Warrior has been buzzed about for months as an old-fashioned fight movie crowdpleaser and possible awards player. But for once, the hype conceals something fairly radical rather than depressingly pedestrian. Imagine Rocky if Rocky had systematically cut off all access to the titular underdog, leaving us to guess at his backstory, motivations and true feelings, maybe dropping a hint or two here and there, and you might come pretty close to Gavin O’Connor’s odd, deliriously entertaining hit-in-the-making. O’Connor builds Warrior from tropes and cliches and constantly subverts them in assembly. It’s fascinating.
There’s a ton of storytelling sleight-of-hand on display here. Among other things, the film convinces us that it has two protagonists, though it really only has one: Tom Conlon, an enigmatic Pittsburgh tough who, in the film’s opening scene, returns home to visit his recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), whom he hasn’t seen for years. We get hints of where he’s been — off somewhere caring for his dying, abused mother — but also the sense that parts of the story are missing. He rejoins the local fight gym (he was a regular, once) and promptly dismantles a groomed professional in a warm-up bout. The video of the shellacking goes viral on YouTube, and next thing he knows, Tom has been entered in a big Atlantic City mixed martial arts tournament with a winner-takes-all multi-million-dollar prize. And who better than his estranged father to train him for the big event? You see where this is going — or you think you do.
Tom, it turns out, has a brother named Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who is similarly estranged from dad, and teaching high school physics in Philadelphia. He used to be a promising MMA fighter too, and these days his teacher’s salary isn’t enough to pay the mortgage. He’s been making some extra cash in local parking lot fights — he tells his worried wife that he’s moonlighting as a bouncer — and when the opportunity to enter that same Atlantic City tournament comes up, he leaps at it, much to her chagrin.
Again the trajectory seems obvious, and as far as pure plot is concerned, Warrior largely toes the line. It’s the stuff just under the surface that’s surprising. The entire Brandon half of the plot turns out to be a red herring, a foil; the movie is Tom’s journey out from a personal hell of anger and guilt and back into the arms of his family. But until the very end, the film shuts us out from him; all we see is the rage, the recriminations, the lashing out. He is as closed off to the audience as he is to his father, whose emotional overtures he shuts down with a brutality that becomes difficult to watch.
Counterintuitively, this makes his eventual epiphany much more powerful than if the movie had been gradually softening the character all along. Instead of spelling out Tom’s emotional state, Warrior suggests it and lets us fill in the blanks. Tom Hardy, the English actor whom you may recall as the ultra-smooth master of disguise in Inception but who is completely transformed here, plays along with a killer poker face, systematically stamping out all but the slightest hint that there’s anything but anger behind Tom’s eyes. By the time he finally breaks down late in the film, all the pieces for an emotional gut punch have been carefully laid in place, with a subtlety that belies the film’s formulaic surface.
Gavin O’Connor’s Miracles and Pride and Glory likewise brought a tough-minded attitude to schmaltzy convention. Here, O’Connor also shows a remarkable facility for shooting fight scenes — most of the last hour is spent in the cage, and is so well done that I quickly forgot I was watching actors. (This is also one of the only times that the ESPN commentator voiceover actually adds value instead of serving as a fig leaf for the inability or unwillingness to shoot lucid action.) He has not made a great film — it’s a little silly, and a little long — but I got lost in its tragic sweep and classical underdog appeal. Its unique, gutsy approach to the protagonist and the audience is a hell of a bonus.
— Eugene Novikov
|Genres:||Sport, Drama, Action|
|Starring:||Kevin Dunn, Frank Grillo, Jennifer Morrison, Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte|
|Directed by:||Gavin O’Connor|
|Screenwriters:||Anthony Tambakis, Gavin O’Connor, Cliff Dorfman|