“I think I liked you better when you were a drunk”
Considering it’s only its third Friday in theatres and already has been demoted to one screening per day should mean Warrior isn’t worth your time. The amount of praise heaped upon it by both critics and fans alike would disagree. A crowd-pleaser looking to earn the same hearts Rocky did over three decades ago—winning the Oscar for Best Picture—Gavin O’Connor‘s return to the sports genre has the appeal to transcend its MMA stigma. Like he did directing Miracle, O’Connor has the knack of engaging viewers with a captivating story that should be clichéd, uninspired, and movie-of-the-week. I don’t personally think it has a chance of getting a nomination like the world does, but I also can’t say I wasn’t fully captivated for its entire 140-minute run.
A lot of that success lies with a stellar core of actors, but one shouldn’t forget just how rare it is to transform a fighting movie into a feel good crossover of the year. The fact it probably won’t be at multiplexes next week only proves the word of critics means little when compared to preconceptions of subject matter. But we as a populace love the underdog and Warrior gives us three examples. Introducing the broken pieces of what once was the Conlon family, we are inundated with the stereotypical ex-drunk who found God, the shell-shocked soldier on a mission to provide for a fallen friend’s family, and the reformed bad boy who simply can’t make ends meet by playing regular ‘Joe’ physics teacher.
Paddy (Nick Nolte), Tommy (Tom Hardy), and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) haven’t been together in fourteen years, a lifetime of abuse the hallmark of a past they’d love to forget but never will. Looming over their improbable reunion is the Mortal Kombat-esque Sparta tournament in Atlantic City, a contest to discover who the strongest pit-bull in the kennel is. Organized by a millionaire UFC fan—played by the director—only the best sixteen fighters in the world can compete in a two-night, winner take all extravaganza of carnage. With a purse totaling five million bucks, you can imagine the interest both Tommy and Brendan would have, but when the former is an unknown who earned his ticket by laying the smack down on a legitimate contender via YouTube and the latter is a retired professional on the wrong side of thirty, the odds aren’t great. Until you factor in heart.
It’s through father Paddy and his hopes to reconcile with the sons lost long ago that the past is uncovered to show how their situation became this dire. The fracture spread with an impossible choice for two young teens—to stay home with a drunkard or escape with a victimized mother who could take it no more. One goes west while the other stays, the reasons more complicated than a simple safety versus pain dynamic. From that point on, the Conlon family would cease to exist and the paths taken would lead them on parallel, yet disparate journeys. Eventually bringing them back to face each other in the ring, fate intervened to give them one last chance at reconciliation. Sometimes, though, even God isn’t powerful enough.
Getting Tommy and Brendan into the tournament is the textbook definition of serendipitous. They pretty much fall into their slots, earning them with obvious talent but never possessing the name or pedigree to be anyone’s first choice. Along those lines, how the two boys and their father cross paths to cannonball towards a rocky, not-so-effective rekindling of long gone familial bonds is also contrived to a point. But when your film hinges on two long-shots to fight in a cage match that will either kill their relationship for good or punch the love back in, there is little you can do but hope the triteness is forgiven or masked by the highly emotive events surrounding it. I guess the best compliment I can give to this weak spot is that I would have been happy for either result—forgiveness or a final parting.
The strength of the performances is what makes the outcome inconsequential. Edgerton does what he has the past few years, deftly playing the sensitive big man who would rather not fight but could definitely hold his own if forced. On the flip side is Tom Hardy showing the versatile range of his talents. Usually the suave, sarcastic, muscle, Hardy pulls off the introverted, misunderstood, and driven sociopath to perfection. They are definitely cut from the same cloth and both unable to forgive their father for his transgressions. But where Edgerton’s Brendan keeps his distance so Paddy can’t corrupt his daughters, Hardy’s Tommy needs the old man to get him in shape for the tournament. Setting the rules that their relationship would be strictly professional, this hardnosed ex-Marine almost seems to be using this training to dangle a carrot of mending fences only to pull it away.
With Olympic gold-medalist Kurt Angle as Russian crazy-eyed Koba, Frank Grillo as Brendan’s trainer, and Kevin Dunn his school principal—who suspends him for fighting but gleefully watches every match on TV—the rest of the cast rounds off nicely. The show is about Edgerton and Hardy, but one can’t deny the power of Nick Nolte bridging them together. He battles his demons, the drink, and the realization he destroyed his family—the soft quivering of his face during the verbal punches thrown pitiful in the best way. It’s as though his boys want to drive him back to the bottle, to somehow ruin his happiness as he did theirs. It’s a crucial piece lingering in the background as we watch the boys run up the ladder towards an eventual collision. Thankfully O’Connor and company refrained from making it all about the fights, focusing instead on the human aspect that deserves a much wider audience than its gotten thus far.
 Tommy (Tom Hardy, left) and Paddy (Nick Nolte, right) in WARRIOR. Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick
 Joel Edgerton (left) stars as ‘Brendan’ in WARRIOR. Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick
 Nick Nolte stars as Paddy Conlon in Lionsgate Films’ Warrior (2011)