Two men, drawn into the cage for different reasons, wind up in a winner-take-all $5 million mixed martial arts tournament in Warrior, a Rocky variant if Rocky had two Rockys with hard-luck, up-from-the-streets stories.
And, SPOILER ALERT, if these Rockys were each other’s brothers.
Because, though the movie takes forever and 14 business days to build the tension around this plot point, we know early on that the two men who will eventually end up fighting each other for the prize are long-estranged brothers.
In this corner we have Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), a high school science teacher and married dad of two girls. He and wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) are slowly sinking, financially speaking, into a debt hole created by medical expenses for one of the daughters, who had some kind of heart trouble. Their two salaries won’t cut it anymore, so Brendan has told his wife that he started working at a bouncer. Really, the bouncer excuse is just to cover for the fact that he occasionally comes home with bruises on his face as a result of his real money-earner — participating in MMA fights. Once a wrestler, Brendan still has the skills, even though he’s, as a trainer puts it, on the wrong side of 30, to come out victorious in most of these low-level matches. But at one bout at a local strip club he’s spotted by people who contact the school district and he gets suspended from his job. Now he really needs to keep fighting.
And in this corner we have Tommy (Tom Hardy), who has been calling himself Tommy Reardon, using his mother’s maiden name, not Tommy Conlon, so much does he hate his father, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). Paddy was a mean drunk when the boys were young and eventually Tommy and his mother moved away, which meant he was the only one to care for her when she got sick years later. Tommy still resents his brother Brendan for not coming with them and has all sort of baggage from his recent tour of duty in Iraq to deal with as well. He comes home full of cheap liquor and big rage and though he doesn’t forgive his now-sober father, Tommy does ask Paddy to act as his trainer so he can fight with his eye on the big Atlantic City tournament where the winner gets $5 million.
Brendan also has his eye on that, as $5 million would keep him from losing his house to foreclosure and help him out if the school doesn’t give him his job back. We eventually learn that Tommy is hoping to give his winnings to the widow of a fallen comrade. Brendan is training with a buddy in Philadelphia; Tommy is beating up guys at the local gym in Pittsburgh. Paddy is trying to turn the training with Tommy into a new start at a relationship and trying to open up a door with Brendan as well. Fathers and sons, brothers, family responsibilities, sick kid, war widow, economic hardship, patience as a virtue for fighters, channeling anger — you name a fighting movie trope and it’s in here, possibly twice.
Warrior is an unevenly cooked dish. Some patches are acceptably cheesy comfort food, some are gritty and under-done and some are seared to a crisp with self-seriousness. You get nice moments with Tommy coming to terms with this or Brendan and Tess arguing about that and then you get overblown chunks of, for example, a fight between Brendan and a Russian fighter who is decked out in hammer and sickle, Rocky IV style. Then there are bits — the relationship Brendan has with his school’s principal (Kevin Dunn), who can’t officially condone what he’s doing but watches all his fights — that are nice details but kind of baffling. This movie is two hours and 19 minutes long. Sure, in the FX network 13-episode version of this story go ahead and add in a side plot about the kids at the high school who support their teacher. But in a movie that runs a good 40 minutes longer than it should have, I’m not sure I see why all of these should-be-deleted scenes are still here.
And then there’s Nick Nolte, who clearly thinks he’s in The Fighter and who has at least three big “For Your Consideration”-style scenes. His role would be a nice meaty addition to the TV series version of Warrior. In this movie, it’s a whole lotta performance for a part that doesn’t have a big payoff.
But there’s a lot, still, to enjoy about Warrior, including its fight scenes. It really does make an art of mixed martial arts and it had me wondering if all those matches I’d flipped by on TV would be as exciting if I stuck with them as the matches depicted here are. Warrior keeps you mostly entertained and gives you a bit of the flavor of the fights along with some passable drama. And if you can watch it with a remote in your hand to fast-forward through the more ridiculous parts, so much the better. C+
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material. Directed by Gavin O’Connor and with a screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman and story by Gavin O’Connor and Cliff Dorfman, Warrior is two hours and 19 minutes long and is distributed by Lionsgate.