Sibling rivalry hits the arena
By John DeFore
Friday, Sep 09, 2011
Judging from its poster - a stark black sheet on which two shirtless dudes display a dozen well-defined abs and four frightening pecs - "Warrior" should be just another slab of lunkhead cinema, a thin story designed to fill UFC coffers and bolster the big-screen ambitions of musclemen.
Don't be fooled. While "Warrior" does offer enough jaw-snapping action to sate any 'roid-ragers in the audience, it works on deeper levels as well. Many cinephiles will recoil at the suggestion that it's this year's "The Fighter," but "Warrior" is in some ways more satisfying than David O. Russell's justly celebrated film - particularly for viewers who enjoy watching great screen acting that doesn't constantly remind you of its greatness.
Tom Hardy (last seen as a taciturn con man in "Inception") plays Tommy, a black-sheep son who arrives drunk, after years of absence, on the Pittsburgh front stoop of his father's house. Dad is played by Nick Nolte, which is almost all you need to know: As in films like "Clean," Nolte's weathered face and remorseful eyes immediately communicate a troubled family history. Though he has been sober for nearly 1,000 days, Paddy Conlon was a drunk so abusive that Tommy and his mother fled to the other side of the country, where the youth nursed her through terminal illness before joining the Marines.
Tommy's brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton, recently in the grim Aussie crime film "Animal Kingdom"), meanwhile, stayed at home to be near his sweetheart. They're now married with kids, and although they have three jobs between them (we meet him in a classroom, teaching Newton's laws to high schoolers), they're financially underwater. Their situation is so dire that Brendan, who was a pro fighter before settling down, has been sneaking off at night to enter parking-lot brawls where the winner earns a few hundred bucks.
Independently of each other, these sons of a violent home discover an opportunity to turn aggression into cash: In Atlantic City, the Sparta tournament will pit mixed-martial-arts combatants against one another for a $5 million prize.
The tale's premise - that two estranged siblings will wind up in the same worldwide championship, fighting their way to the final round despite their mutual inexperience - may be implausible. But the film, directed and co-written by Gavin O'Connor (whose hockey story "Miracle" won fans in 2004), finds a way to sell it, relying largely on its leads: Tommy, seething with resentment, demolishes opponents in brutally short bouts; Brendan, more cerebral but incapable of quitting, endures endless abuse in the ring while waiting for a chance to pin the other fighter. Their progress to the inevitable showdown is thoroughly compelling and depicted in fight scenes so believable it's a shock to learn that Hardy had no previous athletic experience.
The movie's script risks drawing its conflicts out too plainly: The brothers' contrasting training regimens (Brendan listens to Beethoven in a pristine gym, while Tommy is out in the muck) get a little too much emphasis, and viewers would understand the weight of Paddy's personal demons even if he weren't always listening to a "Moby Dick" audiobook. But O'Connor's occasional heavy-handedness is tempered by his actors' restraint, the story's cold industrial-town backdrop and the convincing real-world baggage each man carries. (Those back stories contribute to a two-hour-plus running time, a length that gives the movie heft without feeling overlong.) The catharsis "Warrior" offers in the end is hard won, and it will take a steely viewer not to find it gratifying, however over-the-top it may be.
Contains some rough language and very realistic fight-ring violence.