Some movie formulas never get old, no matter how many times you’ve seen them played out. Warrior, the latest entry in the underdog sports genre, is built entirely from pieces of other movies — Rocky, The Wrestler, The Fighter, Cinderella Man, Somebody Up There Likes Me — and yet the film is a brutally effective, insanely rousing piece of drama, with enough new wrinkles and ferocious acting to sweep you into its clutches.
Much like he did with 2004’s Miracle, which recounted the story of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s unlikely victory over Russia in 1980, director Gavin O’Connor pushes all the right buttons and pulls all the right strings as he lays out the story of two brothers on a collision course in the mixed martial arts arena. Tommy (Inception’s scene-stealing Tom Hardy) is a U.S. Marine who returns home after 14 years and reconnects with his estranged father Paddy (Nick Nolte in a career-reviving performance). Despite some deep-seated resentment at the abuse he suffered from his alcoholic dad as a child, Tommy asks the now-sober Paddy, who was also a talented wrestling coach, to help him train for the upcoming MMA competition Sparta, where the winner earns a $5 million purse.
At the same time, Tommy’s older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former MMA champion and high-school physics teacher with a sick daughter and a house on the verge of foreclosure, decides to pick up his old sport and enters the same contest in a last-ditch effort to stave off financial ruin. The first hour of Warrior follows the two siblings as they prepare for the upcoming battle: Tommy, haunted by his wartime experiences in Iraq and still harboring a giant grudge against his father, is a feral, emotionally volatile time-bomb. The gentler Brendan must stave off the complaints of his disapproving wife (Jennifer Morrison) as he prepares with his former trainer (Frank Grillo) for the upcoming fights. The movie does a superb job of emotionally investing the viewer in the plights of both men — the sweat and rigor of Irish Catholic males struggling to do right by their loved ones while wrestling with personal demons.
The second half of Warrior is devoted to the MMA championship, a circus of gaudy spectacle and wince-inducing violence that makes boxing seem like a girlie-man’s sport. As the movie barrels toward its inevitable brother-vs.-brother showdown, your affections are torn between the two men. The acting elevates the admittedly contrived scenario and occasionally hokey dialogue: Hardy is the embodiment of swaggering, unquenchable anger, while Edgerton channels the desperation of a father and husband obsessed with not failing his family. On the sidelines is Nolte, superb as a broken shell of a man trying to repent for a lifetime of mistakes. The emotional complexity of the climactic battle distinguishes Warrior from most of the other films of this kind, in which the lines between the hero and his opponent are clearly drawn. Here, you don’t want to see anyone lose: Against all odds, Warrior sucks you in and leaves you thrumming with excitement.
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn.
Director: Gavin O’Connor.
Screenwriters: Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, Cliff Dorfman.
Producer: Greg O’Connor.
A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 139 minutes. Vulgar language, bone-crunching sport violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 9 at area theaters.