I’m really not a big sports movie fan. And of all the sports movies I have liked, boxing movies don’t rank too high. So when I saw the trailer for Warrior, I thought: “Eh… I’ll wait for it come to DVD.” And even when it came to DVD, I didn’t rush out to get it. It wasn’t until after seeing The Dark Knight Rises and then Lawless and had been utterly won over by Tom Hardy’s performances in both that I finally decided to sit down and watch it. And once again, Hardy blew me away.
The film itself is good. It is a fairly typical sports movie but it packs a meaner punch. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) You know I’m a sucker for an underdog and Warrior essentially has two underdog stories in one with a bit of a twist that gives it about ten times the emotion of your average sports/underdog tale. It begins with the return of Tommy (Hardy), a quiet and seemingly hardened twenty-something who has been absent from his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA for more than a decade. We learn right away that he abhors his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), with whom he has had absolutely no contact since he fled as a teenager, for vague reasons including Paddy’s alcoholism and his abuse of Tommy’s mother, with whom Tommy took off many years previously. Not only did he and his mom (now deceased) sever ties with Paddy, they were cut off from Tommy’s brother, Brendan, as well, also a teenager at the time they left. Brendan, we come to learn, chose to stay because he was in love with a girl who later became his wife and the mother of his two daughters. As an adult, Brendan also estranged himself from Paddy for the same reasons that caused Tommy and their mother to leave.
Brendan (Joel Edgerton), now in danger of losing his house to foreclosure due to mounting medical bills for his little girl, is clearly set up as the underdog right from the start. He’s a high school physics teacher who boxed as a younger man but has long since retired from the sport. Too proud to lose his home or file for bankruptcy, he begins moonlighting as an amateur fighter to make some extra cash. Once he’s outed by a student, the school board suspends him without pay for the rest of the semester, giving him ample time to properly train for and enter the upcoming MMA tournament, much to his wife’s dismay. In desperate need for even a piece of the $5 million cash prize, Brendan convinces her it’s their only shot at keeping their home and paying off their kid’s medical bills.
Meanwhile, Tommy, who has changed his surname from Conlin to Reardon for secretive reasons as yet unknown, has also decided to have a go at the MMA championship after easily defeating the current middle-weight MMA frontrunner at his gym. Much more physically capable than his brother (with whom he still has had no contact), he seems nothing of an underdog but more like a villain given his unyielding hatred of his father and complete unwillingness to forgive, even though Paddy is now nearly 3 years sober and trying like hell to make up for lost time. Nick Nolte shines as Paddy, a man so full of regret and eager to atone for the pain he’s inflicted on his sons that it’s hard to watch both boys reject him time and again.
Before too long, both Tommy and Brendan find themselves at the tournament, Brendan barely hanging on and Tommy knocking his opponents out almost effortlessly. Finally, the two meet and this is where Tommy’s full history is revealed. In the hands of another actor, he might still have been seen as something of a villain. But Hardy’s powerfully quiet and intensely emotional portrayal turns him into a different kind of underdog, so that by the time these two brothers get into the cage as opponents, you are as torn and conflicted as they are. For all of Tommy’s physical brutality and remorseless disdain for his father and brother, Hardy wears the pain that drives him like a shield and gives you glimpses of his yearning for redemption, making that final fight all the more gut-wrenching.
The performances of each of the three leads are what elevates this flick above its peers. These characters aren’t really anything we haven’t seen before. But Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte give them an authenticity and substance that you won’t find in any other sports flick. They aren’t underdogs and frontrunners, heroes and villains, winners or losers, competitors, fighters… they are all of it and more. Tommy, Brendan and Paddy Conlin are each so layered in conflict and character, none can be labeled with just one word. And, though only one can win, you’ll root for all of them.