On the surface, Warrior, helmed by director Gavin O'Connor, is the story of Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) and his estranged sons, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), all of whom end up on a collision course with one another through their participation in a mixed martial arts grand prix, Sparta.
At its core, however, Warrior is more a story of sacrifice and the struggle for redemption than it is knockouts and omoplatas. Drawn apart by alcohol, abuse, sickness and distance, the Conlon family relationship is about as strained as can possibly be.
Paddy was an abusive father and husband, and when his wife finally ran, Tommy and Brendan took sides – Tommy that of his ailing mother, and Brendan that of his father and wife to be.
As the plot unfolds, each man fights for a specific purpose. Paddy fights for retribution, Brendan for family, and Tommy out of a sense of duty. It is this story of hardship that serves as the engine for Warrior, while MMA just serves as the wheels.
The juxtaposed characters of Tommy and Brendan are played convincingly by Hardy and Edgerton, though, at times, their differences are almost shoved down viewer’s throats. Tommy’s story unfolds amongst the dilapidated streets of Pittsburgh, while Brendan’s story is played out in bright and airy Philadelphia.
Tommy carries his burdens with him in the form of pill bottles and brown paper bags, while Brendan shares his worries with his beautiful wife Tess (played by Jennifer Morrison). By the time we see Tommy training in a no frills gym and flipping truck tires while Brendan hits pads to Beethoven, the comparisons start becoming a bit redundant.
But this isn't a product of the acting so much as it is the writing and directing, and it’s easy enough to dismiss this redundancy as it doesn't detract from the overall entertainment value of the film.
Where Warrior shines is in its apropos depiction of present day. Tommy is a former Marine haunted by something that occurred during his tour in Iraq. Brendan, a high school physics teacher, and Tess work a combined three jobs, yet are unable to cover their now underwater mortgage.
Not everyone has been in either of these two situations, but they are struggles that are still very visible today, and this compels the viewer to care. While Brendan’s situation makes him the more easily likeable character, Tommy’s is the more complex of the two.
His full tale remains somewhat of a mystery until the film’s climax, and Hardy pulls off a balance of anger and compassion that allows Tommy’s character to work.
The present state of MMA is also used convincingly – Fitzy’s boxing gym has given way to Colt’s MMA gym, and while Brendan’s physics students are aware, if not knowledgeable, of the sport, the school Principal believes MMA fighters are a “bunch of animals.”
No longer a freak show, but not quite yet a mainstream sport, the depiction of MMA is, on the whole, accurate. One strike begets another, takedowns are used to avoid damage, jiu-jitsu is applied against wrestling, and hip escapes and leverage are applied correctly.
There are times when fights in the movie would've been stopped by a ref or fight doctor in real life, particularly in the final fight, but my hope is that viewers are able to see the line between Hollywood dramatics and real life.
These few moments aside, there is nothing too wildly spectacular to make an MMA fan shake their head in disbelief, and there is nothing too egregiously gruesome to send a soccer mom packing; it does have a PG-13 rating, after all.
The overarching theme of Warrior is tried and true, but that doesn't take away from its effectiveness, and there is enough emotion and realism in the characters to draw the viewer in.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no Life is Beautiful, but the failings and triumphs of the Conlon family are, though at times extreme, ultimately compelling and entertaining.
This was originally published by the author for Bleacher Report, and can be found here.