Generally, I’m reluctant to watch sports or boxing movies, as I find them formulaic and unsurprising. I will admit to being a sucker for Remember the Titans (2000), and Dodgeball (2004) has a special place in my heart, but those are special cases. I would have avoided Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior entirely had my friend not won two tickets to a free advance screening (obviously, this review is a few weeks late). I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film.
In its basic plot structure, Warrior avoids the primary trap of sports movies: we always know who will win and, more importantly, who we want to win. In this film, we’re torn between Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), since we follow their stories equally. Brendan is fighting to pay off the mortgage on his house and support his daughter’s medical bills, while Tommy is planning to use the prize money to support his fellow Marine’s widowed wife and children. O’Connor pays equal attention to both stories and draws significant pathos out of each of them in turn. Outside their MMA endeavors, both brothers bear the weight of the family baggage; their father, Paddy, was an abusive drunk who drove Tommy and his mother to flee. Brendan did not come with them, and for that reason Tommy has not spoken to him in years.
The scenes between Tommy and his father are rife with tension. The film opens when Paddy comes home from an AA meeting and a drunk Tommy shows up on his doorstep. When the two sit in the den to talk, everything Tommy says is meant to cut. He slurs out insults and references to past abuse from under his hoodie, taking swigs from a paper bag in between stabs. The pathos in the scene comes from watching Paddy take the abuse. Nolte gives a wonderfully subtle performance in this film, his sad eyes and changes in facial expression registering every blow Tommy sends his way. In the end, he knows he deserves it, and that just makes Tommy hit harder.
The contrasts between Tommy and Brendan in the ring are obvious. Tommy is raw power, taking out opponents in one punch and storming out of the ring, unwilling to accept any commendation or make a show out of it. The way Hardy strides around with his head down, showing those crazy back muscles only the most built men have, makes Tommy appear to be some sort of creature, a bull in human skin. Brendan, on the other hand, is older and leaner, and he fights primarily with persistence and endurance. The final showdown between the two brothers is brutal and gut-wrenching as their fighting styles clash and emotions run high.
Tom Hardy, who is growing in popularity after his turn in last year’s Inception and in anticipation of his turn in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises, gives a powerful performance as Tommy. When he does speak, he uses slurred speech patterns that suggest Marlon Brando, creating the impression that Tommy is, in fact, Terry Malloy’s doppelganger. Edgerton’s performance is quieter, as he plays the reserved family man who has convinced himself his issues are behind him. Jennifer Morrison is the usual “fighter’s wife” character, complaining and begging her husband not to fight even though they have no other options. I’m not generally a Morrison fan, but I liked her performance here, even if the character was incredibly cliche.
I have sensory-memory problems with O’Connor’s other sports film, Miracle (2004) – chalk it up to too many field hockey team viewings – but it is widely acknowledged as an excellent example of the genre. O’Connor is clearly skilled at creating the breathless anticipation and heart-in-your-throat momentum of the sports movie, and it shows here. The fight scenes are visceral and brutal, producing cheering and cringing in all the right places. I didn’t expect to like Warrior, but it completely sucked me in, and its probing exploration of masculinity and its relationship to combat makes it surprisingly thought-provoking.