absence, it’s no time for happy family reunions. He is bitter, resentful and secretive. He makes an uneasy truce with his now sober father (played with the knowing zeal of a comeback role by Nick Nolte) to help him train for a winner-takes-all MMA event in Atlantic City (we learn through flashbacks his motive for wanting the prize money).
Brendan may seem to have it all together. He is a respected high school teacher with a happy family but is swamped in a burden of medical bills and a mortgage he can’t pay. He resorts to the former fighting glory of his past as a way to make ends meet. Neither brother realizes that they’re on a collision course as they enter the same event.
At the core of the film are two exemplary performances. Rising British actor Tom Hardy (best known for his role in “Inception”) plays the brooding and brawny younger brother Tommy, bulldozing his way through life, while Australian actor Joel Edgerton (not as well known to American audiences) plays older brother Brendan. Fellow Down Under thespian Russell Crowe comes to mind while watching Edgerton, but this feels like a more kindly and likable version, as Edgerton balances both the heart and dark edge the role requires. Not only do these two actors have the buffed bodies to lend authenticity to the grittily filmed fight scenes (where actual real world class fighters were used), but they both have the maturity and depth to take their roles far beyond any stereotypes.
I’m not saying “Warrior” isn’t rife with clichés. (How could two aging fighters train in time for a shot in such a high-stakes match, for example?) But what gives “Warrior” a competitive edge over other fist-to-fist movies is that most of these films manipulate us to root for the underdog and presumed eventual victor, but by the time these two brothers go head to head in the caged arena, you still don’t know which brother will, or should, win. It’s an effective, heart-gripping cliff-hanger right to the last frame.
KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at email@example.com.