MOVIE REVIEW: Warrior
Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte & Joel Edgerton
“If you don’t move you die.” Prominently written on the chalkboard of a prolific Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) trainer’s office, this quote captures a specific bluntness permeating throughout Gavin O’Connor’s raging sports film, Warrior. The brash words are double-edged, both a redemptive creed and crushing requiem for each fighter’s respective pursuit of happiness.
O’Connor’s pummeling film constructs a bare-knuckle bruiser shell around internal human dilemmas, masking the cost of family separation and emotional trauma with violent sport. Warrior avoids easy solutions when these elements clash, acknowledging the debilitating symptoms (divorce, alcoholism, estrangement) as long gestating, simmering over extended periods of time when economic anxiety takes hold. Anger like this takes decades to produce, but only a split second to destroy.
Warrior may be a boxing film in name and structure, utilizing all the expected genre conventions to rev its narrative engine, but the familiar devices are merely a façade for a much deeper examination of painful isolation between two brothers. Tom Conlon (Tom Hardy) appears on his father Paddy’s (Nick Nolte) Pittsburgh doorstep after 14 years away, bringing a lifetime’s worth of rage with him. Their bitter reunion opens Warrior in a verbal gladiator match pockmarked with traumatic landmines. It’s clear emotional and physical abuse was popular in this household, and Tom holds the full weight of this trauma on his muscular shoulders. Silence dictates these early scenes, befitting of Hardy’s Brando-like slump and method mumbling.
Down the road in Philadelphia, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) deals with his own imminent concerns; the bank is about to foreclose on his family’s house and he’s been suspended from teaching for moonlighting as a fighter for quick cash. Through a series of chance events, the best being a Viral Youtube video of Tom destroying a ranked MMA goon, the two brothers separately ascend to compete in an MMA tourney entitled “Sparta,” the most brutal and uncompromising of its kind. Segregated by a lack of communication and deep-seeded pain, Tom and Brendan train apart from each other (envisioned in a corny split-screen montage), disconnected from even the most organic forms of brotherhood. In this sense, O’Connor structures Warrior much like Michael Mann’s Heat, giving his two stars one intense scene together midway through the film before severing their connection until the climactic end. DeNiro and Pacino ended up in a shootout; Tom and Brendan may get a pummeling cage match to exercise their demons.
With its gigantic Russian opponent and underdog plot structure, Warrior is overtly indebted to the Rocky franchise and even O’Connor’s previous film about national redemption, Miracle. Blue-collar superhero movies like these are rousing entertainment, yet Warrior steps outside the moral boundaries of its predecessors by returning to this sense of economic and social imbalance. “You don’t knock him out, you don’t have a home,” screams Brendan’s unconventional trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) mid-fight, bluntly reminding his fighter of the dire situation beyond the ring. Great coach-speak like this allows Warrior to merge visceral excitement and deep subtext with every bone-crushing punch.
Most of all, though, Warrior is a film of war-torn faces. The performances are all consistently excellent, specifically Nolte and Hardy who share a heart-breaking scene in a hotel room that sums up decades of pain in a few moments of wrenching silence. And even if Warrior panders at times to illogic and outlandish plot devices, the film feels tailor-made for an America currently mired in a thick bog of uncertainty. Forceful, angry, and ready for battle, Warrior bursts through political jargon and media nonsense, ultimately finding a sibling rivalry that feels like the equivalent of a national anthem.
- Warrior opens on September 9, 2011 in San Diego and wide theatrical release.