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Warrior (2011)

by Steve Habrat

If you waved off Warrior, the Mixed Martial Arts drama that snuck out last fall, do yourself a favor and see it before all the UFC fans discover it and ruin it. Clichéd but rousing, Warrior is a vehicle for strong performances and easy dramatics. The whole UFC craze has baffled me and, quite honestly, annoyed me due to the obnoxious bros who worship before it. The beauty of Warrior is that it takes MMA seriously and it is never intolerable. In fact, it lays waste to the obnoxious fighters who dare tangle with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton with fury to spare! Warrior takes things a step further and gives the Conlon brothers, who act as the wounded heart and soul of this picture, real reasons to dish out punches. They are never doing this to simply stroke their masculine egos like so many of the MMA competitors do.

Warrior follows Marine Tommy Conlon (Played by Hardy), who returns home from a tour of duty in Iraq with a heavy heart. He joins a local gym where he jumps into the ring with MMA fighter Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes and knocks him out with one punch. Tommy’s brother Brendan (Played by Edgerton) is living a seemingly stable and happy life with a beautiful wife and two daughters. It turns out that Brendan, who is mild-mannered physics teacher, is on the verge of losing his home and moonlighting as a small time MMA fighter. Both Tommy and Brendan learn of “Sparta”, a MMA tournament that offers a $5,000,000 reward to the winner. Tommy, who decides to compete in “Sparta” to help out his deceased best friend’s widow, enlists the help of his alcoholic father Paddy Conlon (Played by Nick Nolte), who use to train him for wrestling when he was younger. Brendan also begins training so he can use the money to keep his home and family together. Paddy uses the opportunity to attempt to reconnect with his sons, who both have fractured relationships with him.

I’ve always thought that the MMA and the UFC craze was troublesome because it eggs on individuals who are desperate to prove how masculine and tough they are to everyone else. You’ve seen the fans at your local bar on a Saturday night decked out in their Tapout t-shirts, downing Jager bombs, and on the prowl for a fight. They are convinced they are just as tough as the fighters they see on television and just as egotistical too. Granted, I am not saying everyone who watches UFC is influenced by it, but sadly, there will always be those who feel they must express their masculinity by emulating the beat downs they see on television. Warrior is none of these things, making the barbaric “sport” seemed disciplined with hints of honor. These men are not only fighting muscle heads but they are constantly grappling with their inner demons. It helps that Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte all bring the A-game to the table.

Hardy’s Tommy is a haunted pill popper who isn’t craving fame or recognition. He is making good on a promise and he will fight like hell to deliver. He wants none of the glitz or glamour. Edgerton’s underdog Brendan is a family man who was dealt a handful of unfair blows by life. He will fight like hell to keep his family together even if that means taking severe beatings. Nolte’s Paddy is grappling with the demons of his past, trying to reconcile with his sons who want none of his pleas for forgiveness. He’s a recovering alcoholic who is on the verge of slipping back into the bottles grip. The three come together to make Warrior a film that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, something I don’t think is common when it comes to UFC culture.

Director Gavin O’Connor seemed to understand his film was a tough sell to viewers who are not swept up by meatheads trying to pin each other into an armbar. He makes a fragile drama that thrills when the fights take center stage but knocks us sideways when the emotions pour out. There is a scene where Paddy shows up to Brendan’s home that will puts your heart in an armbar. You want to tap out of the scene due to how agonizingly heartbreaking it truly is. Another blow-up occurs in a casino between Tommy and Paddy, Tommy unleashing his anger towards Paddy with absolutely no mercy. Warrior swipes the shaky camerawork and weary atmosphere from countless other boxing films (mainly The Fighter and Rocky), even taking place in Pennsylvania like the Stallone classic.

Warrior turns out to be a permutation of sports movie staples. It has an underdog story, family drama, and ends with a monumental showdown. O’Connor takes his good old time and builds the suspense of the fights quite nicely. One problem I had with Warrior was a last act twist with Hardy’s character that seemed crammed in at the last minute to add another layer of conflict but it ends up amounting to absolutely nothing. If you don’t give Warrior a chance over the subject matter, it’s worth it for film fans to take in Nolte’s portrayal of a man trying to make up for the mistakes he has made in life. Warrior turns out to be an accessible and memorable sports film that doesn’t attempt to reconfigure the sports film structure. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Instead, it is content with embracing all the qualities that make up the genre and delivering an end result that is enduring and uplifting.

Grade: A-

Warrior is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.