An improbably effective and affecting mix of raw emotions and exciting smackdowns, “Warrior” shapes up as a pic with the potential to appeal to critics and audiences alike. Lionsgate faces the formidable challenge of convincing potential ticketbuyers that there’s as much heart and soul as blood and thunder in this sharply observed drama involving long-estranged brothers destined to compete in a high-stakes, winner-take-all mixed martial arts tournament. But savvy marketing — along with upbeat reviews and word-of-mouth raves — could push the pic toward scoring a four-quadrant knockout.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, helmer Gavin O’Connor (who dealt with the slightly less violent sport of hockey in 2004’s “Miracle”) spends much of the first hour methodically revealing backstories and defining current circumstances for the three lead characters, interrupting the drama every so often for a scene in which a character kicks, punches or otherwise pummels someone else in a MMA-style match-up. During the early going, however, there’s appreciably more attention paid to action outside the ring.
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An Iraq War veteran, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) returns home to Philadelphia after a 14-year absence and pays a surprise visit to his dad, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic who’s anxiously approaching his thousandth day of sobriety. It’s not exactly a warm reunion: Tommy, wielding scorn and sarcasm like blunt instruments, all too vividly recalls having to go on the run with his now-deceased mom years earlier to escape Paddy’s booze-fueled brutality. But even back in the bad old days, Paddy was an adept wrestling coach, and Tommy benefited from his tutelage. Now the prodigal son wants his father to help him prepare for Sparta, an MMA event with a $5 million purse.
Paddy, deeply ashamed of past sins and desperate to reconnect with Tommy, agrees to be his son’s trainer, stoically accepting Tommy’s repeated recriminations and humiliations as a kind of penance.
Even as father and son get ready to rumble, however, Tommy’s older brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), begins his own journey to Sparta. Brendan, who put aside many of his dreams when Tommy and their mom departed, also seeks aid from a former mentor — an MMA trainer (Frank Grillo) who uses Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an unlikely practice tool — after the discovery that he’s been participating in underground bouts gets him suspended from his high-school teaching job.
O’Connor adroitly sustains an air of kitchen-sink realism throughout the first half of “Warrior,” precisely and persuasively describing the socioeconomic specifics of his characters’ day-to-day lives. More importantly, O’Connor elicits such powerful performances from his three leads — and gets such first-rate work from supporting players Grillo and Jennifer Morrison, playing Brendan’s childhood sweetheart — that he keeps the drama grippingly focused despite the fuzziness of a few plot details.
Occasionally recalling the bruised and brooding virility of a young Marlon Brando, Hardy is arrestingly intense as Tommy, by turns implosive and explosive as he alternates between guilt and rage, savagery and self-loathing. In perfect counterpoint, Edgerton winningly portrays Brendan as a sensitive and passionate man who must dredge up inner furies — and feed on mounting desperation — to emerge victorious in his MMA battles.
To their considerable credit, O’Connor and his co-scripters generate virtually equal sympathy for each brother, coming up with an emotionally and dramatically satisfying payoff for their climactic cage match.
Nolte’s heartfelt and fearless performance as the anguished Paddy — a man whose self-abnegation is such that he no longer feels entitled to express anger — ranks with the veteran actor’s finest work. Still, some auds may feel frustrated by the pic’s evasiveness after planting strong hints (most notably, Paddy’s obsessive interest in “Moby Dick”) that the character may be haunted by even worse sins in his past.
Most of the second half of “Warrior” is devoted to the Sparta tournament in an aggressively gaudy Atlantic City, as the mano-a-mano mayhem threatens to overshadow the dramatic interactions between the bouts. (Just how extreme are these battles? According to the credits, even the stunt doubles required a double.) Lenser Masanobu Takayanagi joins forces with editors John Gilroy, Sean Albertson, Matt Chesse and Aaron Marshall to make the fight scenes — skillfully choreographed by JJ “Loco” Perry — more than believable enough to make viewers wince or cheer exactly when they’re supposed to.
But the production values are every bit as impressive during the deliberately drab and dreary scenes in Philadelphia. That’s where “Warrior” patiently lays the groundwork for its consistently compelling narrative, preparing auds for an ending that just might move some strong men to tears.