Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Warrior
The history of movie-making is littered with great, and not-so-great, fighting films - where one man (or woman) trains and trains to become a champion in the ring. Sometimes these fierce competitors succeed - and other times (as is the case in several iconic films) they don't - but either way, audiences have been entertained for decades by the human drama behind everyday people who choose to use pure physical prowess and strength to rise above their less-than-satisfying lives.
As a result, it's no surprise that even before its release, there was already plenty of buzz surrounding Gavin O'Connor's film Warrior, about two brothers (played by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy) who compete in the rough and tumble world of mixed martial arts. O'Connor is, of course, best known for his 2004 film, Miracle, which follows the true-story of the U.S. Men's Hockey team competing at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Does O'Connor bring the same inspirational sports and character drama to the MMA ring with Warrior?
There's no need to mince words - O'Connor overwhelmingly succeeds with Warrior and delivers one of the best films of 2011. While the storyline may be familiar to movie fans who frequent underdog character dramas, the performances, as well as the editing of the film's fight sequences, make Warrior a winner inside, and outside, of the ring.
Unlike O'Connor's Miracle, Warrior is mostly fiction, following the respective journeys of two brothers - ex-marine Tom Conlon (Hardy) and former MMA fighter-turned High School physics teacher, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) - in their bids for a national mixed martial arts championship. Outside of the tournament, dramatic tension is equally high between the two, as younger sibling Tom continues to harbor animosity toward his older brother because Brendan refused to abandon his abusive/alcoholic father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), years earlier. At the same time, Brendan is trying to make-up for Paddy's past mistakes (by being a good father and husband) - but despite a strong dedication to his family, desperate times, as well as Brendan's passion for fighting, pull him back to the danger and excitement of the MMA ring.
As mentioned, the overarching narrative plays out in a relatively familiar storyline, and audiences will easily be able to forecast outcomes and character progressions. However, solid performances coupled with "authentic" character moments make even the most predictable elements of the film very enjoyable to watch. The film's structure, not to mention marketing, sap a lot of the tension out of the fight scenes, since everyone in the audience knows that the two brothers are locked into a collision course. As a result, each subsequent bout becomes less of a "Will he? Won't he?" question in favor of "How will he?"
No doubt it's a tricky balance - setting-up compelling character drama as well as maintaing uncertainty in the ring - and it's impossible for O'Connor to have his cake and eat it too. That said, the director's choice to put character drama first is a sound one; grounding the audience in believable and evocative people still makes the unfolding events compelling - even if moviegoers can forecast how said events will play-out.
It certainly helps that the fight scenes are some of the most exciting and heavy-hitting brawls depicted on-screen in a long time. O'Connor successfully captures the strategy, variety, and brutality of mixed martial arts fighting - as well as differentiating between the divergent "styles" of the two brothers. As a result, next to an abundance of boxing movies, Warrior will present filmgoers with a fresh and exciting experience. This isn't to say that the combat scenes are over-the-top action (since they are all very realistic), but mixed with the established character drama and hard-hitting choices in the editing room, O'Connor manages to deliver plenty of thrills in the ring.
Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are especially impressive, balancing the arresting violence of an MMA tournament cage with their respective real-world stories. The supporting cast - which includes Jennifer Morrison (How I Met Your Mother), Frank Grillo (Prison Break), and Kevin Dunn (Transformers) - offers up a strong mix of drama and comedy relief - but without question, Nick Nolte (most recently seen in the Arthur remake) delivers a noteworthy performance as Paddy Conlon, a man who is desperately trying to reconnect with his estranged, and guarded, sons. Given the bitterness and animosity between the brothers, Nolte's role in the film is especially important, and the veteran actor rises to the occasion, taking ownership of several difficult scenes to communicate heartbreaking regret and clumsy attempts at reconciliation without ever raising his voice.
Despite plenty of compelling character drama and superior performances from nearly everyone involved, some audience members may feel that Warrior doesn't necessarily make good on everything it sets up. No doubt O'Connor attempted to avoid undermining the complexity of the characters by foregoing the lure of tying a pretty bow on every single dangling plot thread, but a few major story arcs are a bit too subtle - or, in a couple instances, go entirely unresolved. Some film fans might argue that O'Connor just didn't want to spoon feed his viewers - but there's a difference between leaving a story up for interpretation and flat-out neglecting dangling threads. The closing moments of the film are definitely poetic, but once the credits roll, it's easy to see that certain story beats were pushed aside just to finish the movie off with high-energy.
That said, the central storyline between Tom and Brendan is enough to offer a satisfying payoff, even if minor characters are left flailing in their wake. Much like the film's protagonists, Warrior is a brutal and brave piece of cinema that will keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats, scene after scene, and round after round.
If you’re still on the fence about Warrior, check out the trailer below:
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Warrior is now in theaters.