One brother is a schoolteacher who struggles to keep home and family together in hard economic times. The other is a brooding brute, home from the war, living with his long-estranged father.
Both grown men have daddy issues, which are hinted at in bitter, perfunctory conversations between the brute and his father, a recovering alcoholic.
"No more women for me," the old man confesses.
"Must be hard to find a girl who can take a punch these days," the son spits back.
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There's history here — hard-fought, hard-bitten history. Dad, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), is a man of principle, a former wreck looking for redemption. And his boys, Brendan the teacher (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) — two fighters once trained by Paddy — aren't giving it.
Warrior is a straight genre picture, a fight movie of the old school. But it's a mixed martial arts tale — the best MMA movie ever. A bare-fisted sports thriller with lots of Hollywood melodrama, Warrior pits these two brothers on a collision course with destiny, in the ring.
Co-writer and director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle) is on sure ground with the battling Conlons, mixing loads of personal crises into a standard-issue sports drama. Brendan needs money to keep paying the mortgage, but fighting gets him into trouble with the school district. Tommy, a Marine of few words and much rage, just needs to fight.
Brendan won't let his three-years-sober dad see his grandkids. Tommy would rather live with the old man so he can ostracize him from close range: "I think I liked you better when you were a drunk."
The film's sports-movie journey takes us to the big winner-take-all tourney that both men enter, each with a need to win. That destination is entertaining, but it is the journey and the people who take it that recommend this fine film.
Nolte's Paddy is devoted to self-help, listening to Moby Dick on tape, resolving to train Tommy the old way to get him ready for his bouts. The son isn't having it. Nolte plays the toughness as a memory; the guilt and wounds Paddy carries are his new persona. And Hardy, who will play the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises next summer, is a ferocious figure onscreen every time out (the British prison bio-drama Bronson was his break-out performance). He plays every moment with a chip on his shoulder.
Edgerton, of last year's Animal Kingdom, has to be a convincing physics teacher, a husband who lies to his wife (Jennifer Morrison) about his fighting, a man at the end of his tether and a convincing 30-something mixed martial artist. It's a brilliant turn as he lets us see the wheels turning with every argument with his wife or boss, every scheme he can think of to beat a superior opponent in the ring.
Warrior is the first movie built around this relatively new sport to capture the grit, guts, heart and pathos of the great boxing pictures. It might not be MMA's Raging Bull, but it's good enough to compare to Rocky or Body and Soul and not embarrass itself or its sport.