Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
It should be easy to knock down Warrior, the new mixed martial arts (MMA)-themed film about two estranged brothers who face off in the cage for a winner-take-all prize. They haven't seen each other in years, and their father is trying to make amends for their rotten childhoods. One is a Marine trying to outrun his demons, the other a high-school physics teacher with a sick child — he'll lose his house if he doesn't win.
Despite that litany of sports-movie clichés, Gavin O'Connor's new movie is entertaining, engrossing and inspiring. On its surface, it's everything you've seen before, but underneath, it's a family drama featuring amazing fight choreography and cinematography, as well as some of the year's best performances.
Nick Nolte is probably a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he deserves it. He's Paddy Conlon, a broken-down recovering alcoholic whose eldest son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), shows up at his doorstep after being MIA for years, wanting to share a drink with his old man. All we know is that Tommy was in the Corps and that he saw some action overseas; the rest he keeps to himself. He moves in, despite palpable contempt for his old man.
Tommy's not good with people, and he drinks too much and pops pills. He's a damaged person. But what he is good at, we learn, is fighting, as he takes down a top contender at a local gym and soon gets himself included in SPARTA, a one-of-a-kind event featuring eight fighters whose winner takes home $5 million.
One town over lives Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy's other estranged son. Times are tough for this former UFC fighter-turned-teacher, and his principal suspends him after he starts taking parking-lot fights to supplement his income. His family's on the brink of foreclosure, so he returns to his old gym and trainer (Frank Grillo) to get in shape and earn as much as he can with his fists.
When Frank's top fighter goes down, Brendan begs him for a shot at SPARTA, and his old friend gives him that chance, even though Brendan is on the wrong side of 30 and is generally considered a long shot at best.
Hardy and Edgerton are on the verge of being enormous stars, and they're both terrific here, but Hardy — who stole every one of his scenes in Inception — is the one you'll remember most. His character's an intense piece of work, a man totally out of touch with his emotions and always on the offensive. There are moments when he's like Brando, and then he turns into a quivering, snarling, white-hot ball of terror when he enters the ring. He looks like a tank and smashes like The Hulk, fighting being his only outlet for his anger and pain.
It's a collision course, and no surprise that the brothers face off in the finale. But to O'Connor's credit, you have no idea how each fight leading there will go down. Perhaps most importantly, by the time you get to the end, you have no idea who you want to see win.
Amazingly, this fight seems like the only way these two can get past the familial rift and the years of misery. With that in mind, no matter who loses, both of them win. Thankfully, so does the audience.