By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Warrior is a surprising gut punch, a modern-day Rocky saga with two mixed martial arts pugs trying to beat, choke and kick the system. It's a movie with as much heart as violence, somewhat cliched and calculated but still an exhilarating screen experience. You wouldn't believe how good this movie is, and I wouldn't blame you.
That's because mixed martial arts, with its relative infancy as a spectator sport, is still viewed by some people as a pro wrestling-style circus with human animals. The sport hasn't helped its image by sanctioning movies starring fighters in standard action scenarios such as prisons and mean streets. Warrior lifts the sport to the more respectable realm of underdog cinema, with characters to care about and strong performances.
Like last year's Oscar winner The Fighter did with boxing, Warrior finds its power outside the ring with family tension. Estranged brothers — with their alcoholic father refereeing personal conflict — coincidentally wind up fighting each other in a championship match. That isn't a spoiler; the preview trailers reveal as much. Yet neither brother is an entirely good or bad guy. Pulling for either to lose is impossible with so much on the line.
Warrior announces its intention to be more than a fight movie in the opening scene, an extended, testy reunion between Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte at his craggy best) and his son Tom (Tom Hardy). Tom renounced his family name and joined the Marines after Dad's drinking scared away his mother.
Hard times since being discharged are forcing Tom into the MMA ring, and he wants Paddy as his trainer, if he's sober. It is a terrific beginning, taking time to expose regrets and resentment developed over years. We know these people well by the time it ends. Director Gavin O'Connor displayed similar respect for characterization in the true-life hockey film Miracle, and the cop drama Pride and Glory.
A lesser film would be satisfied to focus upon Paddy and Tom. Warrior adds another easy fighter to cheer, Tom's brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former fighter who's now a husband and father working as a high school teacher, and we know those folks need second incomes. Brendan promised his wife (Jennifer Morrison) that he wouldn't fight again but he sneaks out to earn cash on nightclub fight cards.
Both fighters battle through the ranks with their sights set on the Sparta tournament in Atlantic City, where someone will be crowned the toughest man in the world. There's no love lost between them. Each man has principles and needs that must be acknowledged. Brendan would appear to be more sympathetic but something about Tom's Marine duty is revealed, making him just as deserving to win. You can't handicap the finale by usual Hollywood standards.
The cast is uniformly fine but I'm most impressed by Hardy, who will be seen next year as Batman's foe Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Hardy seems to be wearing shoulder pads and Teflon armor under his skin, a brutish specimen with undeniable acting chops. Without him and Edgerton adding genuine hurt to physical pain, Warrior wouldn't be the rousing movie it is. "Did you leave Mickey and Paulie at home?" a spectator wisecracks to one brother, thinking of Rocky Balboa's story. That ringside joker doesn't realize how right he is.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.