I’m a sports guy. I watch a ton of sports, I talk about sports incessantly even when no one cares what I have to say, and I work in sports. As such, I find that most people assume that I love sports movies. The truth is, though, that because I know a great deal about sports, I’m generally far more critical of this genre than I am of others. Look, I am of relatively average intelligence and I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in many things (including cinema, oddly enough). But I am a leader in the following fields: French fries, making fun of others, and pointless sports knowledge. I’m not bragging; it’s just the facts. When I watch a sports-related film, I see all the mistakes and continually have to fight the urge to say, “That would never happen.” I imagine it’s the same for doctors watching a medical drama, crime scene investigators watching “C.S.I.”, or homeless clowns watching the work of John Travolta (see what I did there?). “Warrior”, however, is the exception to the rule, the rare sports film that combines realistic action and a compelling storyline and creates an outstanding experience for any moviegoer. It truly bums me out that no one is making a big deal about this film and no one is going to see it ($10 million total gross to date).
“Warrior” focuses on the men of the Conlon family. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a former marine returning home for the first time in 14 years. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school teacher struggling to make ends meet. Their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a recovering alcoholic who drove them both away with his many forms of abuse. The one thing that binds them all together is fighting. Boxing, wrestling, MMA (mixed martial arts for the uninitiated) brawling, or whatever else, the Conlon men know how to fight. When a fight promoter puts together a winner-take-all five million dollar MMA tournament, both Tommy and Brendan enter the field and are set on a collision course with one another. But this battle is nothing compared to the real question at the core of “Warrior”: is there anything that can heal this broken family?
From a sports standpoint, you can’t get much better than “Warrior” even if you’re not a fan of UFC or MMA. (For the record, I am not a UFC guy. I’ve always enjoyed boxing but with UFC I always feel as if I’ve just paid $55 to watch a man die. I’m not prepared for that step in entertainment.) There are a few clichés to be sure and I’d bet that hardcore MMA fans could poke holes in the action but for the most part, director Gavin O’Connor maintains a terrific air of reality when his characters are inside the octagon. The punches, kicks, and strangle holds are graphic but not overly so, just enough to convey the physical beating an MMA fighter takes on a nightly basis. The film also goes to great lengths to portray the dramatic differences in the various fighting style of each competitor, a major part of the MMA world. Tommy is ruthless and wild; you can feel his inner rage with each and every strike. Brendan on the other hand is calm and cautious, almost reluctant, everything built around waiting for his opponent to make a mistake. I’m not entirely sure that these details will matter so much to the average viewer but I found this to be indicative of the attention paid to each facet of the film as a whole.
But the real value of “Warrior” isn’t in the sports action at all but rather in the complex relationships of the Conlon men. In truth, this is really a character study under the façade of a sports movie. All three of these characters are tremendously well-written and intricate and the actors who portray them are worthy of serious award consideration. Their interactions are often heartbreaking and honest but with enough of a loving undercurrent to allow the audience to remain hopeful for a resolution between the characters. Hardy’s Tommy is initially hard to connect with and difficult to embrace but the film leads you on a journey to understand and accept him and delivers an excellent payoff when it’s all said and done. Nolte gives us his first meaningful performance in over a decade, reminding me and every other member of the audience that, yes, when this guy is on, he is an OUTSTANDING actor. Every word that Paddy speaks is racked with grief, the weight of his actions evident in every action. It is Edgerton, though, who makes the film in my book. I’ve long been a fan of Edgerton so I’m far from unbiased but his performance is subtly brilliant, quiet and yet extremely powerful, his face always full of the emotions you would expect a struggling father to have. He epitomizes the underdog perfectly and carries that with him throughout his scenes both in and out of the octagon. Hardy and Nolte are more likely to receive the attention of the various awards committees but it is Edgerton who holds the film together.
The secret to creating a great sports movie is not to get the audience to root for the team or contestant on the field (or in the octagon, as it were). That part is easy and it comes naturally. No, the secret is to get the audience genuinely and actively involved with the off-field narrative, to make the audience root for the characters in their flawed, human forms instead of their superhuman on-field personas. This is where many sports films fail and where “Warrior” succeeds. It is a few steps shy of a perfect film considering the handful of clichés it cannot avoid and a few sub-character scenes that aren’t entirely necessary. But these are small cracks in a solid foundation that makes “Warrior” a film to remember.
Kindly go and see this movie please,