The only thing more brutal than the MMA fighting in Warrior is the way that director Gavin O’Connor jams his cinematic hands into your chest, ruthlessly attempting to tug your heart strings. A series of manipulations about as subtle as repeated headbutts to the nose, Warrior is a movie that spends every moment of its more than two hour running time attempting to pummel you into submission with a seemingly endless series of sports cliches.
What’s crazy is that it pretty much works. You can pin the blame on Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, actors who give far more complexity and depth to their characters than a movie like this normally demands. It’s almost disorienting, seeing these three dimensional people walking through such a two dimensional landscape.
Warrior is structured like two competing sports movies that collide in the second half. In one movie a brooding, hulking man returns from years in exile to the home of his recovering alcoholic father. That’s Tom Hardy, and the father is Nick Nolte; Hardy’s character resents the old man for the years of alcoholic abuse, but he wants to get back into the wrestling ring, and dad is a great trainer. Hardy goes to the old gym but finds it now full of MMA meatheads, who he easily takes down in a fight that ends up on YouTube and gives him sudden buzz.
The other film has Joel Edgerton as a suburban family man and high school physics teacher. When his mortgage payments go up he does whatever he can to make ends meet, including getting back into amateur MMA smokers. But the school administration doesn’t like that, so he gets suspended. Now without any income he has to truly throw himself into the fighting circuit just to keep his house.
The two films collide at an event called Sparta, a Grand Prix tournament of MMA fights. The purse is five million dollars, which Edgerton needs to pay off his house and take care of his family. Hardy, it turns out, needs it to pay for the family of a dead friend. And then it turns out that they’re brothers.
Throw in an unbeatable Russian fighter, a grudge between two fighters on their way up, Nolte’s search for redemption and the cliche aspects of the brothers’ fighting styles (Edgerton is the guy who takes a beating, tiring out his opponent and then executing the exact same finishing maneuver again and again, while Hardy is the raw force savage who has no finesse but plenty of rage) and you’ve got an entire franchise worth of familiar, trope-laden movies slammed in here. If Warrior had a robot butler it would be a full remake of the entire Rocky franchise.
But where the first (and last) Rocky came by its emotion through naturalistic character work, Warrior is all blatant manipulation and cheap shortcuts. Edgerton isn’t just losing his house, he’s losing it because he had to refinance it twice to get his little daughter heart surgery. Hardy isn’t just trying to honor a fallen friend, he’s a big time hero. The film doesn’t have the confidence to just let something be; everything has to be underlined, italicized and followed with an exclamation point.
Thankfully the second half of the film is almost non-stop fighting. Once the Sparta tournament begins we’re pretty much knee deep in the world of MMA, and it’s exactly what I expected: unpleasantly cruel, filled with Affliction clothes and more than slightly homoerotic, despite appealing to likely homophobic crowds. The fighting looks very, very real, and seems very, very painful. Hardy especially sells the fights; he’s a two hit kind of fighter - he hits you, you hit the canvass - and it’s completely believable.
Hardy is truly incredible in the film. He’s playing a character who is in the same universe as Bronson, but is 180 degrees from that particular brawler; his character here is internal, intense, filled with simmering anxiety and self-loathing that he uses to fuel his fists. He’s a huge slab of beef, but beef with complex emotional vulnerabilities. Hardy tells us more about who he is with his posture and quick glances of his eyes than most actors tell us with lengthy monologues. I don’t know that this is what you’d call a ‘breakout’ role for Hardy, but it’s certainly the role that’s going to vault him to the next level. Shirtless, sweaty and full of silent pain, Hardy displays all the qualities of a heartthrob.
Edgerton is great as well, finding a strong decency in a man whose smarts can’t help him anymore. There’s a determination about him that is true and honest, and which does more to get me on his side than any number of daughters with heart defects. The film, being the cliched and manipulative thing it is, keeps cutting to scenes of Edgerton’s students at home cheering him on, but the film doesn’t need that. Edgerton is simply a good man, and the audience is cheering him on enough.
There’s enough good in Warrior to make it worthy, but what’s good could have been so much better if Gavin O’Connor and his team of writers had laid off some of the heavy handed schmaltz. If the film trusted its story (or had simply chosen one story to tell) and its actors this could have been a Rocky-like film, one where you get swept up in the drama and the triumph. Instead Warrior is so busy poking and prodding you for reactions it’s impossible to get truly drawn in. Try as you might to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain he’s spending two plus hours attempting to land KO punches on your heart.