This weekend I went with a couple of my martial arts teammates to a late-night showing of Gavin O'Connor's sports drama Warrior. I've long held that inspirational sports movies are the highest art of storytelling, even when they are about sports I don't like or care about (inspirational movies and TV shows about football probably offer the highest ratio of satisfaction to level of disinterest about the sport). Given that I train six days a week in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and regularly head to my neighborhood bar for UFC matches, I was excited to finally have one of these movies about mixed martial arts, a sport I actually care about. O'Connor directed the well-loved Miracle, about the U.S. Olympic hockey victory against the Soviet Union in 1980. I found Miracle to be boring, but hoped that wouldn't be the case with Warrior. Luckily, it wasn't.
In Pittsburgh, former trainer and recovering alcoholic Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) returns home from church to find his younger son Tommy (Tom Hardy), drunk and self-medicated, sitting on his front stoop. It's been over a decade since escaping his abusive father, and Tommy's lost years remain a mystery he does not wish to discuss. Whatever his sorrows are, it's off to the gym for former Marine and wrestling champ Tommy to work out his anger. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Paddy's older son, ex-UFC fighter Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a family man, teaching high school physics and struggling to pay the bills after his daughter had suffered from a heart problem. It's back to prize fighting for him, beating up hillbillies in parking lots to earn some extra cash, but he can't bring himself to tell his wife (Jennifer Morrison).
Both brothers are in need of money fast, so they independently find themselves training for Sparta, a single-elimination MMA competition with a five million dollar purse. It isn't until the final third of the movie that the leads even have a scene together, and this is part of what I liked so much about it. The audience is given just enough backstory about Tommy and Brendan's lives to know that they have been estranged since adolescence. We aren't spoon fed erroneous details about what happened after one brother left and one stayed behind, nor asked to care, really. What matters is the present, two brothers fighting for the money they need to start over, and approaching catharsis in the process. After watching two separate stories unfold, one about Brendan and his wife, and one about Tommy and his father, when they finally collide, all of the pent-up emotion has been saved for the octagon.
The fight scenes were excellently choreographed and shot. Edgerton and Hardy clearly got into shape by training with real fighters, and whenever they were in combat I winced at each round kick and submission as if I were watching a live match. [RIP Tom Hardy's neck, you will be missed.] This is not to say that the movie didn't have flaws, particularly with its performances. For a large chunk of the movie, Edgerton just speaks in a full-on Australian accent, and Hardy's take on emoting seems to consist primarily of pouting while growling, but I don't actually think the role required much more from him on that count. There are a few glaring logic problems, but they're worth overlooking. However, the emotional payoff in the final scenes of the movie is, well, cheesy. Even cheesier than I would usually expect or tolerate from a sports movie like this one, and I wasn't the only one in the theater laughing.
If you're a fan of martial arts, I assure you that Warrior leans more toward The Fighter than toward Never Back Down. It's not all the way at The Fighter's end of the spectrum, but it's still a very good movie. I'd definitely classify it as more of a family drama with sports than the reverse. Now, if you're not interested in martial arts, I think it's still a movie worth watching, which I say as someone who was obsessed with Friday Night Lights but would find watching football to be like having teeth pulled. But, for those made squeamish by fight sports, those scenes are definitely brutal. Finally, and most importantly, the movie is full of juicehead gorillas with their shirts off, so if that tickles your fancy, you're good to go.