Blood, sweat and tears
Watching Warrior put me in mind of my father, who once asked me if I’d ever seen a professional boxing match in person. When I said I hadn’t, he shook his head and looked at me sideways: “When you do, it’s pretty hard to call it a sport.”
He was talking about being among the spectators. Warrior takes us out of the audience and puts us in the ring. Or more precisely, since this is mixed-martial arts instead of boxing, in the cage. From there, it doesn’t look like a sport at all. It looks like a life-and-death struggle. It looks like war.
Warrior is at once relentless, riveting and repellent. There are few more surefire formulas in movies than to set up a clear good guy and bad guy, and then have the good guy beat the bad guy’s brains out in a fair fight. The Rocky movies tapped into this primal urge in the audience (the first few times, anyhow). Warrior tampers with the formula. The point here is not the triumph of some hypothetical good guy; the point is the beating out of brains.
The combat of the movie is a civil war of sorts—brother against brother. The first brother we meet is Tommy Reardon (Tom Hardy). That’s the name he’s going by; his real name is Conlon. Why he’s going by an assumed name is one of the few plot points that isn’t given away in the movie’s trailer. Tommy shows up on the Pittsburgh doorstep of his estranged father, Paddy (Nick Nolte). They hash over some long-buried issues between them, and we learn that Paddy’s drunkenness was the chief issue; when Paddy declines to join Tommy in a drink, saying he doesn’t drink anymore, Tommy reacts with sarcasm; Paddy’s sobriety has clearly come too late.
Next we meet Tommy’s brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a high-school physics teacher in a neighboring town. Brendan is just as estranged from Paddy as Tommy is, and when Paddy shows up to let him know Tommy’s back home, we see that the estrangement is all-around. This isn’t a dysfunctional family; this family doesn’t function at all.
Brendan’s own family—wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), and young daughter—is happy and devoted, but in dire straits. Brendan can’t make ends meet on his teacher’s salary, and they’re in danger of losing their home. So, to Tess’ anguish and dismay, Brendan has started moonlighting in some underground fights, an activity he supposedly gave up when he got married. The money’s good, but the wear and tear are brutal, and the telltale cuts and bruises on his face get the attention of school administration and jeopardize the one job he has.
This is how the situation stands—or rather, teeters—when Sparta enters the picture. Sparta is a competition sponsored by an ESPN-type cable channel, a tournament of mixed-martial arts with a multi-million-dollar purse that attracts all the best fighters from all over the world. It also attracts Tommy, who seeks a tentative truce with his ex-boxer father so Paddy will train him (“That much you were good at”). Finally, and inevitably, it attracts Brendan; despite his advanced age for this sort of fighting, he sees it as the only way to dig his family out of the predicament they’ve fallen into.
If there’s any doubt about where Warrior’s script (by Anthony Tambakis, Cliff Dorman and director Gavin O’Connor) is leading, the movie’s trailer dispels it (it’s been playing in theaters for months): Brendan and Tommy, against all odds, will wind up facing each other in the finals for the winner-take-all prize. When that happens, their father, who feels a belated pride in them both, will be torn, not sure who to root for, or why.
The melodrama of the family conflict is no more subtle than the fights that liberally punctuate the action, but O’Connor doesn’t go into nearly as much detail with it. The three-way strife among father and sons comes at us obliquely in hints and allusions while the cage matches hit us right between the eyes—every tensed muscle, every bead of sweat, every drop of blood etched for us in loving detail by O’Connor and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi.
After all, that’s what the movie is really about—not fathers, sons or brothers, but fighting. And it gives it to us with both fists and both feet.