“Warrior” is too much of a good thing. A family drama set in the ultraviolent world of mixed martial arts, it shows promise but finally hits things so hard, both literally and metaphorically, that it’s hard not to feel pummeled yourself by the time it’s over.
Which is too bad, because as his earlier “Miracle” demonstrated, director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor has a gift for handling old-fashioned emotion-soaked material that has become something of a lost art. But in that film about the U.S. hockey team’s stunning gold-medal victory in the 1980 Olympics, O’Connor’s melodramatic instincts were constrained by the strictures of the real story he was telling.
Here, O’Connor and co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman have let nothing restrain them in this testosterone-fueled spectacle that celebrates men being men doing what men have to do to stay masculine. Or something.
With a plot centering on the conflicts inside and outside the ring between brothers Brendan and Tommy Conlon (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, respectively) and between the brothers and their ancient wreck of a father (Nick Nolte), “Warrior” showcases enough bad blood to contaminate the plasma supplies of the Red Cross.
More than that, the film so audaciously piles on a series of shameless, head-shaking contrivances and is so happy to milk them for all they’re worth that it starts to feel like, heaven help us, a mixed martial arts version of “The Help.” Yet, like that venture, “Warrior” is genuine in its pursuit of what it considers to be a resonant narrative and its two-hour, 19-minute length is a testament to how seriously O’Connor takes its story.
Even “Warrior’s” mind-numbing violence — inevitable in a film centering on a top-drawer mixed martial arts tourney — is not there for its own sake alone but as a vehicle for the characters to express emotion. Whatever else you can say, this film is not insincere.
Things begin with a glimpse of father Paddy Conlon (Nolte) headed home from early-morning Mass in a blue-collar area of Pittsburgh. He is more than shocked to find his wreck-of-a-son Tommy popping pills and waiting for him on his front stoop.
Effectively played as a creature of pure fury by British actor Hardy (memorable as the criminal protagonist of “Bronson”), Tommy has kept himself apart from his father for 14 years and has the bitterness to prove it. Though it takes awhile for us to find out where this anger comes from, Tommy is convincingly contemptuous of the old man for having turned to religion, for finding AA, and just for being alive.
A few hundred miles away in Philadelphia, brother Brendan (top Australian actor Edgerton, recently seen in “Animal Kingdom”) has what seems like a very different life. Though he hasn’t seen his brother in the same 14 years and keeps his father at arm’s length, Brendan is happily married to high school sweetheart Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and loves his job as a high school physics teacher
America’s erratic economy, however, is about to stab Brendan in the back. Quicker than you can say “foreclosure,” Brendan and his wife and young daughters are underwater in their house and at risk of getting thrown into the street.
As it turns out, however, mixed martial arts was in Brendan’s past, and though he swore to Tess he would never again get beaten up for a living, he ends up appearing in local bouts to stave off financial Armageddon.
Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, Tommy, a battler from the word go, notices a poster for Sparta, a.k.a. “The War on the Shore,” a single-elimination, winner-take-all, last-man-standing MMA tournament set for Atlantic City that will offer $5 million to “the toughest man on the planet.”
Tommy so wants that money that he agrees to be trained by the old man he hates, who apparently was a canny coach even while being a dreadful father. Brendan also hears about Sparta and enlists old comrade-in-arms Frank Campana (Frank Grillo), now an unorthodox instructor who likes his people to train to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (really), to get him ready for the tourney.
That tournament takes up the film’s final hour, and it does not hold back in terms of savagery, contrivance or emotional manipulation. Like the rest of “Warrior,” it is effective up to a point but rushing past that point without looking back is something this film is powerless to resist.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Playing: In general release