No one can deny that, over the past decade, MMA (mixed martial arts, for the five of you that don’t know what I’m talking about) has become one of the most visible sports in the world. UFC events take in millions of dollars in pay-per-view and live attendance revenues. Reality-TV show The Ultimate Fighter has become a smashing success, regularly attracting more than 1.5 million viewers per episode, and high-profile fighters have launched their own clothing lines and appeared in feature films. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood latched onto the trend, and the first offering out of the gate is Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior.
The film opens with ex-Marine Tommy Riardon (Tom Hardy) returning home to Pittsburgh, 14 years after he and his mother fled from his alcoholic, abusive father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). His mother is dead, his father is in recovery with nearly 1000 days off the bottle, and Tommy has a severe chip on his shoulder. He signs up at the local gym and begrudgingly enlists the help of his father to begin training for Sparta, a 16-man single elimination tournament featuring the top middleweight fighters from around the world – not to mention the biggest payout in the history of the sport.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, former UFC fighter Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) has severed ties with his father and half-brother, settling down with a wife and two daughters to teach high-school physics. He and his wife both work supplemental jobs in order to make ends meet, and with less than 90 days until the bank forecloses on his house, Brendan steps back into the ring to scrounge up some extra cash. His success becomes problematic when his students, as well as the school administration, catch wind of his involvement, and the repercussions of his decision leave him with one option – Sparta.
And thus the long-estranged family finds itself on a collision course, each with their own unique motivations. For Brendan, Sparta is the only opportunity to keep the bank from taking his family’s home. For Tommy, it’san opportunity to prove something to himself about the type of person he has become. And for Paddy, it represents a chance to atone for the mistakes of his past and to repair his broken relationship with both sons.
While the fight sequences are brilliantly choreographed, they take a backseat to the emotional depth that each actor brings to their character. Hardy portrays Tommy with such a harsh, brooding intensity that anyone concerned about his role in next year’s The Dark Knight Rises should easily be won over, and Edgerton deftly underplays the intelligent, calculating veteran trying to provide for his family. Where Rocky and The Wrestler were each about the journey of one character, Warrior lends just as much focus to the relationship between the three leads, as well as how each of their decisions affect the people around them.
O’Connor, who also wrote the screenplay, does a tremendous job of keeping this film from being trapped by the same old cliches that plague many sports movies. It’s a shame that so much of the plot is given away in the marketing materials, as the buildup to the film’s climax would have been much more effective had the audience not already known exactly what to expect. But Warrior is smart enough to care much more about the journey itself, rather than the destination, and that’s one of the many things that make it a truly remarkable film.