Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Throughout Warrior, director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor taunts the viewer to write his film off as just another inspirational fighter movie. At times, it’s The Fighter, whenever the story emphasizes the estranged relationship between distant, mixed martial arts efficient brothers Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), and how in-ring combat is their strongest unifying bond. And at other moments, Warrior emulates Rocky, with its pump-you-up training imagery and final bout where one character’s loving girl sits at ringside, a la Talia Shire’s Adrian. There’s even a bit of the Marlon Brando-led classic On The Waterfront, when Brendan reflects upon how his once-promising fight skills succumbed to everyman issues, in that “I coulda been a contender” sentiment.

It should come as no real shock that Warrior occasionally taps out beneath its formula’s overused tropes; the major surprise, however, is just how damn effectively O’Connor’s gutsy, bold, and extremely heartfelt film knocks the audience on its collective ass despite all of its familiarity. O’Connor, who previously showed off his rousing sports cinema gifts in the 2004 true-life hockey flick Miracle, utilizes a three-strike attack here: towering performances from his three male leads (Hardy, Edgerton, and Nick Nolte), tightly shot and convincingly brutal fight scenes, and a palpable love for his characters and their working-class surroundings.

The script, also co-penned by Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, isn’t a complete TKO, plagued by too much discussion of the brothers’ issues and not enough pre-climax exhibition, yet the payoff is so powerful, and the presentation is so exemplary, that it’s difficult to not well up and clap hands once Warrior concludes.

Hardy and Edgerton, in a pair of knockout turns, are equally impeccable in vastly different roles. For the former, Tommy is a hardened Marine who returns to his lower-class Pittsburgh home to see his father, Paddy (Nolte), a recovering and formerly abusive alcoholic who beat his mother when Tommy was little, causing his mom and his brother, Brendan, to kick rocks out of town. Once a high school wrestler of enormous potential, Tommy is now prone to bottle-tapping, like his old man, and emotionally checked out, so much so that he’s frosty whenever Paddy attempts to reconnect the father/son dots. The only time Tommy’s able to express himself, so to speak, is when he’s leveling MMA-styled opponents at the local gym.

Warrior is a scrappy and expertly staged display of recognizable beats that never feels derivative.

Brendan, for his part, gave up a promising UFC career to remain un-bruised for the sake of his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), and two little girls. Now living in more scenic Philadelphia suburbs, he’s a high school physics teacher, adored by his students and respected by his peers. But medical bills for his one sick daughter are piling up, and their accounts are nearing bankruptcy, so Brendan, unbeknownst to Tess, fights in low-rent MMA brawls inside bar parking lots just to earn additional cash. Also spurning his father’s efforts to reconcile, Brendan keeps his eyes on the financial prize, recruiting an old gym rat of a friend (Frank Grillo) to help him prepare for a winner-take-all MMA tournament, called Sparta, in Atlantic City, where the prize is $5 million. But Tommy, focused on amassing dough for the wife and son of a fallen Marine buddy, is also heading to Sparta. It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict how their plots finally intersect.

Unfortunately, O’Connor seems partial to Brendan’s situation, devoting more screen time to Edgerton’s character’s against-all-odds pursuit of a financially stable for his family than Tommy’s, which, as a result, undermines the final act’s brother-versus-brother conflict. Before the big throwdown, Hardy and Edgerton only have one scene together, in which the actors spar with sharp dialogue; otherwise, their fractured relationship is implied, not shown, and it’s a minor task to sympathize with either one whenever they viciously shut down Nolte’s father character, who’s the self-aware cause of their friction.

It’s mandatory to credit Warrior’s extended Sparta climax with massive praise then; in the ring, battling worthy foes before taking each other head on, Hardy and Edgerton—both physically imposing and totally believable as MMA beasts—find unique ways to marry unbeatable physicality with vulnerability and tenderness toward one another. Together, the actors’ multifaceted work and O’Connor’s exhilarating fight sequences sell Tommy’s and Brendan’s emotive and combative tug-of-wars even as the script’s unevenness flirts with disaster. Which is the case throughout Warrior, a scrappy and expertly staged display of recognizable beats that never feels derivative.

The actors merit special distinction; co-star Nolte, giving his best performance in years after floundering in cinematic oblivion for far too long, is particularly excellent, conveying a decades’ worth of pain, heartache, and self-destruction in one heartbreaking scene after another. The film’s wonderful opening scene illustrates the muscular anguish: Tommy, seeing his dad for the first time in years, asks pops why he’s yet to find another woman in the wake of his mother’s absence. “It must be hard to find a girl who can take a punch nowadays,” Tommy says. Much like it will be tough trying to discover a better two-dudes-fighting-in-a-ring movie any time soon.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)